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

A Local Concern

Where neighbor-love works best.

Caring for the Poor (4)

“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs…For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’” Deuteronomy 15.7, 8, 11

An impossible task
In an economy in which material prosperity is the defining ideal, the State increasingly assumes the role of ensuring the attainment of that ideal for all its members. The State abhors the idea that there must always be poor people among us, and those who make and enforce public policy cannot help but notice the political opportunity caring for the poor affords.

In the present climate, the State carefully monitors the conditions and numbers of the poor, and it employs an army of agencies and agents to ensure that all who fall below a certain income level shall be cared for by government largesse.

Thus the State increases its ability to transfer wealth from those who produce it to those who consume it, always in the name of some putative war on poverty. Present public policy has done little to alleviate the needs of the truly poor, while it continues to increase the ranks of the poor among those who have become addicted to one or another form of entitlement.

Hoping to eradicate poverty is an impossible task, and one that divides societies along class and economic lines. This is because the injustice and futility of such an effort are patent, since such policies contradict the Biblical teaching both about the role of government and how to respond to the needs of the poor.

A community concern
In the Law of God, poverty is regarded as a local problem and inevitable. Granted, in the New Testament, when the Body of Christ began to take on universal proportions, the needs of impoverished communities in one part of the world were embraced as the responsibility of all Christians everywhere. But the members of the Body of Christ maintain a special unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4.3) and citizenship (1 Pet. 29, 10) which other communities and societies do not possess. The unity of the Body of Christ makes every local church a full-fledged member of the universal Church. Thus, in the Church, everything that pertains to the needs of local churches is also to be the concern of the universal Church, and vice-versa (for example, in the areas of doctrine, mission, and church order, as well as in relieving the needs of the poor or oppressed).

Poverty in ancient Israel was regarded as a local problem, to be resolved at the local level. The lines of response whenever someone fell into poverty were, first, family, then, immediate neighbors, and, finally, the resources of the community as a whole. It is likely that communities would have shared resources with one another if necessary, as we see among the churches in the New Testament; however, we do not see in the Law of God any explicit instruction or policy requiring this.

And no role is given for a centralized state government to take up this task.

Nor do we find any stipulations empowering magistrates beyond the local level to ensure that the needs of the poor were being met. Typically, if a community could not—or would not—care for its own poor, those poor would move on to some other place to meet their needs.

Poverty in ancient Israel was not to be an excuse for failing to be a contributing member of the community. The poor were not “dependent” in ancient Israel; laws and policies were enacted to ensure that poor people would continue to give what they could for the justice and wellbeing of a community. Thus, it was in the community’s best interest to provide for the poor so that they could overcome the bonds of poverty and continue their stewardship within the community even while they remained poor.

Local solutions
Local solutions to poverty outlined in the Law of God were designed (1) to facilitate the expression of neighbor-love in tangible ways, (2) to engage the dignity of the poor by enabling them to care for their own needs, and (3) to alleviate the immediate needs of the poor, without making them perpetually dependent upon the generosity of their neighbors.

Those solutions took the form of work and charity, as we shall see, and were to be engaged as needs came to light, but never with the intention of creating a class of permanently poor people.  And these policies were enforced locally and without interference from larger civil authorities.

In our day, leaving the problem of the poor for someone else to solve has become commonplace. Local communities seldom demonstrate a heart for their poor; they long ago lodged that responsibility with the federal government. If effective local policies are to be enacted to care for the poor, someone will have to lead the way, both in calling for a renewal of neighbor-love and for demonstrating that love in action.

And here a great opportunity for showing Jesus to their communities awaits the attention of local churches and other Christian agencies. Indeed, in most communities Christians are already at work caring for the poor. But more could be done if churches were to embrace policies and programs that would bring them more effectively together to show neighbor-love locally to those who are in need. And even if we were more consistent in caring for the poor of the Church, would not the world find that such an attraction that Jesus would draw more of them to Himself?

For reflection
1. Federal bureaucracies and agencies tend to produce waste and promote inefficiency. Why do you suppose this is so?

2. Does your church cooperate with any other churches or Christian agencies to help meet the needs of the truly poor? In what ways?

3. Do you pray for the poor in your community? How should you pray for them?

Next steps—Conversation: Talk with a Christian friend about the needs of the poor in your community. Enlist your friend to join you in praying for the poor.

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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