May 21, 2009

Generational Poverty and Merited Favor

For both Greeks and Hebrews, the ancient world was po, po, po. One thing about entrenched generational poverty is that it makes any good fortune seem random, given that hard work over time so rarely seems to pay off. Poor people buy most lotto tickets because it's as good an option as any. And when folks in poverty see somebody doing well, they all say he or she was just lucky.

With that in mind, I'm wondering if ancient folks were capable of thinking in terms of "merited favor", at least, towards salvation? In other words, if you can't even imagine working or saving up for a better tomorrow, how could you possibly think in terms of making lifelong efforts to earn your way into eternity? I'm no theologian, but I suspect this is one more way of showing that biblical teaching only makes sense in a relational context.

Some random Galatian may never have seen a balance sheet get wiped clean, much less taken out or paid off their own loan, but they'd all seen mama get unhappy, and they'd all tried to find ways to make mama happy again. Likewise, some random Jew might lose favor within his community, but I suspect the right manner of winning his way back into the synagogue had a lot more to do with convincing those who felt most strongly about things that he was sincere - rather than with how well or how many times he performed the requirements.

In any culture, folks raised in generational poverty know that money always disappears as soon as somebody gets any, because a survival mentality makes all property communal. Because of this, poor folks also know that the people you bind yourself to are, by far, your most valuable resource. So once again, favor is social. You don't have to keep points. You just have to keep people happy.

I'm sure no theologian, but maybe this helps illustrate that God's Grace was never about failing to do enough and then getting full credit anyway. Grace is social. Favor is social. Forgiveness means letting someone back in when they had previously been out... and it comes by whatever grounds for acceptance the wronged party feels is appropriate.

We didn't fail to do "enough". We failed to be Jesus Christ. Only the Son ever totally pleased the Father. His sacrifice was enough BECAUSE GOD DECIDED IT WAS ENOUGH. That makes sense to an ancient mind, and that makes sense to me. "My God is pleased with Jesus Christ and I am lost inside of Him."

There are ways to keep Galatian mammas happy, and ways to keep Jewish synagogue leaders happy, and one way to keep God the Father happy. Be IN Jesus Christ, and stay there. (Thanks again and again for your endless mercy with my failures, Lord.)

Now, can all the Po Folks out there shout "Amen"?


Sarah said...


Peter Kirk said...

Interesting thoughts. But there is another side to this. Most of the original readers of the Bible, or at least those with influence in the churches, were not the poor but those who had in some way or another lifted themselves out of it. From my experience people like that, at least in the modern world, tend to claim that they did so by their own efforts, with perhaps a little luck. They tend to blame the other poor for being poor because they haven't tried hard enough to better themselves. Of course that's never the whole story. But looking at this from the perspective of such people one sees something subtly different in the biblical passages you have in mind - perhaps God reinforcing the poor people's idea that doing well is by God's choice, which looks a bit like luck, not than by hard work.

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Peter! Good to see ya. :)

I have to say I think you're being anachronistic. It's not wealth or poverty as concepts that remain the same, it's the experiences. I think what you're talking about is "the spirit of capatilism", which wasn't the basis of much wealth in the ancient world. It certainly wasn't the basis for how wealthy people viewed poor people.

Most genuine wealth was landed. The small merchant class had no status (or wealth, typically). The poor were *never* expected to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. They were expected to live, eat, breed and die in poverty. And on the historic occasions when class warfare did happen, it wasn't about being granted more opportunities, it was about being granted more handouts.

Now then, if you want to read the scriptures in Calvin's Geneva, that would indeed be a different story. ;)

But back to the point - the audiences of the first century writings were mostly poor listeners. And the literate 'aloud readers' weren't necessarily rich. Slaves could be literate.

Thanks for sparking all that. You just got me on a roll. ;)

Bill Heroman said...

I should have said the small merchant class had no status or wealth *to speak of*, or a relatively insignificant amount.

I'm not a medieval expert, but I think the middle class evolved from the gradual increase of guild activity, from late antiquity on. Again, I could be corrected on the medieval developments. But on ancient economics, I follow (and stand by) M.I. Finley.

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