A road less travelled: self-imposed economic demotion

by Dr Stephen Spence

The Apostle Paul demonstrates that followers of Jesus live below their means as part of their gospel commitment to the needs of the poor.

This is the argument of Bruce Longenecker in his 2010 book, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Eerdmans). In this comprehensive book Longenecker takes issue with the traditional view that sees Jesus as concerned with the poor and Paul as concerned with how we escape Sin and Death. Longenecker demonstrates that this misreading of Paul is caused by a number of false assumptions and inadequate attention to the Jewishness of the early Christian movement. (No-one can read Moses and the Prophets and not be aware of God’s concern for the poor; Jesus makes this point dramatically inescapable in his parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” Luke 16.) Longenecker concludes, “care for the indigenous poor with the Greco-Roman world lay at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the ‘good news’ of the early Jesus-movement (although that good news is not in any way reducible simply to care for the poor)” (p.12).

What has stuck me so far in my reading of Longenecker is the persuasive argument that Paul’s Roman citizenship, education level, and attitude to manual labour indicates that his pre-apostolic life had been lived at an economic and social level best described as “moderate surplus” – a level that places him in the top 20% of society (but outside the top 3% “elites”). However, his letters indicate that Paul choose to live at the lower economic and social level best described as “stable near substance level” (allowing him to usually finance his own ministry) but sometimes dropping into the “subsistence level” – the level just above the very bottom 28% of society.

As far as we can reconstruct, this plunge in Paul’s economic profile was his preferred modus operandi, the result of his own choice, his intentional taking of the road less traveled… It should not be overlooked that, since Paul saw care for the needy as an integral component of the gospel he proclaimed, his self-imposed economic demotion was motivated, partially but nonetheless surely, by a concern to help alleviate the needs of the poor in the Greco-Roman world through the establishment of communities of Jesus-followers across the Mediterranean basin. (p.309)

As a follower of Jesus and a student of Paul I must ask myself, have I made a “self-imposed economic demotion” part of my discipleship? Or have I been content to worship Jesus in song without any change to my economic standing? Am I willing to follow Paul as he follows Jesus on the “road less travelled”?