The New Testament View of Poverty

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on April 19, 2018 | Print


There are basically two words in the New Testament that refer to poverty. There are derivations and different applications, but these two words in the noun form summarize what poverty is in terms of the Greek definition.

Penes refers to the poverty of a daily laborer or one who has to work for their daily bread. They are not among the absolute poor or destitute but are walking day to day in the reality of being needy.

This word is used many times in connection with the word “needy” such as when the Bible refers to “the poor and needy.”  The poor widow who puts in more offering to the temple treasury by virtue of giving out of her poverty, (Luke 21:1-4) exemplifies this term.  She is not poor in a destitute way, but poor in terms of having to work and wonder where her daily bread is coming from.

Ptocheia is the Greek word for poverty that is even deeper and more severe than penes poverty. Ptocheia’s modern day equivalent would be what we describe as absolute poverty. It literally means destitution. In the verb and adjective form, it often refers to the action of begging. While the penes poor are looked on in favor by God, it is the ptocheia poor who constantly seem to be the victims of injustices committed against them and thus have a special place in the sphere of God’s care.

To be ptocheia poor is to be as poor as a beggar. Interestingly, it is also the word used by the Apostle Paul which describes Christ in 2 Corinthians 8:9. “…yet for your sakes, he became poor…” Jesus, according to Paul, chose voluntarily to experience ptocheia or “beggar” poverty on our behalf. This word is also used again as a description of the church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:9) who, in the midst of ptocheia poverty and affliction is called rich.

The Difference: Humanity of God

The New Testament and Old Testament align in many ways when it comes to poverty and the fallout of such. People frequently lose possessions, dignity, among other things. Like clockwork, at their lowest point, they can see their God waiting to help, heal, and restore.

The divine and awe-inspiring difference of poverty and its various forms in the New Testament, however, is the literal humanity of God. Jesus was a living example of the most horrific, abject poverty and persecution of anyone who has ever lived. It is His response to this cruelty that demonstrates not only the unconditional love and bounty of God, but exemplifies for the rest of us where to look and how to react in our own circumstances.

Jesus shows us that poverty is not an affliction so much as it is an opportunity.

  • As He washed the feet of His disciples, He demonstrated the richness of His love while doing the work of a lowly servant.
  • When He drew the line in the sand, He showed how even the most public and extreme scenarios of humiliation are not an end.
  • At her lowest, Mary Magdalene was seen and saved by Jesus, who ushered her into a life overflowing with the richness of His company, friendship and discipleship.
  • Finally, as He hung on the cross, when Jesus became nothing in the eyes of this world, He ushered in an unstoppable flow of God’s grace, mercy and bounty for all.

When we too are stripped down to nothing, because of Jesus’ example, our poverty doesn’t equate with devastation. Rather, just as Jesus emptied Himself for us, when we unload our baggage–be it positive or negative–our hands and hearts become untethered and able to reach up and discover the greatest riches of all–communion, relationship and kinship with the One who is preparing many mansions in our eternal home.

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