Poverty is rooted in lies at the level of culture. One of the greatest causes of poverty in the world is the lie that “Work is a curse!” This lie is manifest globally in the lives of individuals, communities and nations. Yes, you read that correctly. The economic poverty of nations can most often be traced to the cultural lie that work is a curse.
Economic historians often trace the rise of wealthy nations to the impact of the “Protestant Work Ethic,” as articulated by the German social philosopher Max Weber. (See David Landes’s classic The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.)
A regionally famous Puerto Rican Salsa Band, the Grand Combo, recorded a song “I Do Nothing” which promotes laziness and machismo culture. This song impacted Puerto Rico economically, increasing poverty in the commonwealth. (Go here to see the story of the impact of popular music to shape culture and the corresponding economy.)
Prior to the Reformation in Europe, virtually every nation in the world was impoverished. Of course most nations had wealthy families: aristocrats, land owners, royalty. But the masses were impoverished, often indentured servants, serfs or slaves. Those countries impacted by the Reformation were lifted out of poverty. The key: shifting the cultural understanding of work as a curse to work as part of human dignity.
After all, in Genesis 2:2 we see that God works: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” In Genesis 2:15 we read that man was put in the garden to work it: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” This was before the fall.
These passages reveal that work is both a reflection of God’s transcendent nature, in whose image we are created, and that human beings were made to work, to steward creation and govern the things that God has made.
The problem is that pastors begin teaching, and Christians reading, at Genesis 3. I call such folks “Genesis Three Christians.”
When we begin in Genesis 3 we see that man’s rebellion had consequences for work. Now a woman’s labor in childbirth – her work – would be more difficult, and man would work in the sweat of his brow; weeds would grow in the garden. It is important, however, to realize that work is not cursed, it is the ground that is cursed (Genesis 3: 17).
The Bible clearly teaches that work is part of our dignity. As the gospel goes forward, so too must the biblical understanding of the dignity of work. It is this understanding, at a cultural level, that sets the framework for human flourishing.
Work is not a curse … it is part of our dignity!
Since man’s rebellion against God, natural evil has reigned. Earthquakes, floods, droughts, tsunamis and famine have been part of life. Famine is considered one of the greatest of natural disasters, and famines have occurred all over the world in all ages of history. Some have been man made, and some have been caused by nature.
The Bible records many accounts of famines. Most people are familiar with the great Egyptian famine in Genesis 41. Joseph warned Pharaoh that after seven bountiful years the land would suffer seven years of drought. Joseph recommended saving food during the good years to have provisions in the bad years. Thus the principle of savings was introduced to the world.
The book of Ruth mentions another famine which becomes the backdrop for establishing another biblical principle: the dignity of work.
Following the death of Josiah came the time of the judges, a period of moral and economic decline for the people of Israel. Twice we read, In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Jdg 17:6; 21:25 ESV) During this period, a major famine struck Israel (Ruth 1:1).
As the famine turned brutal, an Ephrathite named Elimelech took his wife and two sons to neighboring Moab to find relief (1: 1-2). While there the sons married Moabite women. During a period of ten years, all three males died leaving their widows destitute (1:3).
Elimelech’s wife, Naomi, urged her daughters-in-law to return to their families and find new husbands. But Ruth refused to abandon Naomi, articulating one of the most beautiful testimonies in the scriptures:
Do not urge me to leave you or to turn back from following you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus to me, and worse, if anything but death separates you and me! (1: 16-17)
When her mother-in-law freed her to go back to her family Ruth was faced with a choice between fatalism and freedom, between the Moabite, child-eating god Molech, and the life-giving God, Jehovah. Ruth declared faith in Naomi’s God and pledged her faithfulness to Naomi and her people. Ruth’s hauntingly beautiful and defiant words still thrill us: “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.”
We see in Ruth the self-sacrificing character that marks the nature of the God of Israel. God is ISH –husband, to his people Israel. He is faithful to them even when they are unfaithful to him. God’s faithfulness and self-sacrificing love are rooted deeply in this young righteous Gentile. Her faith resulted in her entry in the royal genealogy of David’s throne (Matt 1:5).
When Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem, the people hardly recognized Naomi (1: 19). She voices her despair and bitterness from the deaths of her husband and sons.
But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi [meaning “Pleasant”]. Call me Mara [meaning “Bitter”], because the Almighty has brought great bitterness to me. I was full when I left, but the Lord has caused me to return empty. Why should you call me Naomi when the Lord has opposed me? The Almighty has brought misfortune upon me!” (1:20-21)
The Bible is realistic. It presents real people in real-life situations.
Most of us read the Bible for spiritual refreshment and principles. But how often do read the Bible to find principles that deal with current issues, like hunger and poverty?
How did Ruth, the righteous Gentile respond to this same destitution? After all, she was in the same circumstances as Naomi.
And what did Boaz, the gentlemen farmer, do to help her?
… to be continued
- Darrow Miller