The Power of Labels: Proverbs 14.31

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I was recently asked to do a devotional at a local, Christian, non-profit organization.  I jumped at the opportunity because I really believe in the work that this group does (justice-focused ministries for folks in my very neighborhood) and because I always love sharing from the Bible with people.

But as I started thinking and praying about what I wanted to talk about I started hitting a brick wall.  What can or should I say to a group of believers who care deeply and passionately about the tangible good news of the kingdom of God?  Should I do a cheerleader kind of devotional which will pat them all on their proverbial backs?  Should I challenge them to give more deeply to the cause of the gospel?  Or should I approach this all a bit differently?

I chose the latter — I chose to look at a biblical picture of how we are to interact with those who are oppressed, those who are in need.  I was hoping that this would be powerful for two reasons: 1) That it would give them some Scriptural validation for the work that they do; and 2) That they would in fact be challenged by the witness of the Bible with regard to those who are impoverished.

While there are hundreds and hundreds of verses about poverty, those who are in need, and God’s opinion toward those who are oppressed, some verses are more powerful to me than others.  As I was trying to decide which of these verses to select, I went over to World Vision’s website and read through some of the verses regarding poverty that they highlight there.

Proverbs 14.31 stood out.  Here it is: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

The very first thing that ran through my head when I read this verse anew was how it connected with Matthew 25.37-40.  There, as in Proverbs 14, the way that the oppressed are treated reflects back on God himself.  To put it differently, those who are poor and God are specially connected.  In fact, I think that we can safely say that when we look into the lives of those who are in need we catch a glimpse of God’s character that we can’t see elsewhere.  And we can say with great confidence that God cares deeply about how those who are impoverished are treated.

As I was unpacking these ideas with the group at the non-profit most of the non-verbal feedback I got was positive.  I felt that I had taken the correct approach.  So I continued talking as I had planned.  I used the language of the text in Proverbs 14 as I talked, namely “poor” and “needy,” and didn’t think twice about it.

Then after I finished my devotional one of the members of the team, whom I greatly respect and I count as a true ally in the work of the kingdom, noted that he didn’t like the word “poor” all that much, even though the Bible uses it a bunch.  After he said this, many others agreed heartily!  They pointed out, rightly so, that the words “poor” and “needy” are judgmental, or at least they can be percieved to be so.  For some people being labeled as “poor” or “needy” brings with it shame and/or frustration.

Some of the preferred words that were shared with me were “vulnerable,” “marginalized,” and “underprivileged.”  I’m happy with all of these terms because they do tend to be less judgmental.

However, the text in Proverbs 14 might help here a bit.  The Hebrew word, dal, that the NIV renders “poor,” is an evocative word.  It means “one who is low” or “one who is thin.”  When applied in different contexts, this word can be translated as “weak” or “poor.”  The implication seems to be that the pressures of life, injustice, and oppression can press people down and squeeze them.

When I shared this lexical information with the folks who worked at the non-profit they seemed excited about it!  They were all aware, either personally or through those whom they served, that lots and lots of people in our world are “squeezed” beyond belief.

The word in the second half of the verse, which in Hebrew is ebyon, is different.  It is more clearly to be understood as “one who is in material need,” i.e., it really does mean “poor” as in “doesn’t have much money or many possessions.”  Sometimes, of course, the context of a passage may lead one to translate ebyon as “oppressed” but that is natural enough: all throughout history those who don’t have much have been taken advantage of by others.

However, because the two words are presented as synonyms in tandem, the more specific word, elyon, controls the meaning of the less specific word, dal.  Thus, both words do have a material context.  Both have to do with folks who are in need financially.  However, it would be wise of us to use words that are less shame- and frustration-inducing.  Perhaps instead of using “poor” we can use “dejected.”  And instead of “needy” we can use “person in need.”

Lastly, how does the text encourage us to interact with the dejected and those in need?  The NIV says that we are “to be kind” to them.  This translation isn’t all that good in my opinion.  The basic meaning of this word, hanan in Hebrew, is to show favor or grace.  In other words, God’s word is calling us to yearn toward the poor, to extend to them tangible expressions of the love and mercy God has shown to us.  And one simple way we can show grace toward those who are poor is to use the least offensive words to describe them as possible.

The labels we use are important, especially when they are used of people.  It’s well past time that we used more discretion when applying labels to human beings!