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Who Are the Poor?

Not everyone who's poor.

Caring for the Poor (1)

“You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge.” Deuteronomy 24.17

For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread. 2 Thessalonians 3.10-12

Poverty and neighbor-love
There will always be poor people in any society. This is the teaching of Scripture, and it fairly describes the experience of human societies from the beginning. The poor will be with us always, as Jesus explained, and neighbor-love requires that the poor be cared for by those who have means. Churches and church-related organizations maintain policies and programs to help relieve the needs of poor people, both in their communities and around the world. In a good society, where justice and love pervade the economy, policies will exist to provide relief for the poor. This is a function of good government, beginning at the local level.

People fall into poverty for various reasons, some just, and some not. It seems strange, perhaps, to say that there might be “just” reasons for being poor. But let’s keep in mind that a society is just when love for God and neighbor are the defining features, not material prosperity. Even a society where perfect love obtains will contain poor people. This should not be taken to mean, however, that somehow injustice exists, just because material blessings are not “evenly” distributed. There will always be poor people in any society, but the presence of poor people does not make that society unjust. A good society will consist of both wealthy and poor alike. But in a good society neighbor-love prevails for all people, regardless of their social or economic status, and policies and programs will operate to help people in their times of need.

The challenge to a good society is making sure that neighbor-love, in all the appropriate forms, is extended to all members, the poor included. For Christians, such policies are part of the warp and woof of our existence. Caring for the poor is a “policy” embraced by individual believers and their churches. This has been so from the very beginning.

But in the larger society, caring for our poor neighbors may require additional policies and programs. Some of these will be provided by private entities, and some will be the result of government programs.

The truly poor
Not all who suffer from a lack of material blessings should be regarded as truly poor. The Law of God teaches us how to think about those who are truly poor, and offers guidance in how a community should care for them (cf. Prov. 29.7).

Some people become poor because of deprivation or loss, whether of persons or property. Orphans lose their parents; still, their basic needs must be met. Widows lose their husbands. The early Church was particularly diligent in caring for those who were true widows (cf. Acts 6.1-6; 1 Tim. 5.1-16). People whose property is destroyed by fire or storm may temporarily fall into poverty and thus require short-term assistance.

Poverty can also befall those who become ill and are unable to work, such as lepers in both the Old and New Testaments. Some may be poor because, being refugees (sojourners) or those who have recently lost their jobs, they have been unable to secure steady work.

These are, in Biblical terms, the truly poor. They deserve the love of their neighbors to sustain them during their season of impoverishment, until they can take responsibility for their lives once again. Those who will never be able to attain that state of taking care of themselves must be cared for indefinitely and ungrudgingly.

Those who become poor because they are unwilling to work or otherwise to take responsibility for meeting their needs, or because they prefer a life of indolence or revelry, should not be considered among the poor for whom society has a responsibility. As we see from the apostle Paul, Scripture teaches against supporting people in their laziness, indolence, or wastefulness. Such people must be encouraged—and if necessary, helped—to take responsibility for their needs by replacing bad habits with good (Rom. 12.21) and taking on appropriate work.

The word “poverty” must not be regarded as a universal term to describe people whose only common characteristic is a lack of income or material wellbeing. Some who seem to be poor may have fallen into that condition because of refusing to exercise good stewardship. In a very real sense, they do not deserve to have their status dignified by being referred to as “poor.” They are not poor; they are irresponsible. Social policy must discourage such practices by refusing to reward an irresponsible lifestyle. And the Church should be ready with ways and means of helping such people lay aside bad habits and learn edifying ones.

The truly poor, however, deserve our compassion and our diligent efforts to care for them. This includes working to establish policies—whether civil or ecclesiastical—that make it possible for the poor to have their basic needs met daily.

The poor will be among us always, and we must always be ready to help them according to the teaching of God’s Law.

For reflection
1. Why is it inevitable that there will always be poor people in any society or community?

2. What is our responsibility toward those who are poor by choice, that is, who are poor because of an irresponsible life?

3. How would you counsel a new believer to pray for the poor in your community?

Next steps—Preparation: Some people are poor in spirit—discouraged, without hope, giving up. What can you do to help any who are poor in spirit?

T. M. Moore

What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your free copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here. To gain a better understanding of how the Law of God applies in daily life, order a free copy of our book, A Kingdom Catechism, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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