In last weeks’ article, I wrote about how I struggle with my attitude toward the poor. This confession seems to have struck a chord with many in our church family.
You’ll recall I shared with you how I had ministered among the poor for 12 years in inner city Wichita. Over that time, I found many of those I came into contact with to be dishonest, manipulative, lazy, and irresponsible. Were there exceptions to this? Of course. And did every person I came into contact with also have some redeeming (positive) qualities? Absolutely.
My point is . . . the qualities I listed above were quite prominent in the hundreds & hundreds of poor people I met during those 12 years. That experience is obviously going to have an impact on how I think about and relate to the poor.
A Biblical Summary
But now, as a Christian, my experiences & observations are not authoritative; the Bible is. And the Bible has a view of the poor as well, and some specific commands about how they should be treated. Here is a summary of what the Bible says about the poor and our response to them:
§ The Bible commands generosity toward the poor (Ps 37:21)
§ The Bible says we should grieve for the poor (Job 30:25)
§ The Bible says we should lend to the poor without interest and sell to them without profit (Ex 22:25; Lev 25:35)
§ The Bible says Jesus personally identifies with the poor (Matt 25:35-36)
§ The Bible says Jesus came to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4:18)
§ The Bible says Jesus wants us to sell our possessions in order to give to the poor (Lk 18:22)
§ The Bible says God cares deeply about the poor (Ps 72:12)
§ The Bible warns those who would harm or take advantage of the poor, or treat them unjustly (Prov 22:22)
§ The Bible commands us to seek the well-being of the poor (Ps 82:3)
§ The Bible commands us to view the poor with compassion (I Jn 3:17)
§ The Bible promises reward & blessing to those who are kind to the poor (Prov 19:17)
So, where’s the criticism of the poor? The stern rebukes? I don’t see any. Quite the opposite. The Bible presents the poor as having a certain nobility; as being special objects of God’s affection.
So, where does this leave me and my occasionally judgmental attitude? Is my experienced-based assessment of the poor wrong? Or, is it simply irrelevant how the poor act, or the qualities they exhibit?
The Bible’s Poor versus America’s Poor
I believe one thing that doesn’t get enough attention is the context in which all of the above biblical passages were written. You see, the poor in the Bible – both Old & New Testaments -- were “absolutely” poor. They lived at a subsistence level (i.e., on the edge of starvation). There were no government programs to assist them.
Generally speaking, the poor in Bible days were extremely hard working (willing to do back-breaking work). The problem was a lack of jobs, or the jobs that were available paid next to nothing. In those days, the government did not mandate a minimum wage. To make matters worse, it wasn’t uncommon for the poor to do a job and then get stiffed by their employer.
In contrast, the poor today (at least in America) are only “relatively” poor. That means they are poor only in a relative or comparative sense. Virtually no one in America (thankfully!) is starving to death. The vast majority of the poor in our country have all the necessities of life, plus much more.
We also live in a dynamic economy. This means that virtually anyone with a reasonably good work ethic can find work and earn enough to provide for themselves. It’s also dynamic in the sense that if somebody has a physical limitation of some time (say, a bad back), there are plenty of jobs that don’t require a strong back.
All of this leads me to wonder whether the biblical commands regarding the poor are even applicable, at least with respect to most of America’s poor. Is it possible we’re dealing with two different groups of people? If so, what are the implications of that in terms of our dealing with America’s “poor”?
So far, all I’m doing is asking questions and trying to spark your thinking. In Part 3 of this series, I’ll offer some conclusions. Don’t hesitate to write me if you have a thought, opinion or question.