One of the perennial discussions in both the political and theological realms is the issue of poverty. What should be done about the poor? What’s the best way to help those in need? Whose job is it to alleviate poverty?
Those are all important questions but for the Christian we must understand what the scriptures say about poverty before we can answer, because any effort to address this issue that is not in sync with God’s word is doomed to fail.
So, what does the Bible say about Poverty?
It will always be with us.
In Matthew 26:11 Jesus says: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” This is in response to protests at using a very expensive oil to anoint Him in anticipation of His death instead of selling it and using the money for poverty relief.
Jesus is not saying, “don’t worry about the poor because there are always going to be poor people.” He’s saying there are some things more important than poverty relief and His mission and ministry is one of them; the Gospel is one of them. So, don’t subordinate the Gospel to poverty relief or other social issues.
It’s also a reminder that poverty, like disease, is a product of the Fall. It will always be a part of the world as long as the world exists. This is not an excuse to ignore the poor any more than it’s an excuse to stop developing treatment for disease. It is, rather, a call to be realistic. Someone who sets out to “end world hunger” or to “eradicate poverty,” will not succeed because it’s not in anyone’s power to do that. The search for utopia in this life is vain and pointless and, many times in history, deadly. However, someone who sets out to alleviate poverty in their local neighborhood or sphere of influence has a worthy and doable goal.
Christians must have a realistic view of poverty, what can be done, what cannot be done and where poverty relief fits in the scheme of things the church is called to do.
It is sometimes caused by poor choices.
Many passages in the Bible speak of poverty being a result of poor choices:
A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich. – Proverbs 10:4
Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction,
but whoever heeds reproof is honored. – Proverbs 13:18
Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man;
he who loves wine and oil will not be rich. – Proverbs 21:17
Christians must not assume poverty is never the fault of the person dealing with it. To do so, is to ignore biblical teaching and to miss an opportunity for discipleship and to provide help that will be lasting rather than just a Band-Aid.
It is sometimes caused by injustice
By the same token, we cannot assume it is never the result of injustice to the person dealing with it.
The Book of Amos speaks of people who deny the poor their rights and so exacerbate their poverty. For example, God’s law said if you took a man’s cloak in pledge for a debt, you must give it back to him each evening because it was not only his outer garment in public but his blanket to keep warm with at night (Exodus 22:26). The people in Amos’ day, however, were keeping the cloaks of the poor and not only that but they were worshipping God while doing so:
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined. – Amos 2:8
They also deprived the poor of justice in the courts:
For I know how many are your transgressions
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate. – Amos 5:12
In other words, the rich were being given special treatment because they could pay a bribe.
Christians should oppose practices that do not give the poor equal rights before the law or that deprive them of justice in the courts.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:9
It does not confer special status on people.
However, while entitled to justice, the poor should not be given deferential treatment simply because they are poor. They are to be judged the same way all others are judged:
You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:15
Many people are willing to say we should not give deference to the rich in matters of justice but far fewer are willing to say the same thing with regard to the poor. Christians, however, must seek for justice to be applied equally no matter the financial resources of the individual whether they be many or few.
It should be alleviated through work when possible.
God commanded the Israelites in the Old Testament to make provision for the poor:
And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.- Leviticus 19:10
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God – Leviticus 23:22
Notice they are not to harvest everything then give some to the poor. They are to leave some on the vine and in the field so the poor can harvest it for themselves. Help provided to the able-bodied poor should carry with it requirements that they work in exchange for the provision.
Paul makes the relationship between work and provision clear in II Thessalonians:
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. – II Thessalonians 3:10
It should be alleviated through charity when necessary.
Some of the poor due to age, illness, etc. are unable to work. In that circumstance, they should be cared for through charity. And the first line of defense for charity according to the Bible is the family:
But 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, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. – I Timothy 5:4
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – I Timothy 5:8
If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. – I Timothy 5:16
If the person is both unable to work and has no family, help from the church or other charitable institutions is appropriate. One of the first acts of the early church was to set up a system to care for widows who depended on the church for food:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. – Acts 6:1-3
Precisely because there will always be poverty this side of eternity, Christians should be involved in and supportive of efforts to alleviate it in the name of Christ. But, for that support to be helpful, we must have a realistic view of poverty and a commitment to a biblical approach to its alleviation. We’re not called to jump on every bandwagon that claims to be for the benefit of the poor but to be discerning and to use our time and resources wisely as we seek to help the least of these in obedience to Christ.