In these discussions of social justice and feeding the poor, let’s state again that as Christians we must put away our political agendas and find out what the scriptures say about the poor and our obligations to them. We are not talking about or complaining about what the government is doing or not doing and how they are going about it-that is not relevant to this conversation of the kingdom, our Christian worldview and Christian ethic. That said, Republicans and/or Democrats do not own “social justice” and even if political parties are entering into discussions and painting it one way or another, it does not define it for Christianity. Therefore, let’s speak in terms of the kingdom of God and what it means to be a part of it.
In my last article, Repulsed by the Poor, we discussed some responses to the poor by other countries and even some responses of disgust from Americans. Then we examined what scripture says and specifically what Jesus said about feeding the poor and more importantly, what he says to those who don’t (Read Matthew 25:31-46).
But is there a stopping point? Do we feed all the poor or is there a limit? When discussing the poor someone always inevitably asks me about those who abuse the system, about those who take advantage, and about those who simply don’t want to work. So…
Where is the Line?
Let me first say that as Christians we need to be able to disagree on some points. As to feeding the poor, there is no room for disagreement. Jesus says to those who don’t, “Depart from me.” Mt. 25:41. There is no other interpretation, there is no mistake, and there simply is no room in the kingdom for thinking otherwise. Helping the poor is a unifying principal of the kingdom of God and is part of the faith of Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Nazarenes, Calvinists, and Methodists and more.
But as to the line, if there is one, there is room to disagree—together.
Is there a line?
Do we feed the poor no matter the circumstances, no matter how many times they are in line, no matter if they won’t work? Let’s look at the possibility of a line, fuzzy as it may be.
First line to consider: Are we to provide social justice only within the church or the brotherhood of the faith? Deuteronomy says not to close your hand to a brother in need15:7,11 (Emphasis mine).
James also speaks about giving to a brother or sister in need, (James 2:15, 16) and John says God has no love for a person who does not share with a brother or sister in need. 1 John 3:17. Yet, Zechariah says, specifically, not to oppress the poor and the alien. 7:10. The alien is a foreigner, outside of Israel, and possibly outside the faith and we are told not to oppress them. In Leviticus, God specifically directs harvesters to leave a little of their harvest behind for the poor and the alien. And many other verses advocate for the poor without ever saying not to give to the poor simply because they are not from within the church or Israel.
Look at the Good Samaritan. The man who is need, who was beaten, stripped naked and left for dead-is he a brother of the faith? Is he Jewish or of the church? There is no way to tell, his identifying clothes are gone and he cannot talk. Yet, the Good Samaritan provides rescue.
Jesus provided salvation for all, not just for the Jew. Healing was available for everyone, no consideration was made by him for those who were Jewish, faithful, or not. Think about the story of the healing of the ten lepers. Only one returned. Was only one a believer? Yet, healing was provided for all ten.
Finally, in Mark 7:24ff a Gentile woman approaches Jesus and asks for the demon to be cast out of her daughter. Jesus replies and says that the children, meaning Israel, need to be fed first, and the woman says that even the dogs eat the crumbs. Jesus does not withhold from the woman the miracle she sought.
In conclusion, we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and help the poor without a qualification that they be of the faith. Often, it is through extending a hand of help that those who don’t know Jesus, see Jesus in your kindness and compassion and they come to receive him.
I know of just such an instance. A woman, the mother of a pastor friend of mine in Bolivia was robbed. She had never wanted to attend her son’s services and never had anything good to say about Christians, but after the robbery, the church took up an offering for her and presented it to her. She was so moved that she received Jesus as her savior and she has been faithful to follow him and is present at every church service lifting her hands in praise.
“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Proverbs 29:7
Line #2: What about the poor who are poor of their own fault; do we have to help them?
Before we begin reading the scriptures to see if there is a line, let’s make a distinction between the poor and the poor of their own fault. It is true that there are many who are poor because they simply make no effort to be anything else, but there are also many who are poor without choice, and though you may think you can determine the difference, tread lightly.
I have often been confronted with those who say to me, “If they want an education they should get one.” “If they want a better job they should get an education.” “Poor people simply need to work harder.” As a lawyer for equal justice for the poor for fifteen years, I worked with many people who had IQs of 70-80. Some of my clients couldn’t drive because they never could pass the test. To “do better” isn’t a matter of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and often they worked harder than most to simply make ends meet.
One of my clients had a baby and walked from her apartment to the daycare a half mile away, pushing her baby in a stroller. Then, she walked to work at Wendy’s where she worked her 8 hour shift for minimum wage, went and picked up her child and returned home. Her child was well taken care of and by the way, the baby was deaf. She was literally doing everything she could and working harder at it than most people ever would. Yet, because she was poor and barely existing she also struggled with the Department of Human Services who threatened to take her child away from her. I am proud to say she was my client, she kept her child and for years she sent me updates of his well-being, although she continued to live a hand to mouth existence.
There are many individuals who are at extreme disadvantage because of low IQs, the poorest of educations, social inequities, and unjust situations. I do not have the space to talk about all of those that I know and have experience with, and sometimes was honored to represent. It is outside the scope of this article, but there are many poor, clinging to the edge of poverty, working harder and struggling more than others, just to eat. Ok, stepping down off the soapbox.
Now what about those who are poor of their own fault?
Here, I am talking about those who put themselves into situations that caused their poverty. For instance, drug abuse, alcoholism, or even leaving a job before finding another. When we return to the story of the Good Samaritan, the beaten man put himself in the situation in a manner of speaking. He walked a road that was known to be full of thieves. It was his choice and Jesus does not tell us why. Therefore, it wasn’t important. Jesus helped the man without regard to how he arrived at the situation, without comment about who was at fault.
Similarly, Jesus was approached by a group of men about to stone a woman caught in adultery. The woman broke the law. There is no indication that she was raped, she consented. In other words, one might say she brought the consequences on herself. But as Jesus reminded all those ready to stone her, they too had sin, and so no one remained to condemn her. And neither did Jesus.
Lesson to learn: Let us remove the plank out of our own eye before we seek to remove the speck from someone else’s—be careful whom you judge.
To drive this point home, I want to tell you a story about a woman in Bolivia. Her husband beat her and abused her in horrendous ways. He finally left her, but she had no education and no job. She had no way to feed her children and as a last resort, she turned to prostitution. I would like to say that she turned to the church, but she didn’t have the opportunity. Now, she wants to be a Christian, she wants to follow Christ, but she can’t find a way to support herself and her kids. And the church won’t help her—because she is a prostitute. Do you see the problem?
Fortunately, there is a Christian ministry that is helping her and even teaching her a skill so that she can have some way of making money other than prostitution.
Conclusion: There is no biblical evidence to suggest that we don’t help the poor that through their own actions brought the poverty on themselves. We are simply not to judge. I am happy for that, because let’s face it, who has not made a mistake sometime in our life?
Line #3: Do we help those who don’t help themselves and won’t work?
“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” 2 Thess. 2:10. Paul says to avoid those who are idle and lazy. These are very direct instructions, but apply only to those who won’t work, not those who are unable. This is a specific class of poor person and I don’t think we need to say anything more, except to that specific class of poor it is proper not to help. To some, this might sound harsh, but consider this. If a person doesn’t work and relies on you to feed them, they are not relying on God, and they are not doing what God wants them to do.
As a missionary, we often go through a struggle similar to this. When we plant a new church by bringing together believers who want to follow Christ, they will often want to build a building to hold meetings. That is understandable, but missiology suggests that problems arise when Christians begin to rely on the missionaries instead of themselves and God. If we build a church, then the next village expects the same thing and the first village will then ask for something else. The idea is to plant churches that are self-reliant, self-propagating, and self-governing or more specifically God reliant, God propagating and God governing. Relying on the missionary is not relying on God or their own community.
There are other kinds of restrictions laid out by Paul in scripture. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul lays out some restrictions for the care of widows. “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents.” He goes on to say that Christians must provide for their own relatives or he has denied the faith. The restrictions are more detailed, but the point is that there are restrictions to the care to be shown to a widow and those restrictions are made to allow God to work through family members instead of a service of the church.
Finally, we could apply the parable of the talents of Matthew 25:14-30. God gave talents (money) to each of three men, and two men used them, but the third man who received the least didn’t use it, but buried it. The master called him lazy and cast him away. So, it may be appropriate, at times, to say that is enough.
But let us use great care. Here is a suggestion: If the poor, known to you to refuse to work, comes for help, offer them work for food or work for clothing. If they refuse, it is their decision, and if they work it may well set them on a path of working to serve God, self-reliance and self-esteem.
Last word: Our relationship with our God is …well…a relationship. There are no formulas in relationship. When confronted with decisions about helping or not, ASK GOD.
Look for the next article: The Guys on the Side of the Road to Those Knocking on the Church—A Guide to How to Help the Poor, Hungry and Naked.
Remember: Whoever shuts his ears to the cries of the poor will also cry out and not be answered. Proverbs 21:13
All scriptures from the ESV unless otherwise noted.