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From Poverty as Indigence to Poverty as Self-contentedness and Sharing.
The Semantic Complexity of Ptwco,j and Synonyms in the Christian Bible.

by Fr. Lanfranco M. Fedrigotti SDB

       In this article1 I intend to point out an interesting shift in the way the
Christian Bible (Greek-Hebrew OT + Greek NT) treats the perennial reality
of poverty. Given the fact that God consistently takes the side of the poor,
the very concept of poverty undergoes a transformation. A split in its
connotation takes place. One is compelled to distinguish two kinds of
poverty: on the one hand, “inhuman poverty” or “man-degrading poverty” or
“dehumanizing poverty”2, detested by God and by the godly Israelite; on
the other hand, “human poverty” or “man-upgrading poverty” or
“humanizing poverty”, beloved of God and the godly Israelite. It is
important to make this distinction because the reality of “humanizing
poverty” would seem to be the only way to solve, or at least to tackle in a
more effective way, that fundamental economic problem which seems to
plague every age of human history, namely, the ever-widening gap between
the extravagantly rich and the destitute poor.

         1. Three Terms That Refer to the Poor: Their Usage

       To begin with, we may analyze the biblical use of the three words
most used to refer to the poor (the first two in a strict sense, the third in a
larger sense), namely, the terms ptwco,j (materially poor, needy, mostly
translating Hebrew lD: or ynI['/wn"['), pe,nhj (poor man, poor, mostly
translating Hebrew !Ayb.a,) and tapeino,j (lowly, of no account, humble,
oppressed, afflicted, mostly translating the various forms of Hebrew lpv and
ynI['/wn"[')3. These three words are often used in an almost synonymic way
in the Greek Bible, so much so that in the manuscript tradition they can be

  A Chinese version of this article is being published in Mainland China in the Acts of The 3 rd International
Philarchisophia Symposium held at Holy Spirit Seminary College, Hong Kong, August 16-18, 2005.
  This is the term used by Duncan MacLaren, the secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis, in connection
with the UN World Summit held in New York on September 14-16, 2005 to review the Millennium
Development Goals on alleviating poverty. See Sunday Examiner, October 2nd, 2005: “Caritas head calls
United Nations world summit a „missed opportunity‟”, 4.
  For the English meaning of these terms see LUST, J. – E. EYNIKEL – K. HAUSPIE, A Greek-English Lexicon
of the Septuagint, II, Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft 1996, 411.365. 469.

interchanged4. Moreover, they often show up in the two halves of synonymic
       The term ptwco,j occurs in the Greek Bible about 160 times (LXX
124, NT 34), the term pe,nhj 80 times (LXX 79, NT 1), the term tapeino,j 78
times (LXX 70, NT 8). The biblical usage of each of these terms has certain
common characteristics that can be summarized as follows:
       1. For a majority of times, they refer to the poor as the object of due
          care, whether on the part of God6 or of man7, in a variety of forms:
          God cares for the poor; godly people care for the poor; God
          commands to care for the poor; God reproaches human beings for
          lack of care of the poor; God is appealed to as one who cares for
          the poor.
       2. This does not mean that one should be partial to the poor. Care for
          the poor is rooted in justice. No partiality is to be shown whether to
          the rich or to the poor (Exod 23:3; Lev 19:15)
       3. Only rarely do these terms express the reality of poverty as such,
          without direct connection with the expected response to this reality
          on the part of God or man8.
       4. Even more rarely is the poverty expressed by these terms perceived
          as the result of improper behaviour (for example, being ptwco,j in
          Sir 18:33-19,1 is seen as caused by prodigality and ptwceu,ein is
          seen as the result of loose living in Prov 23:21)9.
       5. Sometimes, but only in the Old Testament, the disadvantages of
          being poor are highlighted10.
       6. Both in the Old and in the New Testament, appreciation is
          sometimes expressed for virtue and wisdom in the midst of
  In Sir 29:9 MS A1 has ptwco,j where MSS A2 B S have pe,nhj. Similarly, in Amos 8:6 R (the 1587 Sixtine
Edition of the LXX) has pe,nhj where MSS A B have tapeino,j. In Ps 101[102]:17[18] where MS S1 has
ptwco,j, MSS S2 A B have tapeino,j; idem in Sir 13:21 S1 and S2 A B respectively; conversely, in Isa 61:1,
where MSS S2 A B have ptwco,j, MS S2 has tapeino,j.
  In their various grammatical forms, ptwco,j and tapeino,j occur together in 1Sam 2:7; Ps 81(82):3; Sir
11:12; 13:20; Amos 2:7; 8:6; tapeino,j and pe,nhj in Ps 9:38-39[10:17-18]; 81(82),3; Prov 30:14; Jer 22:16;
ptwco,j and pe,nhj, in their various grammatical forms, occur together at least 31 times in the LXX.
  Ptwco,j: LXX 59, NT 15; pe,nhj: LXX 48; tapeino,j: LXX 30, NT 5.
  Ptwco,j: LXX 51, NT 18; pe,nhj: LXX 36, NT 1; tapeino,j: LXX 9.
  Ptwco,j: LXX 11, NT 6; tapeino,j: LXX 1. This neutral attitude to poverty is reflected in the prayer of
Prov 24:31[30:8]: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me”
  Under the noun peni,a in Prov 6:6-11=24:30-34 and Prov 28:19 poverty is seen as the result of laziness,
under the noun evndei,a in Prov 14:23 as the result of loose living, in Job 36:8 and Prov 10:15 as the result
of wickedness.
   Ptwco,j: LXX 13; pe,nhj: LXX 4; tapeino,j: LXX 3. With the noun ptwcei,a/ptwci,a this is the majority

   This simple analysis shows that in the Bible the reality of poverty is
closely related to God and his relationship with human beings. It is this
particularly close relationship that grounds the Bible‟s distinctive view of
poverty and gives it that particular twist that is the subject of my paper. It
matters to God whether human beings are poor and how they are poor.
Poverty makes a difference to God and God makes a difference to poverty.
To show how this is so, I will proceed in ten long steps for the OT and two
short steps for the NT.

   2. Ten OT Steps towards a Fundamental Distinction in the Meaning
of Poverty

    Firstly, in the very beginning of his relationship with his people at the
Exodus and at Sinai, YHWH, the God of Israel, reveals himself as the
liberator (Exod 2:23-25) and as the protector (Exod 22:21-27; Deut 10:18;
Ps 67[68]:6-7) of the oppressed poor (Deut 26:7). This initial revelation is
picked up and developed by the prophets sent by God to Israel as champions
of the rights of the poor (e.g. Amos 8:4-7) and by the psalmists who
proclaim God‟s concern for the poor (e.g. Ps 9:19-21; 9,38-39[10:17-18]).
    Secondly, given such a basic characteristic of YHWH, the God-fearing
Israelite imitates God in His concern that justice be done to the poor and that
good care be taken of them (e.g. Ps 40[41],2; Job 29:11-17; 31:16-22; Sir
    Thirdly, the God-fearing Israelite at the same time cherishes abundant
riches as a gift from God, as a sharing in God‟s bounty, and as a reward for
his/her virtuous life (e.g. Ps 111[112],1-3).
    Fourthly, the converse of the God-fearing Israelite‟s appreciation of
material abundance is his/her conviction (noted above) that, at least
sometimes, being poor is the result of laziness or prodigality or outright
wickedness (Job 36:8; Prov 6:6-11=24:30-34; 10:15; 14:23; 21:17; 23:21;
28:19; Sir 18:33-19,1).
    Fifthly, the God-fearing Israelite is aware that the latter conviction, if
generalized, would clash with the facts of history. How many times he/she
finds him/herself poor and weak (e.g. Ps 39[40]:18; 69[70]:6; 85[86]:1) and
confronted by wicked people who are rich and powerful (e.g. Ps 72[73]:2-9;
Jer 12:1-3)!
    Sixthly, at the heart of this historical experience of conflict between the
godly poor and the wicked rich there takes place the crucial intervention of

     Ptwco,j: LXX 6, NT 4; pe,nhj: LXX 3; tapeino,j: LXX 4, NT 3.

God. In this conflict, God does not remain impartial. As in the time of the
Exodus, God chooses to side with the godly poor. This divine choice is
proclaimed by the prophets (Isa 29:17-21; 49:13; 66:2; Zeph 2:3; 3:11-13)
and is celebrated by the psalmists (Ps 21[22]:27; 33[34]: 3.7; 36[37]:10-11;
68[69]:33-34; 149:4).
   Seventhly, the way God‟s option for the poor is expressed by prophets
and psalmists is worth pondering upon. When speaking of certain kinds of
poverty (as revealed in human deficiencies like blindness, deafness, hunger,
etc.), they clearly speak of a “reversal” that gives light to the blind, hearing
to the deaf, and food to the hungry (Isa 29:18; Ps 21[22]:27; 33[34]:7;
36[37]: 10-11). This way of speaking reminds one of the “reversal” by
which the poor become rich and the rich poor, as proclaimed in the Canticle
of Hannah (1Sam 2:4-8)12.
   Eighthly, sometimes the prophets and psalmists appear, instead, to
predicate joy and peace to the poor as they are (Ps 68[69]: 33-34; Isa 29:19).
In Zeph 2:3; 3:11-13; and Isa 66:2, God‟s word addressed to the humble and
poor of the earth even seems to confirm them in their present state. It would
seem that God‟s side-taking with the poor endows poverty with such value
that the poor, far from having to be delivered from their poverty, are instead
to be confirmed in it. God‟s closeness to the poor and distance from the rich
operates a reversal of values (and not a reversal of economic situation) that
turns the person of the poor into a blessed person, because “God is with you”
and not with the rich. God‟s “being-with” is what really matters, after all,
providing human beings with all they really need13. Still, why should God
sometimes deliver people from poverty and sometimes confirm people in it?
   Ninthly, the double way with which God deals with poverty obliges us to
distinguish two kinds of poverty: a) Inhuman poverty, i.e. dehumanizing
poverty (better called: indigence, i.e. the lack of essentials)14 from which
God wants to deliver the poor; b) Human poverty, i.e. humanizing poverty15,
in which God wants to confirm the poor.
   Tenthly, how can poverty be humanizing? What kind of poverty is such a
good as to demand confirmation in it? The answer to this question is
   The Canticle of Hannah is taken up in the NT by the Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:51-53), but with a shift in
emphasis, as we will see.
   This is the meaning of the “reversal” in the Canticle of Mary. See R. CANTALAMESSA, The Mystery of
Christmas. A Comment on the Magnificat, Gloria, Nunc Dimittis, Slough: St. Paul Publications 1988, 11-31.
   Indigence, rather than poverty, corresponds to the definition of “poverty” given by the World Bank
(1990): Poverty is “the inability to attain a minimal standard of living”. See P. TOWNSEND, “Poverty and
Human Rights: Multi-dimensional Measurement” (Paper presented first in August 2005 at an International
Conference in Brasilia, later also in Hong Kong), 4.
   This kind of poverty is called humanizing in the sense that it positively builds up not only the poor
person itself but also others as well. For the latter aspect see 2Cor 6:10.

incipiently given in the Wisdom texts that praise the poor who know how to
live a godly, wise, healthy, and frugal life (Prov 19:22 28:6; Sir 10:22.30;
29:22; 30:14). In these texts, the ideal life is seen as contentedness with
essentials and generous sharing of the surplus, if any, with the indigent. For
a more complete answer to the above questions, however, we must turn to
the New Testament.

        2. Two Fundamental NT Steps towards Evangelical Poverty

    In the New Testament the divine intervention on behalf of the poor,
already proclaimed by the OT prophets and celebrated by the OT psalmists,
assumes a supreme intensity with the gracious coming, in poverty, of Jesus
Christ, “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), the “Emmanuel, God-with-
us” (Matt 1:23). In what follows, though the term ptwco,j and synonyms do
not necessarily appear, the reality they express is always present.
    The first fundamental NT step is precisely the advent of a poor of
YHWH16, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High, the Emmanuel God-with-
us who chooses to be born “in a manger, because there was no place for
them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). His parents offer for him the poor people‟s
sacrifice: “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24; cf. Lev
12:2-8). His Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitude of the Poor:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”
(Matt 5:3; in the version of Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is
the Kingdom of God”)17.
    During his public life, his lifestyle is that of the utterly poor, who have to
depend on the sharing of others: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have
nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20=Luke
9:58). The same life-style He demands of his messengers: “Take no gold,
nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics,
nor sandals, nor a staff; for the labourer deserves his food” (Matt 10:9-
10=Mark 6:8-9=Luke 9:3). This life-style is a public sign of confidence in
the unfailing care of the heavenly Father who takes care of the birds of the
air and of the lilies of the field (cf. Matt 6:25-34).
    The same confidence, signified by poverty, is demanded also of all those
who intend to follow Him: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you

  See A. GELIN, The Poor of Yahweh, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press 1964, 75-90.
  Matt‟s formulation is not essentially different from that of Luke 6:20. Cf. W.D. DAVIES – D.C. ALLISON,
A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, The International
Critical Commentary, I, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark 1988, 443: “the religious meaning of „poor‟ does not
exclude the economic meaning […]. Rather do the two go together”.

possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come,
follow me” (Matt 19:21=Mark 10:21). That this is not an elite requirement,
issued only to the rich young man, but a requirement valid for all His
followers, Jesus explicitly states in the Gospel according to Luke: “So
therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my
disciple” (Luke 14:33).
    The example of Jesus shows that these demands do not mean that one
should not satisfy one‟s basic needs. Basic needs should be satisfied by
generous mutual sharing. If Jesus has nowhere to lay His head, still He is
followed by some women “who provided for him out of their means” (Luke
8:3). Moreover, the manner of renouncing one‟s possession can take
different forms: total open renunciation (e.g. Matt 19:27-29=Mark 10:28-30),
partial open renunciation (Acts 4:34-3) 18 , a style of administration of
personal property characterized by solidarity, and so by justice (e.g. Luke
19:8; John 13:29), etc.
    When announcing the Last Judgment, Jesus, the Son of God and Son of
man, identifies in a most special way with people afflicted by dehumanizing
poverty: “I was hungry and you gave me food… Truly, I say to you, as you
did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt
    The second fundamental NT step is how the community of Jesus‟
followers responds to the un-heard of mystery of the Incarnation of the Son
of God and his identification with the poor in poverty.
    One early expression of this mystery is couched in terms of poverty and
richness: “our Lord Jesus Christ, […] though he was rich, yet for your sake
he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2Cor 8:9)20.
    The earliest Christian community organizes itself on the basis of Jesus‟
public life-style: contentedness with essentials, sharing the surplus with the
needy, and receiving from the brethren‟s surplus when in need: “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); “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart
and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his

   For the probable partial character of this renunciation see J.A. FITZMYER, The Acts of the Apostles. A
New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible 31, New York – London –
Toronto – Sydney – Auckland: Doubleday 1998, 312-314.
   For “the least of these my brethren” as meaning the poor in general see L. SABOURIN, L’Évangile selon
Saint Matthieu et ses principaux parallèles, Roma: Biblical Institute Press 1978, 330-332.
   While Jesus‟ impoverishment primarily refers here to his self-emptying in the Incarnation, an at least
implicit reference to his poor style of life should not be excluded. See C.K. BARRETT, The Second Epistle
to the Corinthians, Black‟s New Testament Commentaries, London: A & C Black 1973, 223.

own, but they had everything in common. 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 4:32-35).
   This is true not only of the Mother Church in Jerusalem, but also of the
new Churches born of the evangelizing endeavours of the Apostles. St. Paul
writes to his Corinthian Christians, encouraging them to support
economically the indigent: “I do not mean that others should be eased and
you burdened, but 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. As it is written, „He who had gathered much had
nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack‟” (2Cor 8:13-15; cf.
9:8-10)21. For Paul, the OT quotation from Exod 16:18 means that “in the
church [we would add: and in the world] as in Israel there should be an equal
sharing of resources”22. Of course, all this cannot be done under duress, but
spontaneously, from the heart: “Each one must do as he has made up his
mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”
(2Cor 9:7).
   Writing to his disciple Timothy, St. Paul encourages him to “teach and
urge” (1Tim 6:2) this same ideal: “There is great gain in godliness with
contentment (auvta,rkeia)23: for we brought nothing into the world, and we
cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with
these we shall be content” (1Tim 6:6-8). As for the rich in this world,
Timothy is to charge them “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on
uncertain riches but on God […]. They are to do good, to be rich in good
deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation
for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed”
(1Tim 6:18-19)24.
   Before demanding sharing from others, Paul lives out its preconditions in
his own life, as he tells us in Phil 4:11-13: “Not that I complain of want; or I

   “Paul means that there is, or ought to be, equality of supply (verses 13 f.) because the more fortunate give
away their surplus, and the less fortunate receive it” (C.K. BARRETT, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians,
Black‟s New Testament Commentaries, London: A & C Black 1973, 227). “It is the ideal of Christian
partnership (koinōnia) as that is presented, for example, in Acts 2:44-45 […]” (V.P. FURNISH, II
Corinthians, The Anchor Bible 32A, New York – London – Toronto – Sydney – Auckland: Doubleday
1984, 419).
   Thus V.P. FURNISH, II Corinthians, 420.
   Regarding “contentment”, see Phil 4:11-13; Matt 6:34; Luke 3:14 and G. KITTEL, , avrke,w, avrketo,j,
auvta,rkeia, auvta,rkhj, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, I, 464-467. Sir 5:1 warns against a
wrong understanding of auvta,rkeia.
   Again, this is an echo of the koinwni,a in Acts 2-4. See J.D. QUINN & W.C. WACKER, The First and
Second Letters to Timothy, Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans 2000, 554.

have learnt, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased,
and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learnt the
secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things
in him who strengthens me”25.
    The Letter to the Hebrews in its conclusion urges the same ideal of
evangelical self-contentedness: “Keep your life free from love of money,
and be content with what you have; for he has said, „I will never fail you nor
forsake you‟” (Heb 13:5)26.
    In the NT, this kind of “common poverty” so that none need be indigent
is not so much a sociological strategy, as an experience of the heart that
finds its source in unconditional reliance on God. The poverty of the Son of
God, His universal call to evangelical poverty, His identification with the
poor, and the consequent life-style of the Christian community draw
exclamations of wonder from NT writers. St. Paul says: “For consider your
call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards,
not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what
is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the
world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world,
even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human
being might boast in the presence of God” (1Cor 1:26-29). St. James says:
“Listen, my beloved brethren. 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?” (Jas 2:5). St. James also stresses that the Christian
mystery entails the exaltation of the poor and the abasement of the rich: “Let
the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation” (Jas
    It may not be perfectly to the point, then, to comment some of these NT
words as follows: “Jesus did not glorify poverty; rather, He lifted up the
poor”28. A linguistic phenomenon that bears witness to the rehabilitation of

   “Paul has the right attitude to both [want and abundance] so that even when he has more than enough for
his needs he does not succumb to the temptation of finding his satisfaction in such material abundance”
(P.T. O‟BRIEN, The Epistle to the Philippians. A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Eeerdmans 1991, 524-525).
   The problem with the love of money is that it “can keep Christians from helping their fellow-men who
are in need” (W.L. LANE, Hebrews 9-13, Word Biblical Commentary 47B, Dallas Texas, Word Books
1991, 518).
   The exaltation derives from God‟s choice of the poor. See P.H. DAVIDS, The Epistle of James. A
Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans 1982, 76.
   A.D. VERHEY, “Poverty”, in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, III, 924. The same
reservation should be made about what is said in E. BAMMEL – F. HAUCK, ptwco,j, ptwcei,a, ptwceu,ein, in
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VI, 902-903: “In Mk. 10:17ff. the life of the poor is

the reality of poverty itself in the NT is this: throughout the NT the word
ptwco,j is overwhelmingly used to refer to someone to whom loving care
and respect is due, or given, by people at large and by Jesus himself. In the
NT, the only neutral use of the word ptwco,j would seem to be Rev 13:16,
and the only NT negative uses are in symbolic contexts (Gal 4:9; Rev 3:17).
That is, the connotation of ptwco,j in the NT has become basically positive,
so that this word cannot be used in purely negative contexts. For example,
the clause quoted above in Acts 4:34 (“There was not a needy person among
them”) uses the word evndeh,j, not the word ptwco,j. It says: “There was not
a needy person among them”; it does not say: “There was not a poor person
among them”. Luke avoids using the word ptwco,j in a negative context.
Being poor is no longer a bad thing; it is basically a good thing. The same
word evndeh,j is used in Deut 15:4 to express God‟s will for the community
of Israel: no one must be needy within it. In Deut 15:11 the same word is
used to point to the fact that this will of God, dependent on Israel‟s free
obedience, will never be fully realized. The latter point is made also by Jesus,
but using the word ptwco,j, in Matt 26:11: “”For you always have the poor
with you” (=Mark14:7=John 12:8). Accepting this point may help Christian
liberation theologies avoid excessive claims 29 . It may also help us avoid
claiming, in contemporary speech, that we should or could “eliminate”,
“destroy” poverty. What should be destroyed is “indigence”, not “poverty”.
    After walking these two short NT steps, we may conclude that
humanizing poverty consists either a) in contentedness with the possession
of bare essentials and the voluntary lack of superfluous things; or b) in the
possession of essential and superfluous goods but in such a way that one
knows oneself to be the rightful possessor only of the essential goods; as for
the superfluous goods, these are seen not as one‟s property, but as goods
given in trust by God so that one may administer them (cf. 2Cor 8:20) in
favor of the poor who are afflicted by dehumanizing poverty, i.e. by the lack
of essential goods 30 . The sharing of a brother blessed with humanizing
poverty delivers another brother suffering from dehumanizing poverty. Here,
in a nutshell, we have the Gospel‟s remedy for the economic ills of every
age. If, for a person or for a community, the b) type of poverty is totally out

commended to the landowner; he is summoned to distribute all his possessions to the ptwcoi,. It would not
seem, however, that the author has any intention of exalting the poor as such or in principle”.
   See G.V. PIXLEY – CLODOVIS BOFF, The Bible, The Church, and the Poor, Tr. P. Burns: Maryknoll, New
York: Orbis Books 1989, 121-122.
   This is ultimately the only valid use of wealth: “[T]here is need to see fiduciary and trust arrangements
not as mere opportunities for personal gain, or the stock market as a rich man‟s lotto, but to see wealth as a
community-trust to benefit all” (D.E. OAKMAN, “The Radical Jesus: You Cannot Serve God and Mammon”,
BTS 34, 128).

of sight, then one will have to put up with the horrific sight of rich people
unconcerned with the plight of the needy.

        3. Conclusion

    Humanizing poverty (i.e. contentedness with essentials and generous
sharing) is a Gospel ideal that, I believe, needs to be presented to
contemporary humankind in all its attractiveness. If necessary, we may
make some adjustments in the terminology used. For example, instead of
speaking of “humanizing poverty”, we may speak of life styles characterized
by “simplicity and solidarity”, by “frugality and generosity”. Whatever form
of language we use, the important thing is that the ideal may shine forth in
all its brightness. If this is done, a wide resonance will be aroused, even
beyond the boundaries of Christian faith and culture31. Throughout human
history and throughout the world there have never been lacking people
drawn to the ideal of “humanizing poverty”, i.e. of a life-style characterized
by simplicity, frugality, contentedness, and loving solidarity with the needy.
In Chinese culture, this ideal is beautifully expressed by the four-character
idiom: An Pin Le Dao (            ). In the Chinese Zen tradition, the Holy Rule
of Pai-chang (             ) with its “universal duty of working in the fields”
(         ) and the five “pure rules”32 (         ) bears witness to the value of
humanizing poverty. That this ideal is valid even today was borne out, I
believe, in the remarkably simple and frugal personal life of the late great
Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Tang Shiu Kin (                   ).
    In the tradition of the Salesian Society of St. John Bosco (1815-1888), of
which I am a member, I recall the splendid example of Don Bosco‟s mother,
popularly called Mamma Margaret (1788-1856). When her son was
considering what vocation to follow in his life, Mamma Margaret went to
see him and told him: “My son, don‟t worry about me. I ask nothing of you,
and I expect nothing from you. Remember this: I was born poor, I have lived
poor, and I want to die poor. What is more, I want to make this very clear to
you: if you decide to become a secular priest and should unfortunately
become rich, I will never pay you a single visit! Remember that well!”33. For
this peasant woman, humanizing poverty was certainly a very high value!
   While the motivations of evangelical poverty in the NT are specifically Christian, the ideal of self-
contentedness is, for example, a “commonplace of traditional Greek morality” (H.W. ATTRIDGE, The
Epistle to the Hebrews. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia, Philadelphia: Fortress
Press 1989, 388 with note 62).
   JOHN C.H. WU, The Golden Age of Zen, Taipei: United Publishing Center 1975, 109-110.
   G.B. LEMOYNE, The Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco, An American Edition Translated from
the Original Italian, ed. D. Borgatello, I, New Rochelle, NY: Salesiana Publishers 1965, 221-222.

    Even though we live in an era that has seen the demise of all utopias, we
should not hesitate to present to the world the utopia of evangelical poverty.
In the distinction between two kinds of poverty and in the active promotion
of the second kind lies the evangelical utopia of a true economic equality
between persons and peoples. When all human beings freely accept to be
poor in the sense of humanizing poverty whether of the a) or b) types, then
there will be no more human beings afflicted by inhuman, man-degrading,
dehumanizing poverty. Past excesses in remote and recent history (I am
thinking of the Peasant Wars in Europe, of the Taiping Tianguo and the
Cultural Revolution in China), should not make us lose faith in the ideal of
evangelical poverty. These excesses were based on compulsion and
submission, not on persuasion and conviction.
    Since, however, people can only be invited, not compelled, to accept
humanizing poverty, we must accept the fact that this evangelical utopia will
fully become a reality only in the “new heavens and a new earth in which
righteousness dwells” (2Pet 3:13). Suppose, however, that all human beings
freely accept humanizing poverty, would it then mean that Jesus‟ words
spoken shortly before his death (“You always have the poor with you”, Matt
26:11=Mark 14:7=John 12:8) are no longer true? My answer is: No, these
words of Jesus will be always true. Were all people to accept freely the call
to humanizing poverty, these words would be as true as ever, but in an
unexpected new sense. That is, the “inhumanly” poor would be blessed by
God by being liberated from the evil of inhuman poverty and introduced into
the good of humanizing poverty, while the “humanly” poor would be
blessed by God by being confirmed in that humanizing poverty that alone
bestows enduring spiritual freedom, joy, and peace.

   Summary (= First paragraph)

       In this article I intend to point out an interesting shift in the way the
Christian Bible (Greek-Hebrew OT + Greek NT) treats the perennial reality
of poverty. Given the fact that God consistently takes the side of the poor,
the very concept of poverty undergoes a transformation. A split in its
connotation takes place. One is compelled to distinguish two kinds of
poverty: on the one hand, “inhuman poverty” or “dehumanizing poverty”,
detested by God and the godly Israelite; on the other hand, “human poverty”
or “humanizing poverty”, beloved of God and the godly Israelite. This is an
important distinction to make because the reality of “humanizing poverty”
would seem to be the only way to narrow the ever-widening gap between the
extravagantly rich and the destitute poor.

   Fr. Lanfranco M. Fedrigotti is a Catholic priest and a Salesian of Don
Bosco who teaches Sacred Scripture in Hong Kong at the Salesian House of
Studies, at the Holy Spirit Seminary College, and at the Hong Kong Catholic
Biblical Institute.

   Summary for Editor‟s Introduction

   In his article, entitled “Inhuman and Human Poverty: From Poverty as
Indigence to Poverty as Self-contentedness and Sharing” and subtitled “The
Semantic Complexity of Ptwco,j and Synonyms in the Christian Bible”, Fr.
Lanfranco M. Fedrigotti S.D.B. points to an interesting shift in the way Holy
Scripture treats the perennial reality of poverty. Given the fact that God
consistently takes the side of the poor, the very concept of poverty
undergoes a transformation. A split in its connotation takes place. One is
compelled to distinguish two kinds of poverty: on the one hand, “inhuman
poverty” or “dehumanizing poverty”, detested by God and the godly Israelite;
on the other hand, “human poverty” or “humanizing poverty”, beloved of
God and the godly Israelite. This seems to be an important distinction and
one that is of great contemporary relevance. In fact, the reality of
“humanizing poverty” would seem to be the best (if not the only) way
available to us today to narrow the ever-widening gap between the
extravagantly rich and the destitute poor.


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