Dr. Birch is professor of Old Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 11-18, 1975 pp. 593-599. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
We are not called upon to discard completely the important salvation history themes of the Old Testament, but the church in America may find some other viewpoints more helpful in the challenges of world poverty.
The stark realities of the world food crisis have made hunger a priority item on the agenda of American churches. With television bringing the hollow faces of starving children into our living rooms, it has become impossible for the community of faith to remain silent or unresponsive. It is tragic that millions must die before the crisis will capture the attention of the more prosperous peoples of the world; it will be doubly tragic if the church’s response remains at the superficial level of self-righteous charity.
The congregation that fasts, contributes money and studies hunger during Lent may feel that it has discharged its obligation of concern, but the meaning of the church as the people of God is much more intimately tied to the welfare of the hungry, the poor, the needy and the oppressed. What is demanded is no less than a renewed understanding of the church’s biblical and theological resources so that we might be in the vanguard of the movement to reorder values and priorities in a suffering world. As we respond to the crisis, we must also challenge the biblical and theological assumptions which have allowed the church to participate uncritically in structures that contribute to the root causes of global hunger and poverty. Only then will the church be free to join the attack on those underlying causes as it ministers to the immediate victims.
The biblical word on the relation of the community of faith to hunger and poverty is clear and unambiguous. It is therefore all the more surprising that in calling upon local churches to respond to hunger issues so little recourse has been made to biblical materials. What imperatives for concern with hunger and poverty are given to the community of faith in the biblical witness? What understandings from biblical theology should inform our acting out of that concern?
God’s Love for the Poor
Hunger and poverty cannot be separated in analyzing the biblical material. Hunger accompanies poverty. Famine can strike an entire land, rich and poor alike, but it is still the poor who go hungry while the well-to-do buy food from other lands (cf. Gen. 12:10; 42:1-2). In both the Old and New Testaments hunger is linked with other terms describing those who have been forced by societal conditions into a marginal existence -- the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed.
God especially loves and cares for the poor: "‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord; ‘I will place him in the safety for which he longs’" (Ps. 12:5). "The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel" (Isa. 29:19). "For thou hast been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress" (Isa. 25:4). God will not forget or forsake the poor or the needy (Ps. 9:12, 17-18, 10:12; Isa. 41:17).
It is important to note that God’s love for the poor does not imply an acceptance of their condition. He loves them in order to deliver them from poverty. It is regarded as an evil (Prov. 15: 15), and God’s response is to deliver his people from it. God promises not merely to love the poor and the hungry but to be active in their behalf: "I will satisfy her poor with bread" (Ps. 132:15).
The Responsibility of the Privileged
Because God has identified himself with the poor, so too the community of faith is called to special concern for these persons. In Israel care of the needy was not regarded as an act of voluntary benevolence. The poor were entitled to such benefits. Underlying this practice was the assumption that poverty and need were due to a breakdown in the equitable distribution of community resources or to a social status over which an individual had no control (widows, orphans). Thus, the responsibility for action lay with the privileged rather than with the poor themselves. By contrast, in our society it is commonly assumed that the poor and the hungry of the world ought to bear the major burdens of bettering their own condition.
The rights of the poor are delineated most clearly in the law codes of the Old Testament; here concern for the poor is taken out of the realm of voluntary charity. The clearest statement appears in Deuteronomy 15:
There will be no poor among you . . if only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God. . . . If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need. . . . You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging. . . . For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore, I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor . . .
This passage suggests that if the demands of the covenant were fully embodied there would be no poverty, but since Israel, like all human communities, is a "stiff-necked people," some of its inhabitants will inevitably be poor. Therefore, God’s people are commanded to care for them. This task is part of what it means to be the people of God, and it is not an optional activity.
All of the Israelite law codes provide for the protection of the poor. Persons were urged to lend money to the poor (Deut. 15:78), but the law prohibited the taking of interest. "If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him" (Exod. 22:25). Garments or other items necessary for survival, if taken from the poor as security for debts, were to be returned each night so that a man might not have to face the night without a cloak (Exod. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:10-13). So that the poor would not remain permanently in debt, the law called for the remission of all debts every seventh year (Deut. 15: 1-2; Lev. 25:1 ff.). If a poor man had sold himself into servitude because of debts, he was to be given freedom in the seventh year (Lev. 25:39-55), and he should not then be sent out empty-handed but given provision from the flocks and the harvest (Deut. 15:12-15). Israel’s people were reminded that they too had once been slaves in Egypt and in need. Too often in prosperity the community of faith forgets that it was not always affluent.
Laws protected the poor man from losing his family property and ensured that no one could accumulate an inordinate amount of land (Lev. 25:10, 13, 25-34). The poor person was protected from exploitation by the rich (Ex. 22:22-23; Deut. 24:14-15; Lev. 19:13). Special emphasis was placed also on assuring the poor of justice against the rich in the law courts, though partiality was not to be given unfairly to the poor (Exod. 23:3; Deut. 27:19, 25).
The Witness of the Prophets
Major attention is given to provision of food for those in need. The poor could pluck grain or pick grapes when passing by a field (Deut. 23:25). They also had the right to glean in fields and vineyards and to take any sheaves left behind. Owners were urged, for the sake of the poor, not to be too efficient in their harvest (Deut. 24:19; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Ruth 2:1-3). Anything that grew up in fallow fields belonged to the poor (Exod. 23:10-11), and they were to receive the tithe of every third year (Deut. 14:28-29; 26-12).
It has been suggested that these laws were idealistic and that they surely were never put into extensive practice. To be sure, actual practice fell far short of these demands, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them so lightly. We know of two instances when some of the more radical provisions of the law were obeyed. In Jeremiah 34:8-9, persons were freed from servitude in accordance with the law; Jeremiah later condemned the people for enslaving the former servants once again when the threat of danger had passed. In Nehemiah 5:6-11, however, an extensive reform is launched to return to the poor the land taken from them in payment of debts, as well as goods exacted in interest.
Even stronger evidence of the seriousness with which the Old Testament takes the rights of the poor is the strong advocacy of these rights in the prophetic literature. Time after time the prophets announce judgment because justice has been perverted and the rights of the poor have been denied. "Therefore, because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine" (Amos 5:11). The prophets call for repentance and urge a program of justice and equity that will demonstrate concern for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan (Isa. 1:16-17; Amos 5:24). They announce God’s special concern and care for the helpless (Isa. 25:4). Ezekiel’s picture of the righteous man indicates that "[he] does not oppress any one, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any increase" (18:7-8).
Nowhere is God’s concern for the poor and the hungry made clearer by the prophets than in Isaiah 58. A better text for preaching on the church’s response to the hunger crisis could not be found:
"Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?"
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers
Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
The Hazards of Wealth
Old Testament attitudes toward property and wealth go hand in hand with concern for the poor. Land is regarded as belonging to God. There is no absolute human right of ownership. "The land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me (Lev. 25:23). God bestows the land as a gift. At first this is understood as the gift of the Promised Land (Gen. 12:7; Exod. 3:8, 32:13), but it is later broadened to apply to all the earth. "The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein" (Ps. 24: 1). Man is but the steward, not the owner; hence, one s land is at the service of its rightful owner, God himself. Since God is the champion of the poor, their rights take precedence over those of private property.
Wealth, on the other hand, is regarded at best as an impediment to righteousness and at worst as a positive evil. Of course, the Old Testament expresses the hope that the faithful shall enjoy success and prosperity, but such prosperity does not extend to the accumulation of great wealth. Part of the resistance to kingship was the well-founded fear that it would create a wealthy, privileged class (Deut. 17:14-20; I Sam. 8:11-18). In Israel’s tradition it was assumed that great wealth was gathered at the expense of others in the community. Hence, one could not be exceedingly wealthy and still fulfill one’s obligation to care for the poor and the needy. It was the gathering of riches that created poverty (Mic. 2:2).
The prophets repeatedly characterize wealth as leading to indifference or to complicity in oppression. "Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves, with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!" (Amos 6:4-6). The parable Nathan tells David about the rich man and the poor man (II Sam. 12:1-4) is a good example of the temptations wealth was thought to bring.
Jesus’ Radicalization of the Tradition
Much of the New Testament witness in regard to the poor and the hungry is a reflection or development of the tradition of Israel. Jesus could well be said to have radicalized that tradition. From the very beginning Jesus identifies his ministry with the poor and the oppressed. In Luke 4:16-19, at the inauguration of his public ministry, Jesus preaches at Nazareth and chooses as his text Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Jesus often associated himself with the poor and with society’s outcasts and was criticized for it (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). It would seem that Jesus and the disciples in fact adopted the life style of the poor. In an incident recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5) Jesus’ disciples pluck grain to eat while passing through the fields. Although the issue here is that of the Sabbath law, the disciples seem to be exercising the rights of the poor, and even the breaking of the Sabbath law is defended on the grounds that the needs of hunger outweigh legal strictures. When Jesus sent the disciples out, he required them to go in extreme poverty (Luke 9:3; 10:4).
In his preaching, Jesus often spoke with concern for the poor and indicated that they were especially blessed by God. "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh" (Luke 6:20-21). The parable of the banquet (Luke 14:16 ff.) indicates that the poor may inherit the kingdom before those of position in society. Perhaps most striking in this regard is the passage on the great judgment in Matthew 25:31-46:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Jesus makes clear that he is identified with the poor and the needy to the extent that acceptance of him is equated with ministering to their needs. "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
Jesus’ attitude toward wealth is correspondingly negative. Riches are at least an impediment to the kingdom and at worst a damnation. Along with the Lucan beatitudes quoted above are included the woes: "Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:24-26). The accumulation of goods stands as a goal opposed to the service of God. "No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13). The rich man is depicted as a fool in the parable of the wealthy farmer (Luke 12:16-21). "Delight in riches" is one of the thorns that choke out the seed of the Word in Mark 4:19. The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus effectively sums up Jesus’ teachings on the rich and the poor (Luke 16:19-31). Finally, there is the harsh saying, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25).
Naturally Jesus demanded much of those who would enter the kingdom of God. He appears as a prophetic figure confronting his hearers with the radical demands of God’s service. Jesus’ teachings in this regard are too often rationalized or dismissed as excessively idealistic. Those who would seek the kingdom of God must renounce their anxiety over earthly goods and trust in God (Matt. 6:24-33; Luke 12:22-32). "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matt 6:33). They are to lay up treasures not on earth but in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21). Those who would become disciples must be willing to leave all possessions behind (Mark : 1:16 ff.; 10:28 ff.).
The giving up of possessions is not, however, a righteous deed in itself. Jesus ‘makes clear that this renunciation enables a life of service to the poor, the needy and the helpless. This concept is seen most clearly in his admonition to the rich young ruler: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me" (Mark 10:21). Despite our apparent desire to serve in the present world food crisis we are often like the rich young ruler who "went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions."
The early church continued Jesus’ stress on concern for the poor and the needy and his view of individual wealth as an impediment to die kingdom. The early church in Jerusalem as described in the Book of Acts has often been characterized as an embodiment of "love communism": "And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:44-45). "No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common" (Acts 4:32). This sharing was intended to enable the community to better serve those in need. "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands ‘or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need" (Acts 4:34-35). This early Jerusalem community adopted the life style of poverty as appropriate to its mission and is referred to by the term "the poor" (Gal. 2:10; Rom. 15:26). The Ebionites (a word meaning "the poor") were a later Jewish Christian group in Palestine that continued to follow such an ideal.
Outside of Jerusalem the church did not adopt such a radical practice of sharing communal resources, but the special concern for the poor was continued. Paul himself adopted the life style of the poor and gave up personal possessions for the sake of, his mission: "As poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (II Cor. 6: 10). He reports that he was exhorted by the church in Jerusalem to remember the poor and that he was eager to do so (Gal. 2:10). Indeed, when the church in Jerusalem found itself in special need, Paul undertook an extensive collection for its relief (I Cor. 16:4; II Cor. 8-9). In this regard Paul refers to the special care of God for the poor and to the poverty of Christ (II Cor. 9:9; 8:9). He relates this service to the following principle: "That as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality" (II Cor. 8:14). The Macedonian church, although in "extreme poverty" itself, joyfully participated in assistance to others who were poor (II Cor. 8:1-3).
Elsewhere in the New Testament there are numerous exhortations to share resources (e.g., Heb. 13:16), but perhaps the clearest statement of the continuing need for the community of faith to identify itself with the poor, even as has God, is to be found in James 2:1-7. In this passage it is clear that even in the early church the temptation to identify with wealth and status had appeared. This neglected passage should serve as a judgment on all generations of the church that succumb to that temptation.
If a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "Have a seat here, please," while you say to the poor man, Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name by which you are called?
The witness of both Old and New Testaments makes clear that concern for those forced to live a marginal existence is not-an optional activity for the people of God, nor is it only a minor requirement. Identification with these persons is at the heart of what it means to be the community of faith.
A Crisis for the Church
If the biblical imperatives concerning the poor and the hungry are clear, it has been less clear how those imperatives are to be acted upon in the life of the church. Most of our efforts in dealing with hunger, as with other issues, have been expended in discussion and implementation of programs or strategies. The churches have failed to see that the challenge of world hunger (and the whole complex of related peace, liberation and development issues) constitutes a theological crisis for the church as well as a political, social and economic crisis for the world. This is, in part, what liberation theologians of the Third World have been trying to tell us. If the presuppositions of American influence are to be re-examined in light of current world problems, so too must the theological presuppositions of the American churches be scrutinized. Only with a renewed theological vision can the church in the U.S. become a moral force in the resetting of national priorities. There is a massive amount of biblical and theological work to be done simultaneously with our practical response to such pressing issues as global hunger. A new biblical vision might directly affect the way we respond to world hunger.
The dominant model of Old Testament theology for several decades, owing largely to the influence of Gerhard von Rad, has been that of salvation history (Heilsgeschichte). The focus is on God’s actions in history to redeem his people. The central event, of course, is the crossing of the sea. This Exodus event becomes paradigmatic for Israel’s life and faith. Stress is placed on the situations of distress in which the community constantly finds itself, and on the community’s inability to deliver itself. Although God may judge his people, the community can ultimately put trust and hope in the assurance of God’s deliverance. The community responds in covenant service to this redemptive action on its behalf.
This theological picture can be found in large portions of the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch, the prophets, the Deuteronomic writers, and the Psalms. This theme of God’s working in history to effect salvation which the community of faith cannot effect for itself has had a powerful influence in theology through the middle decades of the 20th century. It is currently finding powerful new expression in the Third World liberation theologies, in which Old Testament salvation history themes occupy a central position. It is an exceedingly appropriate biblical model for theologies founded in the suffering and oppression of the world’s marginal peoples. Deliverance, redemption and salvation, effected by God’s intervention against the world’s hostile forces, provide the basis for hope in seemingly hopeless situations.
The model of salvation history seems much less appropriate for the current theological situation of the church in America, particularly in its efforts to respond to global issues. The language of liberation, with its salvation history themes, seems hollow and hypocritical in our mouths, bespeaking a new form of American theological triumphalism. Too often our proclamation that God is acting in history appears to place us in the immodest role of God’s agents bringing deliverance and salvation, particularly when our efforts seem bent on creating the best program, offering the most viable strategy or pouring in the most money. Salvation history in the Old Testament is a theology for the powerless. Our job in the American church may be to find in our biblical resources the substance of a theology that speaks to the powerful.
A Theology of Blessing
Salvation history is not the only theological model in the Old Testament. Recent years have seen a rediscovery of the wisdom literature and a reassessment of its theological importance. The influence of the wisdom perspective goes far beyond the Book of Proverbs. In addition to the work of the wise teachers, the theological interests of wisdom are also to be found in the Yahwist prehistory of Genesis 2-11, the Succession Narrative in II Samuel and in numerous prophetic books. Significantly, the beginnings of wisdom schools, the writing of the Yahwist epic and the Succession Narrative all come from that period at the height of Israel’s power and prestige which we call the Solomonic Enlightenment. Thus, there is a sense in which the perspective of these diverse Old Testament materials represents one way in which Israel tried to reflect theologically on its own prosperity. It is increasingly clear that these materials share an alternative theological viewpoint to that of salvation history.
That alternative viewpoint might be called a theology of blessing, as opposed to a theology of saving. It tends not to stress history as the arena of God’s activity. God appears as Creator and Sustainer rather than as Redeemer. Humanity is pictured not as helpless and in distress, but as sharing responsibility for the well-being of the created order.
A number of insights from this theological perspective might be helpful for us.
First, the presence of God is as order, not as act. For this reason stress is placed on the picture of God as Creator. Creation provides for the orderly parameters in which human existence is lived out. Creation is affirmed as benevolent, embodying the possibility of goodness. Salvation is found as the people recognize and actualize the potential for wholeness already inherent in the created order. Emphasis is placed on the continuity of God’s presence in creation rather than on the discontinuity created by his intervention in history. Our attention is diverted from the hope for God’s redemptive intervention to the effort to discern the just order which God intended as the arena of human existence. Within this order humanity has a special place. We are given authority within the creation, and our existence requires us to interact with it.
Second, within the order of creation the purpose of human existence is life. Whatever does not contribute to bringing life is characterized as death. Life is intrinsic in the created order and needs only to become actualized in its fullness for each individual. Hence, the emphasis in wisdom is often on what seem like mundane matters. The wholeness (shalom) of human existence is already present as the promise of God’s blessing on those who seek life.
In salvation history, existence is given its center of meaning by the intervention of God in a particular history. In the hands of a prosperous people, whether ancient Israel or America, this notion has tended to foster a concept of election that claims a corner on God’s presence. Wisdom, on the other hand, stresses seeking after life as seeking after the welfare of the whole human community to which one is related. For a global society there are obvious implications. In the Old Testament this theme served as a constant corrective to exclusivism and triumphalism in Israel. The seeking after life in the wisdom theology is never solely an individual matter but is the concern of the whole community. "When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices . . ." (Prov. 11:10).
Third, great importance is placed on human freedom and responsibility in the wisdom literature. Persons are accorded a greater role in determining their own destiny. In Proverbs, in the Yahwist epic and in the Succession Narrative a central role is given to the notion that persons have choices to make. Each must decide responsibly by choosing life or death. If he chooses foolishly rather than wisely, then he must bear the consequences of that choice, but it is by no means assumed that he is destined always to make the sinful choice.
Salvation history, on the other hand, assumes the helplessness of humanity, the inability to effect a change in the human situation and, therefore, the need for God’s deliverance. The long legacy of Western theology has stressed this biblical theme in its doctrine of fallen man. Is it little wonder that the response in U.S. churches to global suffering is superficial when the theological tradition of those churches has emphasized human incapacity to do anything about the human condition? We have been taught that deliverance is solely in the hands of God. We pray for peace and justice; we do not work for it. Wisdom stresses the trust God has placed in his human creatures and their responsibility and capacity to make decisions that will bring life and blessing into the created order.
There are limits to human potential, and persons are called upon to acknowledge their creaturely status. The limits are defined by the order of creation. To attempt to transcend those limits and become "like God" (Gen. 3:5) is to violate God’s creation. God is present in the potential for life as Creator and Sustainer, and he is present in the limits of choices. There are limits to human capacity, but within those creation as Judge, exacting the consequences of sinful limits persons are not incapacitated, and much is expected of them. Such a biblical understanding provides a more fruitful base for reflecting on the use of power than does salvation history, with its stress on human powerlessness.
Fourth, God intends the fullness of life for the human community to be a present goal, not the endpoint of history. The eschatological elements of the salvation history theme have implied that the fullness of life lies only in the future; consequently, American churches have often responded to human suffering in the present by pointing the sufferer to God’s future. Waiting and hoping have been advocated as primary virtues to marginal peoples by comfortable church people who have not had to do much of either. Stress on the coming kingdom has led us to devalue the present world as of little ultimate consequence. The old hymn "This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through" reflects a sentiment still with us, and it is the source of considerable indifference in the church. If God’s coming kingdom will establish justice, how can we be too concerned that justice is often absent in the present? Wisdom stresses God’s will that his creatures experience the abundant life in the here and now.
Application to the Hunger Issue
If wisdom theology were taken seriously, it could be applied to the world hunger issue in many ways:
1. We would be called upon to abandon the aid or charity approach to hunger -- the rescuer-on-a-white-horse mentality that does not succeed in bringing life out of death in any ongoing fashion but is merely an intervention of the moment.
2.We would be impelled to work for the establishment of a more just and harmonious order in the world. A concern to actualize the fullness of life for all humankind would demand re-examination of root causes and the reordering of values and priorities. These are long-term goals requiring the continuous presence of God’s guidance and not his dramatic deliverance.
3. We would need to place greater importance on our role as bringers of life or death in the human order by the decisions we make. Our role in patterns that have created the suffering of world poverty and hunger would be exposed, and the church could be called to repentance for its participation. At the same time, the church would find itself theologically empowered to direct its energy and resources to new patterns of moral discernment in the global community. It need not accept world suffering merely as evidence of the broken human condition, and therefore opt to minister only to the victims of sin without addressing sin’s sources.
4. Finally, we would be required as the church to recognize the destiny we share with all humanity. Wisdom stresses the communal character of blessing and life. We share this potential with the whole human family as God’s creatures, and where abundant life is not possible, it is a loss we each share. To be the community of faith is to acknowledge our interrelationship with all of creation. Too often the church has taken a stance of concern for the world, but has understood itself as a delivered community having little ultimate stake in the fate of the world.
Although there are many insights in the wisdom perspective that can provide an alternative to the salvation history theology, wisdom cannot be promoted as the new hermeneutical key. It is one among many theological alternatives presented in the Old Testament, and it is the constant critique arid corrective that these perspectives provide in relation to one another which make the Scriptures such a rich resource for the church. We are not left with only one arrow in our theological quiver. We are not called upon to discard completely the important salvation history themes of the Old Testament, but as the church in America we may find some other viewpoints more helpful in current contexts. Our choice of biblical foundations ought to be made as carefully as our choice of ethical strategies.
If the church is to participate in the moral renewal of the world order, then it must find its own theological renewal. The richness and diversity of the biblical material represent an invaluable resource, and for the church to recognize and appropriate these scriptural insights is to begin the renewal of our theological perspective.