Why are poor people humble

"Rich and poor meet" (Proverbs 22: 2) - Bible study

The spoken word is valid.

"Justice exalts a people" is the motto of this synodal conference. The continuation of the verse in the Book of Proverbs names the negative side: "but sin is the ruin of the people" or. "the flaw of a society is sin"(1) (Prov 14:34). However, one can now also translate: "Solidarity among the people is a sin". Because there is something like a tea kettle. The Hebrew word chäsäd The meaning of shame or blemish is very rare, but the most important word for grace, goodness, friendliness, solidarity is exactly the same. The second half of the verse deals with the opposite of justice, and only then does it become apparent what is actually meant by justice. The biblical context clearly speaks in favor of the usual translation. But the other will at least resonate and resonate for everyone - even then. Because with this double meaning we are in the middle of the controversy of our time. Everyone is for justice, the way to get there is disputed. The previous welfare state has not only become priceless, it is also seen by many as an economic "sin". The complex discussion, which has intensified again in the last few weeks, is the background on which - taking into account the difference in social situations - it is necessary to listen to the biblical statements again.

I take the formulation of Prov 22.2 as a starting point and destination:

"Rich and poor meet - the Eternal created both."

I. Everything depends on the manner of this encounter. It is clear from the start: It is always about an encounter with God. But first there is the fact that rich and poor have to live and live together. We meet - and regardless of all scientific definitions, it is usually impossible to overlook who is rich and who is poor and where the middle class belongs, which is where most of the people here come from. "Rich and poor live side by side, they coexist in such a limited space that they cannot get past each other" (2). We meet from person to person - at the front door, on the street, but we also meet in the form of social rules and forms, through hourly wages, unemployment benefits, tax rates, social legislation, school forms ... The Hebrew word for "meet" , has a wide range. It describes the harmless friendly encounter in the desert (Ex 4,27), but also the one with a dangerous and aggressive she-bear who is robbed of her cubs and lashes out (Hos 13,8). Even God can come across as uncanny (Ex 4:24). The German word "Treffen" has similar assonances, you hit me deeply, they say. That also applies: rich and poor meet each other.

Both were created by God, literally "made". Both are endowed with equal dignity and are equally close to God. The poor and the rich arise just as God calls us individual people into existence: through the process of conception and birth. We have the same elementary humanity, we are breathing matter, we live in given and limited time. The encounter must correspond to this. The question of whether God also created the wealth of the one and the poverty of the other and thus brought about and willed it leads into other shallows. In a parallel statement in Prov 29:13 it says: "A poor person meets the person who oppresses him, it is the Eternal who gives both the sight". The ability to see like the radiant face is common to both. But the poverty of one creates the wealth of the other. Whenever this is mentioned, there is no justification for the oppression. There is no doubt that God is woven into the relationship between rich and poor, as in all human relationships. But the opposition is not simply God-made and God's will. Borderline statements that have to concern us are the understanding of wealth as a blessing on the one hand, and that of poverty as an occasion to complain to God and to accuse the people who get rich from it on the other. It should be remembered here that in the new word "precariat" there is not only the "precarious" situation, but behind it the Latin "precor", "urgently plead and ask", "to pray".

What happens when rich and poor meet? How should, how can both meet? I would like to use two basic biblical models and confront one another. One is taken from the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus in Luke 16. And the other is the concept of a cycle of blessing in Deuteronomy.

II. In Lk 16,19ff the poor lie at the door of the rich "covered with ulcers, 21 and he would have loved to have eaten what fell from the rich man's table. Instead the dogs came and they licked his ulcers." Wealth was shown in the waste (3); they wiped their fingers with bread. Floor mosaics proudly show the abundance of what fell there. "22 When the poor man died, the angels carried him into Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And when he lifted his eyes in the realm of the dead, tormented, he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his Lap." The encounter does not end with death, the counterpart persists. Abraham is called for help but refuses, refers to the Torah and the prophets and says: "26 And with all this there is a deep gulf between you and us, so that those who want to go over to you from here cannot, nor those who are there can come over to us." The hard and often invisible line between rich and poor becomes an insurmountable gap in the world of the dead. Let me reflect on that gap with you for a moment. Surprisingly, the word reappears in the press these days: "The gap is getting bigger", it was said in the Neue Westfälische on October 13, 2006. The gap is widening, the social gap is increasing - these are other terms. This gap - what is it but the truth of what was previously in life? The truth that becomes visible through the reversal of the situation? In the kingdom of God what was before, including what is now, cannot be overlooked, is made identifiable, and shows itself to be what it is. The stark contrasts between a few super-rich and many poor poor are typical of Roman society. This is still the exception for us, there are those in between, there are us. Still, even today, the gap is very real. Everyone can understand it. There is the young woman who, with downcast eyes and erratic movements, searches the rubbish baskets for leftovers at a major German train station; there is the young man who wants to sell something at the front door. You don't even need to walk through the slums in Rio or Djakarta anymore. The gap is insurmountable, as Abraham said. Whatever I do, it appears in such encounters and cannot be overcome, it stands between us. No spontaneous gift, no parting of the mantle can remove it, that would rather increase it.

The story represents an encounter that wasn't, a meeting (Martin Buber). The question of the origin of the gap and the guilt for it is completely ignored in this narrative. But if you want to face the gap, you have to allow the question. "What is stolen from the wretched is in your houses" - It is worthwhile to keep Isaiah's concreteness (3.14) at least on a trial basis today. The flows of wealth from the bottom up are in many cases traceable and are now often more evident than ever. They must not be able to remain covered. It has shown prophetic criticism, and the church will not be able to claim any prophetic office, no power of the Spirit that illuminates the present and reveals the history as it happens, if this persistent demonstration is not part of it. On the whole, neither the globalized world is getting poorer nor the German economy weaker, it is not a question of distributing a shortage, but of growing wealth. The gap grows with us with wealth and therefore the tendency to look away, whitewash and rename grows. Nobody wants and nobody needs to put up with a Lazarus right outside his door today. You can make the encounter more and more indirect, try to avoid it. Added to this is the varied silence, the most terrifying of those affected. Increasingly, people avoid such encounters and stay in their homes. "Open your mouth for the mute" (Prov 31: 8). We are approaching a situation in which simply quoting from prophecy and the gospels seems increasingly provocative.

After all, where is God in an encounter, as Luke tells it? Above all, is God the guarantor of reversal? Does God work for the richer first in the form of a guilty conscience? Certainly more important and elementary than such: The gap also means a distance between the richer and God himself, more precisely: It is a gap towards God. After all, that it is said that the situation is so disclosed that it is named and blatantly challenged - that is the word of God. And that word indicates what can bridge or at least narrow the gap: Moses and the prophetic scriptures.

III. I would therefore like to do exactly what Abraham advises and take up a small excerpt from a whole set of rules that is formulated in Deuteronomy for dealing with people who are in social decline. Dtn 24 is about a loan that has been granted and how it is secured: "12 If the person in question is poor, you are not allowed to keep their pledge overnight. 13 Be sure to return the pledge to them at sunset so they can sleep in their own robes and bless you. That is your righteousness before Adonaj, God to you." Loans without adequate security, small loans for which the robe could provide at least partial security - we heard about them in connection with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Also of their effects and their hope-creating power. In the Bible they are part of a whole system. These include the possibility of borrowing without interest (23.20f) and the cancellation of accumulated debts in the 7th year (15.1ff), a basic provision from general tax revenue (14.22ff) and the right to food from the fields of the haves ( 24.19ff; 23.25f), participation in the great religious festivals with their lavish meals (16.9ff) - in this diverse, coordinated set of rules, with which growing debt and the resulting descent into poverty and slavery prevented or at least minimized should be, I can only remind you in general terms and have to forego all details (4). It is the first draft of a social network, the archetype of every welfare state. My focus is solely on the theological guidelines that are used here to reflect on the goodness of God in a way that will involve everyone.

The main idea is a cycle of blessing. What matters is the understanding of wealth, it is about a theology of prosperity. What the wealthy have is given by God in three ways. Again and again they are reminded of the lead out of the Egyptian slave house into the existing political and social freedom. Then there is the gift of the land, which was the basis of life and prosperity. And even on this double basis, human work can only succeed if the fertility of seeds and harvests is assured by rain. Human work plays an important role, but it is only one factor among others, as it presupposes so many others. That people are doing well economically depends on the great gifts of God, in short: on his, on their blessings. The Bible tells us that God's actions are aimed at blessings from beginning to end. It begins with creation and the gift of life and the world, and it comes to a head in the story of the loved and chosen people, which begins with Abraham and Sarah and is entirely under the heading of blessing. Abraham becomes very rich - and because of that he can finally take the poor into his lap. Jacob is promised that God will give him "of the riches of the earth, and of the abundance of grain and must" (Gen 27:28). And the rich Job can swear that he never turned away a poor person and did not eat a bite for himself, others were always involved (Hi 31: 13ff). So he is reinstated in wealth.

Such voluntary and traditional charity is poured into binding legal rules in Deuteronomy - as part of God's covenant with his people. They regulate that and how all those who are not blessed in the same way, for example because they do not own land, should participate in the wealth that is given and thus earned. The aforementioned laws demand a corresponding waiver from those in possession and thus create a legally secure basis for those affected by social decline. The result will be "that Adonaj, your deity, blesses you in everything you touch" (14.29). It is the work that will be given new blessings through this cycle. Variants of this promise can be found in all social laws (15.10.18; 16.15; 23.21; 24.13.19). Dividing what has been worked out in blessings brings about renewed blessings.

Next to the keyword blessing is the des Right crucial. Not a call for charity, for voluntary donations is formulated here, but a legally binding, well thought-out and formulated social system. Certainly, such law as law in general is reliant in the long term and in principle on consent, at that time on consent in the federal government, today on corresponding parliamentary majorities. But it's not just about the chunks that fall off the table. That it is about justice, that such rights are due before God and from God out of the poor, that changes the encounter between rich and poor, and it also changes it when the possibility of legally enforcing such a social system as a whole disappears, back then with the loss of one's own state, today with the globalization of economic processes. Every biblically based ethic has to comply with this legal claim (5). The legally secured participation in the blessing, the assured certainty that the blessing applies to everyone and that everyone is entitled to it - that is the counter-model to the gap, and that is the biblical possibility of overcoming the gap. This becomes particularly clear symbolically in the instruction to wealthy, land-owning families to celebrate the big annual festivals not only among themselves, but together with slaves, Levitic families, strangers, widows and orphans. All of them have in common and equally "Be happy" (Deut 16,11f.14f). Such a concept may still have paternalistic features, it is as a common festival of rich and poor the anticipation of a divine kingdom without the gap.

IV. In the basic idea of ​​the welfare state and its legislation, but also in the formulations of social human rights, one can find factual correspondences to the regulations of the Deuteronomic system today. But if you take a closer look at this cycle of blessings, there is a moment that is neglected in modern equivalents, but which is also not central in current ecclesiastical and theological considerations. The question is how the participation of the poor can lead to renewed and stronger blessings. Most of the time it is simply said that God will then bless. But does it happen without any human involvement? In one case, what is otherwise taken for granted is explicated. That is why I have chosen the section from Dtn 24 and not the passages from Chap. 14 or 15. Whoever waives the security of the debt and returns the pledge, it is said there, will be blessed by the person concerned (6). The poor bless the richer, the blessing of the rich comes through the poor. What may at first look like a harmless formula of thanks has a key position in this theology of blessing that needs to be pondered. And one has to accept a formulation next to it: "That is your justice" it says there. The righteousness of the richer does not come directly from his righteous actions; it comes from the poor. It is the poor who work and guarantee the justice of the richer.

Only when you add that does a cycle develop. And only when such a cycle exists does the encounter change. It can now be done at eye level. Only in this way does a real togetherness arise; only here does something happen that overcomes the gap. In all the many papers on the subject of rich and poor today, in the ecclesiastical as well as the others that I have read in recent weeks, I have at best found echoes of this crucial point. Mostly it remains with what society should do for the poor and what they should do for themselves. Solidarity is supposed to bring about "personal responsibility", for example about the material prerequisites for greater inclusion in the education system. That is undoubtedly correct, but if one thinks from the perspective of a cycle, it is only half of it. I would therefore like to think about what emanates from the poor and what gives the richer something that they otherwise do not have and cannot have. Rich and poor will only really meet if there is a chance of such reciprocity.The problem lies in the wording, which is rightly used, "all people are needed", especially the poor. Because what does "need" mean here? Who needs who? In biblical thinking it is the case that it is precisely the richer and more powerful, the more influential and wealthy who need the others. This thought comes in many forms. If the future of God lies with the poor, then they are our future today. "Blessed are the poor ... because God's world belongs to them" (Mt 5, Lk 6:20). For Paul, the poor constitute the core of the community (1 Cor 1:25 et al.). For a long time, the labor movement was able to convincingly represent this in a secularized form: Here is the future. Today such old hopes seem to have been blown away. The newly discovered precariat is characterized by hopelessness. It seems that the poor here or in Africa are simply not needed. As a church, we will not be able to vote appropriately and biblically justified on this topic if we cannot speak of the blessing and justice in which the richer depend on the poorer; it is about a hope that we would not have without them . I have the impression that we are relatively far from that. The considerations that I want to put at the end can therefore at best indicate a direction.

There is the keyword blessing. Perhaps the most important blessing that we and society as a whole owe to the poorer among us is the security in which we (still) live. Life in Germany has so far been characterized by the fact that the functioning welfare state means that the gap in comparison with other countries and regions is not yet too great. That is why encounters between rich and poor in everyday life are almost always harmless and peaceful, still. The wealthy and the well-paid middle class do not yet have to withdraw behind electric fences and buy weapons everywhere. Rich and poor can still meet on the street, we can open the front door in a friendly manner and look each other in the eye. The quality of our everyday life and, above all, that of children depends on it. You can still go to school by yourself and play outside with us. This is not possible in many countries, nowhere where, as in Brazil, even a narrow parish salary makes the gap between the poor and hungry seem so large that assaults and violence can be expected at any time. Our safe, common, everyday life is a form of blessing we still get from the poor. The gap must not widen if we are to keep such blessings.

There is the keyword justice. I wonder what the feeling of living in a reasonably fair society is worth to us. As an adolescent in the 1950s, I saw how the number of beggars on the streets gradually decreased due to growing prosperity and the expansion of the welfare state. They have been appearing again for a long time. I was taught at that time, and I have come to appreciate the fact that I can say to myself and to others: These people have a right to an adequate and secure life; they do not depend on my benevolence and my benevolent gifts. That requires organization and bureaucracy, all of which can be criticized, I highly value this right that invented the Torah. And it changed the encounters. In any case, the awareness of living in a reasonably fair society depends on the poorest sharing this feeling in some form and confirming it. Only they can tell us, only they can make such a consciousness possible for the richer. So, one can say with Deuteronomy, my justice depends on the vote of the poor about our encounter.

Finally, the question of God in the encounter between rich and poor must once again be asked. Ecclesiastical statements that are biblically based regularly refer to the formulations from Mt 25, the presence of Christ, the judge of the world, in the least of sisters and brothers. The parable assumes that people knew nothing about it and were subsequently completely surprised. But we know because we know the gospel. When Christ, when God meets us in the poor, can and should the emphasis only be on help from above downwards, from the richer to the poorer? What does it mean for us, what for our image and our speaking of God that we meet God in the poor? Does nothing start from this presence of God? The two places of God in the world that stand out are - biblically speaking - firstly the presence with his people and with his community, in the midst of the two or three, but then God is also with the poor and disenfranchised. "I dwell on high and in the sanctuary and with those whose spirits are broken and humble" (Is 57:15). What does God give us in this form? Finally, two considerations.

- hope. On a poster of the Diakonie I read these days: "Give hope" with pictures of our hopeless. A correct impulse without a doubt, many reports from the east of Germany, for example, describe very soberly a great hopelessness. Still, do we actually have enough hope to be able to give something away? Isn't it all too often the hope in church and society today that everything stays as it is - what kind of hope is that !? "Hope is given to us for the hopeless" (Walter benjamin). Biblically, one must definitely go further: Hope must and will come from the hopeless. Nothing can be idealized here, especially not the intended people. Nevertheless: Only if we learn what their hope looks like, especially when it is hidden and silent, what the hope of the supposedly hopeless looks like, will the globalized world be able to change what is necessary. Where old patterns fade, new ones cannot arise without the experience of those who have fallen out. The social ideal of the "suspended precariat" is to be read as "a society oriented towards the common good". Even if other attitudes are less sympathetic (7), this ideal could still be learned from there.

- Gospel. The revolution that I am concerned with is particularly evident in a new translation of Mt 11.5 and Lk 7.22. I started with a translation variant, which should also be at the end. "The gospel is preached to the poor" is the customary rendition, and it is certainly true. But: the context speaks of exciting and unbelievable activities: "The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers get clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise - the poor bring good news". The Greek verb form can be passively, but can also be rendered medially or actively, and this continues the series of activities of the previously inactive (8). The poor receive good news, we want to ensure that, in a social, but also in a comprehensive theological sense. But that will only be successful if we don't see these people only as objects, at best as those that we have to activate. If we meet them in such a way that God meets us in them, then it is always them who have to tell us the gospel, an inalienable aspect of the full gospel, in a way that we cannot hear anywhere else. We just have to learn to listen properly.


1 Translations mostly based on or based on "The Bible in Just Language", ed. U. Bail et al., Gütersloh 2006.

2 M. Schwantes, The Right of the Poor, BET 4, Frankfurt / M 1977, 245f.

3 For this, as for the parable as a whole, see L. Schottroff, Die Gleichnisse Jesu, Gütersloh 2005, 214ff, especially fig. After p. 224.