I frequently read through online sites that offer examples of rabbinic storytelling. I recently came across a tale entitled Half Way to Ending Poverty as retold by Doug Lipman.
“Rabbi Naftali of Ropchitz was known for his persistence–and for his wit. One day, he remained in the synagogue an entire morning, praying that the rich would give more of their money to the poor. When he returned home, his wife asked him, “Were you successful with your prayer?” Rabbi Naftali answered with a smile, “I am half-way there!” His wife looked puzzled. “Oh, yes” he assured her. “The poor have agreed to accept!” (source: http://www.hasidicstories.com)
What struck me about the story was not any great insight into social justice. Instead there was a sense of futility of any expectation of an altruistic spirit by the “haves” to provide for all the “have nots.” Okay, there are some great philanthropists out there, Bill Gates and the like. But even these do not really dent the poverty gap.
The early church was remarkable in their compassion and selfless giving within the brotherhood. Acts 4:32-35 reads, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need (emphasis mine).”
This small “c” communism though, was not sufficient to end poverty altogether. Nor did it make everyone even “well to do.” It made it so everyone in the fellowship had enough, no more – no less, however. It is only a chapter later that the greed (whether for wealth or for praise) slips in with Ananias and Sapphira. They held back, which was not the sin in itself, but the lie was. I have written about the attitude of wealth in the past (see post of the rich man and Lazarus). But, are we any better? Most of us using this forum will be comfortable materially. Those in Europe or North America will statistically be among the most well off in the world. I am not saying we are all, “the haves, or have yachts”, but we are better off than the super poor of some other areas of the world.
It is here interesting to note Jesus’ words, “The poor will always be with you (Mark 14:7, Matthew 26:11).” Yes they are still here 2000 years on. It is the second part of Jesus’ statement that resonates, however. “But you will not always have Me.” Material wealth wasn’t the issue. There was something more valuable on offer.
This is seen in part in Acts 3:1-16, “Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple; Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms. And Peter, fastening his eyes upon him with John, said, Look on us. And he gave heed unto them, expecting to receive something of them. Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God: And they knew that it was he which sat for alms at the Beautiful gate of the temple: and they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him. And as the lame man which was healed held Peter and John, all the people ran together unto them in the porch that is called Solomon’s, greatly wondering. And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses. And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.“
The power of Jesus was manifest. Not only in the healing, but in the following faith and praise. Yes, while on this earth the poor may be ever present. But even if the material wealth is not provided, spiritual well being is available to all.
No, I am not saying we have no obligation to aid those in physical need. The example of the early church cited above gives us a model and an example. But even as we share our relative wealth, we have an even greater treasure to share which is inexhaustible – the love of God, and the word of the Gospel.
And I pray (in all earnestness) that those who are “spiritually impoverished” will, like Rabbi Naftali’s poor, “agree to accept!”