Who are the poor? The poor and needy are primarily your neighbour ( your fellow human) in most need of your help, who don’t have food and clothing and shelter. We should not define the poor by any other characteristic. Secondarily, the poor or needy are anyone who comes across your path who needs help. This can be a poor family member you know about who needs money for groceries. This can be the person who has been laid off work and needs some help getting a new job. To help these people is to obey the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25). One of the most important themes in the Bible is that of caring for people who are, for whatever reason, struggling and poor. The Old Testament frequently commands caring for the widow, the orphan or “fatherless”, and the foreigner (Isaiah 1:17, Exodus 22:21-24, Deuteronomy 27:19, Psalm 146:9, Exodus 22:22 etc.). The Israelites are constantly called upon to care for them and to defend them when they are wronged. The concern seems to be that people would “pervert justice” with these people, or won’t give them their due because they don’t have the resources to fight back if wronged. In particular, bribery and corruption was a concern (Exodus 23:8, Proverbs 15:27, Amos 5:12, Isaiah 1:23, 1 Samuel 8:3, Isaiah 5:23 etc.) In other words, bribery compromised impartiality, which seems to be the biblical notion of justice. The New Testament in particular makes constant reference to caring for the poor by giving them what they need. Starting with the teaching of John the Baptist, it is a constant theme.
The Judgment of God and Caring for the Poor
In the New Testament, the judgment of God is connected to failing to care for the poor and needy. Famously, in Matthew 25 Jesus says that those who are damned will not have cared for the poor and those who are identified as righteous at the final judgment are those who will have cared for them.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:31
It is important to note that there is no discrimination here based on moral character. Someone who needs help should be helped even if they have been immoral. It is significant that Jesus includes the injunction to care for the imprisoned, the convicts. It doesn’t say to care only for the innocently imprisoned, but just the imprisoned.
John the Baptist called people to repent because the Kingdom of God would be ushered in by Jesus. He also taught that judgment was near and when the crowds asked him what they are to do after he warned of judgment, he told them to care for the poor and not act unjustly.
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”Luke 3:7
John the Baptist’s answer to the crowd’s question is to give moral teaching. So the first injunction is to give to the poor, to give from your excess with your clothing and your food and, then to specific groups of people, not to abuse your professional position for illicit gain. It is interesting that all these injunctions have to do with money, or at least with material possessions. Giving to the poor obviously comes from material possessions. His injunctions to the soldiers and tax collectors likewise has to do with dishonestly or unjustly gaining money for yourself at the expense of others through fraud, extortion and slander. His final injunction is to be content with the money you do receive. Like Jesus, John seemed to realize that so many evils come from the coveting of money and our own experience confirms this. Apparently, the coveting of money ( and sexual relationships) is usually a significant factor in most of the crimes that ordinary people commit, including murder. Family inheritances are known to set relatives and siblings against each other and destroys relationships, so much so that it has become a common premise in movies and novels. When a man asks Jesus to adjudicate a dispute about a family inheritance, Jesus refuses to do it and gives him a warning:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”Luke 12:13
So what is the solution to the coveting of money and possessions? Giving. Jesus declares:
Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.Luke 6:38
Jesus tells the Pharisees that the way to become clean is to give to the poor:
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.Luke 11:37
In Luke 12 Jesus again connects giving to the poor with being in right relationship to the money you do have.
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.Luke 12:33-34
Similarly, after Jesus warns the man who asks him to adjudicate his inheritance claim, he tells the parable of the rich fool, who stored up his surplus gain in barns. But all his saving was for nothing, because God appointed his death right after his work was complete (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus concludes the parable: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God”(Luke 12:21). This is important, because the parable is not communicating that it is wrong to save your money, but that your attitude toward the money you have should always be submitted to the will of God. In the same vein, Jesus teaches that “you cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24), and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). You may have money, but money must not be your “treasure”, it must not be the thing you love, the thing you boast in, the thing you delight in and take pride in. God must inhabit that place to the point that you should be able to give it all away if that is indeed what God requires of you, as he required from the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31). The best cure for greed, if you think you may be greedy, is to give. “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42). We are told in Acts 20:35 that we must help the weak and that Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) and James 1:27 says:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
What is Christian Greatness?
Every human society is to some degree fixated on glamour and spectacle, on the famous, the beautiful, the wealthy, the powerful, the intelligent. Our society certainly qualifies as being preoccupied with these things. But Jesus tells us that greatness does not consist in these things. Rather, what makes you great is whether you serve others, the people around you, and the poor.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Matthew 20:25
This is a great way to temper one’s own covetousness for wealth and recognition, by seeking glory in God’s eyes through service, rather than glory through the world’s eyes.
How do you care for the poor?
The primary way the Bible says to care for the poor is to give them practical things to help them, including money, food, clothing and shelter. That is the only way, as far as I can see, the New Testament says to care for the poor. Isaiah 1:17 mentions some form of advocacy, or “defending” people who have been unjustly treated. But whatever advocacy you engage in, you still have a personal duty to the poor that is communicated in the New Testament. Whatever your opinions about the welfare state or other political programs and public policy decisions related to the poor and the foreigner, we continue to have a personal duty to the poor independent of these opinions and our attempts to persuade people of them. We must make sure that our own efforts are in sync with the biblical emphasis. It is morally dangerous to conflate caring for the poor with certain political concerns or activism. Practically, if we make having pro-welfarist or pro-immigration opinions into the definition of caring for the poor, then eventually people will think themselves exempt from the moral commands in the Bible relating to the poor, because they support the welfare state or unlimited immigration. Similarly, it is common nowadays to connect advocacy for political identity narratives and particular ideologies related to them to a concern for the poor and vulnerable.
I think this should be resisted. The poor are people who struggle to get by. If we start to define the poor as belonging to certain identity groups rather than people who just really are obviously poor, then some of the poor will be neglected as a result of this. In fact, it seems like poverty in general seems to take a back seat in these identitarian discussions. The only relevant characteristic is poverty. The more you allow these other initiatives to be conflated with the biblical injunction to care for the poor, the more the actual poor will be neglected. You may say that people with a certain characteristic are more likely to be poor. Okay, but if we focus on poverty, they will be taken care of. And to the extent you’re working with them, you will notice and investigate any injustices that have been done to them that need to be corrected. If you focus on poverty and you make sure groups and individuals meet that criterion, you will not neglect the poor. If you focus on a particular characteristic ( that is not poverty), you will neglect at least some who are poor. Caring for the poor is not a glamorous and popular message. We should also be against locating a duty to the poor in trans-generational guilt. Our responsibility to the poor is located in the love and mercy of God, not in guilt for ancestral sins. Not only are these notions of collective racial guilt unlikely to spur real action on a large scale, they are anti-biblical and immoral. Please see here for more on why collective racial guilt is unreasonable and immoral. It seems to me that simple poverty issues have been neglected to some extent as a result of a fixation on identity politics as the new version of social conscience.
Beware of moral vanity
It is a natural human impulse to be vainglorious and to do things to be seen by others. We are social creatures and we often advance ourselves by making sure that others know about the good that we do. I’m certainly guilty of this myself. If we do good, we want people to know about it. If we do bad, we try to hide it. Jesus decisively denounces this type of vanity. He says that if you give with the goal in mind of looking good in front of other people, you “have received your reward.” (Matthew 6:2) This presumably means that if you give to the poor with the goal of being seen by others, you will get what you paid for. Your giving will impress others, but it will not impress God. You will receive no reward from God. If you do things for the world’s approval, you will get the world’s reward. But you will not get God’s reward.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:1-4
This criticism of the Pharisees is also in the Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23). The Pharisees are vain and they want everybody to see when they do good. They want worldly honors, they want to be called “teacher”, and they love the places of honor at events. They love to be the “keynote speaker”. So naturally, their giving to the poor is itself a means to increase this social status, because their status is very important to them.
Paul says in Romans 12:16
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.Romans 12:16
Pride is a very internal sin and so it can be difficult to determine whether you yourself are prideful. This rule gives us convenient indicator for determining whether we are proud. The “lowly” are those who are “low in status or importance”. It is very easy these days to identify certain “oppressed groups” and then think yourself virtuous because you associate with the elites of that group. This is why identifying these oppressed groups obfuscates the issue, because there are some people in that group who are struggling but there are some who are successful. So don’t do that. Instead, consider the ordinary poor person on the side of the road. More broadly, think of whether you are reluctant to associate with whomever your peergroup looks down on. If you are very reluctant to associate with those your peer group dislikes, then you know how vain you are and how important their opinions are to you. You will find that there is a “lowly” type of person for almost every peer group. The celebrated in one group is the lowly in a different group. The most lowly is the poor, but there are other “lowly” types of people who may not be obviously poor, but who are despised for particular reasons. People always say that character is how you act when no one’s looking. That’s true. Another good definition: character is how you treat people your peers look down on. Every peer group has these people, but prejudice and hostility against them is often disguised by moral condemnation. This doesn’t necessarily mean those moral condemnations are incorrect, but they should not be a reason to treat someone with contempt and to fail to help them when they need help.
Hospitality is also a way to care for the poor. Jesus said to invite people who cannot invite you back or repay you, then you will have a reward with God.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”Luke 14:12
Romans 12:13 and Hebrews 13:2 also talk about the importance of showing hospitality.
The basis for caring for the poor is the unconditional love of God, who loves us regardless of our faults and sins and who calls us to repent and believe. The biblical model of charity is a faithful Christian who lovingly and quietly cares for the poor by helping them in practical ways and helps those around him who needs help. The great are not the celebrity, the CEO, the Nobel-prize winning academic or the supermodel. The great are the servants. I want to ask the reader to remember the Christian martyrs and the Christian poor when you give to charity, because there are many of them all over the world.