A Biblical Scholar Reflects on Wealth and Poverty in the Modern World
For Dr. Samuel L. Adams, who teaches Old Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the ancient texts speak with irresistible power to issues of wealth and poverty in the twenty-first century.
I went driving around the neighborhood immediately surrounding the Seminary, and I noticed that in a two-mile radius there are 20 payday lending facilities where the money you end up having to pay far exceeds the original loan, and let’s call this what it is. It’s not payday lending. It’s predatory lending.
When you look in the Bible, you see that it was very common practice in the period in which the Old Testament was written that those with resources also took advantage of the poorest in society by lending them money or grain at high interest rates.”
The prophet Amos is perhaps most passionate about social justice related to wealth and poverty. He condemns those lying at ease in their second homes while they oppress those who are poor.
There’s also a passage in Nehemiah 5 where Nehemiah is very upset that wealthy lenders are taking advantage of a famine and a grain shortage and lending to their fellow Jews at great interest and says, ‘This isn’t what Moses commands us in the Torah. This isn’t what we’re supposed be about. Quit it.’”
Sam Adams got his undergraduate degree at Davidson College, his M.Div. at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and his Ph.D. at Yale. He credits a year after college in India for quickening his interest in going to seminary and beginning a life-long interest in issues of wealth and poverty. Today, as he enters his second decade of teaching at the Seminary, the tug of India remains strong: in recent years, he started a travel seminar for Union students to what he calls that “fascinating, friendly, complicated country.”
Just a few months back, students, alums, and Trustees were able to go and see what it’s like to be a Christian in India and to see what it’s like to live in a country with a billion people, where immense poverty and immense wealth live side by side.
It’s important to learn about these places because our own American context is becoming so diverse.”
When we think about poverty in the United States, it’s more diffuse. It has spread to the suburbs, and I think it’s more of an anonymous poverty and in many cases a more lonely poverty, because you don’t have the kind of neighborhood or family structure when you need immediate resources and someone you know to give you hope.”
There is a Hebrew word called ‘mishpat’ which means ‘justice,’ and ‘justice’ in the Old Testament doesn’t only mean fairness or getting your say in court, it means equality. Justice in the Old Testament means kindness to those who are on the margins. Justice means making sure everyone in society has something to eat and a place to lay his or her head.
In Matthew 25, when Jesus talks about who will be with him in the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s not theological beliefs, it’s not what denomination you belonged to. It was ‘did you tend to the least of these? I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.’ Those who recognize the importance of that ‘will sit at my right hand in the Kingdom of God.’
When we think about poverty in the United States, it’s more diffuse. It has spread to the suburbs, and I think it’s more of an anonymous poverty and in many cases a more lonely poverty, because you don’t have the kind of neighborhood or family structure when you need immediate resources and someone you know to give you hope.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, [g] you did it to me.’
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