Caring for the poor is a concept that carries many questions. Why should we? Who should do it? What does it look like? I put money in the Salvation Army kettles every Christmas; does that count?
Let’s look at the first question I always ask: “why?”
“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27
It is for this reason we love our neighbors as ourselves. To love ourselves and to love our neighbor is to love and honor God whose image we bear. True, that image is marred by sin. But to love our neighbor, whatever their behavior, status, demeanor, or appearance is to recognize God’s image that pervades the entire person. When a teacher of the law asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus turned the question back to the lawyer and asked what he thought the answer was. The lawyer said to love God and to love his neighbor. Jesus said that this was correct. But the man wanted to know who qualified as his “neighbor,” in other words, “Who do I have to love?” Jesus responded with a now well known parable about a Samaritan (despised by the Jews) who stopped to help an injured Jewish man after the priest and Levite (who should have known better) did not. Your neighbor whom you are to love, indicates Jesus’ parable, is the one who needs it. If your neighbor needs friendship, be a friend. If your neighbor needs a meal, provide food. If your neighbor needs rent money, share rent money. If your neighbor needs help shoveling their sidewalk, help shovel the sidewalk. If your neighbor needs Jesus, share Jesus.
But loving the poor is not that simple.
Because we are made in the image of God, we are more than physical bodies. We are spiritual beings. And we cannot meet people’s needs through exclusively focusing on helping people obtain material wealth. If we want to address poverty we must also address spiritual transformation and realities or we will fail.
God cares so much for people and his creation. He became a human and died for the sins of the whole world and invites every person to respond in freedom to the gift of salvation. He has promised to redeem his creation that is groaning under the destructive effects of sin (Romans 8:19-23). God also demands that our economic and political systems acknowledge and protect the dignity of each individual. To deny economic freedom or reduce people to interchangeable pieces of a machine is to violate their individual dignity. On the other hand, choices have consequences. Obedient, diligent use of our gifts normally produces enough material wealth (unless powerful people oppress) and disobedient, lazy neglect of responsibilities increases the danger of poverty. So, completely equal distribution of wealth is not compatible with human freedom. Work and opportunity are.
God works (Gen 2:1-2). Jesus was a carpenter. Paul made tents. Even before the fall, God told Adam to cultivate the earth and name the animals. Work not only serves to provide material needs, but is also a way to express our basic nature as God’s co-workers and is a way to love our neighbors. Meaningful work is essential for human dignity. Any person who fails to work disgraces and corrodes his or her being. Any system that could but does not offer every person meaningful work violates and crushes the human dignity bestowed by the Creator.
After all this”work” talk you might think that I think that poor people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get to work. It is not that simple. Some are poor because of self-destructive use of over-drinking or drug-use. Some are poor because of short-sighted choices to misuse their wealth for luxuries like cable tv, electronics, smartphones, etc. or gambling/lottery. Some people are poor because of unfair economic structures- astronomical medical bills should one have the misfortune to become ill without insurance, welfare policies that discourage savings, unlivable wages, etc. Some are poor because they were born into poverty and lack the life-skills to escape. Many are poor because of all these things mixed together.
Sin corrupts and mars individual persons and the ideas/institutions we create. Our economic systems often oppress our neighbors. As individuals, sinful selfishness, pride, and apathy keep back generosity and overlooks oppression. As individuals, sinful selfishness, apathy and impatience keep the poor mired in poverty. So it comes back to a need for redemption and redressing sin in the systems, in the rich, and in the poor.
We should talk about using the term “the poor.” It can (but not necessarily) be a dehumanizing term to use. It is easy for affluent people to view the poor as “the poor”- unwashed masses, people who through some lack of character and/or skill fail to earn wealth. They exist in our view as nameless persons asking for money (presumably for drugs) or pushing a wheeled cart down the street. They may have some sort of housing paid for with government funding and receiving welfare. But we don’t see them as individuals, as true people- just characters, stereotypes devoid of the complexity and imago Dei that defines people. This is one of the challenges for Christians with simply giving to a charity and then going about our business. The charity acts as a broker so that one never has to personally interact with poor people and possibly get to know someone as a person. And it has a similar effect on the receiver.
Jesus told another story about sheep and goats. He told the sheep they were blessed because he was hungry and they fed him, naked and they clothed him, a stranger and they invited him in, in prison and they visited him. He told the goats they were cursed because they refused to feed him, clothe him, welcome him, or visit him. Jesus said that whatever we have done for others, we have done for him. So, in a sacramental way, Jesus is present in each person we interact with. And when we treat our neighbors in need kindly and recognize their humanity, we are in fact interacting with and loving Jesus. Perhaps instead of just giving a homeless person $5.00, you could buy lunch for the both of you and sit down together. A, it will assure that you are not enabling substance abuse (it is sadly true that most who approach you on the street for money really do want it for some sort of drug) and B, it will allow you to be a conduit for the love of Jesus while getting to know another person as a person and be ministered to through them. If you give to charities, that is wonderful, but it is also good to volunteer your time, so that you interact with the people on a personal level.
The challenge of helping people is that sometimes one can do more harm than good. Obviously people in a pinch need help and sometimes a straight up gift of material wealth is warranted. However regular handouts can create dependency and ruin the dignity that comes with work and responsibility. For that reason, it is a good idea to work through churches and other charities when giving of your time and resources. They can help you avoid having your act of love come to a bad end and to maximize its impact. Take the time to choose your avenues of showing love wisely. Be shrewd as snakes while being innocent as doves (Matt 10:16). Make sure that you are truly loving your neighbor for his or her good.
Fair warnings: 1) You will occasionally get burned. It is a tragic fact that some people are users. People are image-bearers, but they are still people and warped by sin. But blessed are you when people despitefully use you (Matt 5:44). And do not let your love grow cold (Matthew 24:12). 2) I stole liberally from “Just Generosity” by Ron Sider when writing this. It is a great book and it would be a blessing to you read in its entirety and without my editorializing.