I recently finished up Loving the Rich, Saving the Poor: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation, by Helen Rhee, published a few months ago by Baker Academic. The book explores the attitudes and understandings of wealth and poverty in the early church. The whole book’s worth a read, but I think what I found most interesting and striking about it came in the very first chapter.
Rhee, a professor of church history at Westmont College, opens her book by providing some important context. She offers a sense of the economic and social world into which early Christian faith stepped and in which its attitudes about wealth and poverty were situated — in other words, the socio-cultural air that the early Christians breathed. And the difference between attitudes and practices of that world and those fostered within the new Christian community are striking.
Key to that (Greco-Roman) world was the patronage system. In fact, it was pervasive enough to be called (by one study she cites) “the glue that held human society together.” Patronage involved relationships of reciprocity between people at different levels of society. Those with money and power provided to those below them on the social scale “gifts” of food, land, connections, dinner invitations, and more. In return the recipients of these things were expected to publicly provide honor, esteem, gratitude, support, and praise to their benefactors, and these were important marks of social status to those who received them.
“Justice” in this society was conceived as each person receiving according to his status within society (not according to need or rights). Beyond what the poor could provide to the rich within this system of patronage, poverty was regarded with indifference at best and sometimes as a sign of moral degeneracy.
In stark contrast to this is the understanding of poverty within the Israelite community from which Christianity sprung, fundamentally rooted in Yahweh’s deep concern for the poor, a theme that pervades Israelite scripture and history. By the obligations God places on his people as a condition of the covenant and by his own direct action in history, God protects and defends the poor and afflicted, provides for the needy, delivers the oppressed from bondage, and lifts up the lowly. From this concern on the part of their God, the Israelites developed a sense of obligation to have a similar concern for the poor . Rhee does a fine job of succinctly presenting this concern as it appears in the Old Testament’s historical works, prophets, and psalms, as well as in Jewish apocryphal literature.
Then, moving on to Jesus’s own attitudes toward wealth and poverty, Rhee illustrates well that Jesus — in his preaching, in his ministry, and in his lifestyle — “turns traditional Greco-Roman reciprocity and patronage upside down.” By this point in the chapter, the statement was not surprising, as the Jewish history, scripture, and ethics already had done much the same thing. Jesus simply provided concrete and dramatic confirmation and exemplification of it all.
Through the course of the chapters that follow, Rhee explores the doctrine, theology, and practice of the Christian church on various aspects of poverty and wealth. Rhee is an academic, writing mostly for academics, so I can’t say it’s written in a light and breezy style, but it’s certainly worth the effort. One point that keeps resurfacing is that one essential element of the ministry of priests and bishops, right alongside acting as ministers of the sacraments and teachers of doctrine, was that they were seen as and expected to live as “lovers of the poor” — attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable, trusted distributors of the church’s charitable goods, and prophets who spoke out in the defense of the poor.
Finally, Rhee concludes with a chapter that she admits at the start is outside her area of expertise: drawing more practical conclusions from the data. What does it all mean to Christians today, especially those of us living in this “culture of affluence” and an economy that thrives on ever-increasing consumption? Despite the fact that she is a historian and not an ethicist, Rhee offers a set of meaty and challenging reflections related to simplicity, almsgiving, fasting, hospitality, distributive justice, and more.