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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

No Preferentialism

Care for the poor with justice.

Caring for the Poor (3)

“‘You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.’“ Leviticus 19.15

Worthy because poor?
Over the last century or so a false view has been advocated by certain members of the Christian community and others concerning the Church’s—and society’s—responsibility toward the poor. This view holds that all poor people are worthy of our care and have a right to expect a certain measure of deference and public support, simply by virtue of their status as falling below a certain level of material wellbeing.

This view is sometimes spoken of in Christian circles as the “preferential option” for the poor, and it insists that caring for the poor—all poor people—is the Church’s first and most pressing duty.

This view comes from the spirit of an egalitarian age, not from the Spirit of God. While on the surface it may seem like a noble idea, in practice it spawns policies that can rob the poor of their dignity as human beings, impose unjust requirements on the rest of society, encourage rather than relieve the causes of poverty, and create a community in which justice and love are compromised and undermined.

There are legitimate reasons why people become poor, as we have seen. And truly poor people should expect a just society to show them neighbor-love in ways that enable them to maintain their dignity and their place as contributing members of the social order. We’ll have more to say about this a bit later in in this series.

But to treat all poor people as worthy of special attention simply because they are poor does not line up with the divine economy and the teaching of God’s Word.

Poor with dignity
The Law of God expects even those who are poor to work and tithe from the fruit of their labors. Thus, though they may be poor, they do not forfeit their dignity, and they are not excused from being responsible and contributing members of the community, just like everyone else.

Not all those who are poor, however, deserve the same consideration as those who are truly poor, as we have also seen.

Some people are poor by reason of reckless living or an unwillingness to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. Those who are poor because they squander the gifts of God and those who will not work should not expect the same attention and care as those who are truly poor.

And even those who are truly poor have no right to expect that society will ensure them a particular “standard of living.”  They may be truly poor, but they are also truly responsible for their own wellbeing and stewardship.

Robbing the poor
Public policies that make the poor wards of the State are unjust for two reasons.

First, they rob the poor of their true dignity by creating an entitlement mindset, making the poor dependent on society—or, more specifically, on the political class—rather than contributors to society who depend on God and His goodness and justice for their needs. When we, in effect, pay people to be poor, simply because they are poor, why should we expect them to seek any other way of living?

Second, such policies go beyond the requirements of what God’s Law requires with respect to distributive justice, setting the State over God to determine what the norms of justice should be.

Nowhere does the Law of God approve of the State seizing the property of one group of citizens to bolster the material wellbeing of another group, even if that group is chronically and justly poor. And even in situations in which the property of one group is to be made available for the needs of the poor, as in the third-year tithe in ancient Israel, this is to be done voluntarily, under the eyes—and thus the approval or disapproval—of local communities.

The State has no right to seize property, which it typically does through taxation, and distribute it through its channels and bureaucracies, each siphoning off a measure to support its own existence, until the remainder reaches the poor. Everyone is called upon to fulfill certain duties vis à vis the poor, and to receive the gratitude their faithfulness provokes or the shame and stigma for their cold indifference.

As we shall see, the poor have a “right” to the property of the non-poor only if they work for it themselves. Thus, the poor in any community should expect to be loved as neighbors and cared for according to their true needs; however, they must not expect to be elevated as equals in any kind of material sense or sustained in poverty unnecessarily.

The poor should be protected and served by the laws and policies of the community and the free interventions of those who care for their wellbeing; but they must not be favored by public policy or ecclesiastical ministry any further than what the Law of God requires.

For reflection
1. Do you agree that programs to relieve poverty can rob the poor of their dignity? Explain.

2. What might be some constructive ways local churches could help the poor?

3. Why would we not classify the prodigal son as justly poor?

Next steps—Preparation: Pray for the churches in your community, that they might work together more in helping the truly poor and in proclaiming the Gospel.

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 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 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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