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Friedrich Nietzsche famously said that anyone who believes in the liberation of the oppressed, the helping up of the weak, and the basic dignity of all humanity must be a Christian.1 Of course, for Nietzsche, care for the poor represented the most dangerous of tendencies in the West, one he called a poison that progresses “throughout the entire body of humanity.” The only solution is for humanity to get rid of such nostalgic and sentimental motivations in order to pursue the individual’s “superman-ish” desires.

Even though his solution represents a worse disease, Nietzsche had a point about the idea of helping the weak being uniquely biblical.

The Care of the Poor in the Old Testament

The Bible speaks often of helping the poor and liberating the oppressed. The most famous Mosaic formulation of this group encompasses the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner (Ex. 22:21; Deut. 10:18; 16:11; 27:19). These individuals would have required social care and protection because they did not have the ordinary social structures of family and nationality to provide for them. Moreover, God reminds Israel that they too were sojourners in Egypt (Deut. 26:5). Their ethics should be informed by their past. Even the grand redemptive events of the Old Testament, the exodus and the restoration, are framed primarily as liberation from slavery.

The logic of biblical helping goes something like this:

  1. Humanity is made in the image of God.
  2. Therefore, humanity has God-conferred dignity.
  3. Because of the fall of humanity, no human deserves the blessings that he enjoys; rather, all people are recipients of blessings by God’s grace. As the ancient doxology reminds us, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
  4. We are at the same time bearers of dignity, having been made in God’s image, and also deserving of His wrath, having fallen away in sin. To use the Apostle Paul’s language, what is true of salvation is true of all human prosperity so that “no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9; see also Job 1:21).
  5. We are not the ultimate owners of the riches that we have, but rather we have been given them by a gracious God, who is their final owner.
  6. Therefore, we are called to steward our belongings for the glory of God, in particular for the care of the poor and the oppressed who are made in His image and just as deserving as we are.

In the writings of Moses, the Lord is clear that He will judge His people according to the way in which they care for those who have no social or family structure to care for them. Centuries after Moses, the prophets apply this teaching of the Pentateuch to the people of God, and the people of God do not fare well (Jer. 7:6). The thinking here is that if God’s people are not caring for the poor, then they are accomplices in the oppression, and God will take up the cause of the needy against their oppressors.

Preparing for the Christ

This divine concern for the poor in the Old Testament not only anticipates the person and work of Jesus in the New Testament, but it also provides a basis for the redemption that is accomplished and applied in Christ. Divine care of the least in society provides a framework of thought that builds momentum throughout the Old Testament, providing for us the mental structures needed to understand the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, His humiliation that leads necessarily to His exaltation.

When I teach from the Old Testament, I like to make an analogy about how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament as a blueprint relates to a building. In both cases, the former is necessary for understanding how the latter works. We need the former first, but once we have the latter, the former is still necessary because it explains the inner workings, the key themes, the big picture of the latter.

Caring for the poor is one of the major themes of the Old Testament that prepares us for the person and work of Jesus.

Caring for the poor is one of the major themes of the Old Testament that prepares us for the person and work of Jesus. Christ’s actions and teachings should not surprise us because we are already familiar with the actions and teachings of the Lord in the history of Israel. As a matter of fact, we should not be surprised that Jesus uses a similar measure of faithfulness—caring for the needy—when He talks about the final, global judgment (Matt. 25:31–46).

If our minds are shaped by the Hebrew Bible, then the Jewish Messiah is not such a surprise to us.

But the inverse is true as well. As we are shaped by Christ, we find that the Hebrew Bible begins to make sense as the Old Testament pointing to Christ.

Divine concern for the poor is not merely a theological rationale for commonsense ethical commitments, nor is it merely the outworking of Israel’s identity in the world around them. Throughout the Old Testament, divine care and protection of the poor fill in the portrait of Christ as we meet Him in the New Testament.

We can finally and fully understand the exodus, the conquest, the exile, and the restoration as acts of the triune God of whom Jesus is the incarnate second person. Helping and justice are not merely biblical themes—they are expressions of the character of God, revealed in Scripture and perfectly imaged by Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:3). This is the Apostle Paul’s argument in Philippians 2: Christ’s humiliation should be a model for our sacrificial care for others.

To put it another way, care for the poor cannot be separated from the gospel message because it explains why it is that such good news is possible—God first loved us, even in our spiritual and material poverty. But the gospel also cannot be separated from care for the poor, because care for the poor becomes arbitrary without the person and work of Christ to undergird it.

In other words, Nietzsche was right: care for the poor is basic Christian ethics.

At the end of his life, Nietzsche struggled with mental illness from syphilis, and he could not get by without the help of his sister, who was staunchly committed to him. It is a sad irony that he ended life as a weak and broken man desperate for the sacrificial care of another.

 

  1. See The Genealogy of Morals, part one, for an example of Nietzsche’s logic. ↩︎