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POVERTY—What does the Bible say about the poor?



Films for Christ.

You are sitting in church one warm Sunday morning. You got there a little early, amazingly, and actually are there early enough to watch others come through the back door to find their seats. There is Brother Jim Johnson. He’s one of the elders. Behind him comes a person you haven’t seen before. He’s dressed smartly and you are sure he must be a prominent businessman or doctor. Maybe he’s new in town. You make a mental note to meet him after the service. As you are planning what you’ll say, slowly a haggard old man shuffles through the church doors. He looks like he’s living on the streets, and an unpleasant little odor starts to find your nose. Ugh. You wonder who this forgotten fellow is, but your thoughts quickly return to the important man you will meet in another hour or so after the service.

I know this is not a common occurrence for most of us, but it makes us consider how our reaction might be if faced with an obvious choice in how we plan to treat a rich man vs. a poor one. The New Testament writer James provides ample warning for Christians in such situations…

Copyrighted.

“My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here’s a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”
   —James 2:1-9 (NIV)

Why is it the natural thing for us humans to notice those with wealth and popularity, but almost ignore those who are poor? This should not be… James tells us so; Jesus tells us so throughout the New Testament; and looking back through history we can see that God’s heart is overwhelmingly for the poor. If the Lord who we serve and try to model our lives after cares so much for the poor, then so should we!

The Origin of Poverty

Where did poverty begin? Let’s look back to the beginning of beginnings—Genesis. Creation and the Fall. Genesis 3 records for us Eve’s taking of the forbidden fruit and offering it to Adam, which he accepted. So God says to Eve:

“‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’”
   —Genesis 3:16-17, 19 (NIV)

Provisions Under the Law

a girl living in poverty

Many years later, during the days of Moses, we see that God established some guidelines under the law to help the poor. Exodus 22 and 23 tells the Israelites to help the aliens, widows, orphans, and the poor. God protects their property, warns again against showing favoritism, and sets up a system of “gleaning” to help prevent starvation and malnourishment (Ex. 23:10-12).

In Leviticus 25:8-43, we see that God institutes the practice of the “Year of Jubilee” to be practiced every fifty years. God says to the nation of Israel:

“…do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God.”
   —Leviticus 25:17 (NIV)

“If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countrymen may continue to live among you…”
   —Leviticus 25:35-36 (NIV)

“If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee”.
   —Leviticus 25:39-40 (NIV)

In Deuteronomy 15, we see that God’s intention will be that His people will have all debts canceled every seven years. This was appropriately called “The Year for Canceling Debts”.

The Names of God

God is called by many names throughout the Scriptures. Many of His names emphasize His great love for the poor:

Blessings and Curses

For those who bless the poor, God promises to bless them (Ps 41:1-3; 112; Prov. 14:21; 19:17, 22:9, 14:31, 28:27; Isaiah 58:6-10).

But, He promises to judge those who oppress the poor (Deut 27:19, Prov. 17:5, 21:13, 22:16, 28:27; Isaiah 10:1-4; Eze 18:12-13, 16:49).

The famous British Christian author C.S. Lewis writes…

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
as quoted in The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey, p. 111

How do I bless the poor?

Sometimes I find myself avoiding them altogether. Certainly that is the easiest thing to do, and easy to justify if I have a schedule that simply must be kept. WWJD—what would Jesus do? Would he prefer the Western way of time schedules and daily planning, or would he throw away that schedule book and take the time to listen to the hurts of the poor, to pray with them, to show them love and concern no matter how late he was to his ever-important meetings.

After all, wasn’t it Jesus who was so late to a meeting that someone literally died while waiting for him? (Lazarus - John 11). But because of His divine tardiness to the tune of two days, Jesus miraculously raised Lazarus from the dead! Maybe if we are willing to spend more time with the poor and outcast of society, He will use us too to bring about God-sized miracles in the lives of the poor!

The Beatitudes of This World

J.B. Philipps, as quoted on page 113 of The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey, renders a version of what the Beatitudes might say if we apply it to the reality we are used to seeing in our world:

Happy are the “pushers”: for they get on in the world.
Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.
Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.
Happy are the blase: for they never worry over their sins.
Happy are the slave-drivers: for they get results.
Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around.
Happy are the trouble-makers: for they make people take notice of them.

the poor should not be without hope In contrast, Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Yancey writes (p. 114) “One commentary translates that ‘Blessed are the desperate.’ With no where to turn, the desperate just may turn to Jesus, the only one who can offer the deliverance they long for. Jesus really believed that a person who is poor in spirit, or mourning, or persecuted, or hungry and thirsty for righteousness has a peculiar ‘advantage’ over the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, the desperate person will cry to God for help. If so, that person is truly blessed.”

Monika Hellwig lists several advantages to being poor:

  1. The poor know they are in urgent need of redemption.

  2. The poor know not only their dependence on God and on powerful people, but also their interdependence with one another.

  3. The poor rest their security not on things but on people.

  4. The poor have no exaggerated sense of their own importance, and no exaggerated need of privacy.

  5. The poor expect little from competition and much from cooperation.

  6. The poor can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.

  7. The poor can wait, because they have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.

  8. The fears of the poor are more realistic and less exaggerated, because they already know that one can survive great suffering and want.

  9. When the poor have the Gospel preached to them, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding.

  10. The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything.

    as quoted in The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey, p. 115

Some Practical Ideas for Serving the Poor

Dr. Mike
Free medical care.

Ways in which you can help the poor can be almost as varied as there are people to be helped. It could be as simple as treating someone to a cup of coffee or a glass of cold water, or providing shelter or long-term assistance. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in this and to give you his heart for the poor. Your compassion will grow as you seek God and His heart.

Some ideas… show love to widows and orphans; provide free medical care; help at your local soup kitchen for the homeless; make a blanket or quilt to be donated to services that will give them away; provide shelter or clothing; donate money to trustworthy Christian organizations like Compassion International, Food for the Hungry, or World Vision (or any number of literally hundreds of other such excellent organizations); care for those in prison; babysit some night for a single mom you know; get to know refugees in your community; take time to listen to those in need; visit your local nursing home or hospital; fix up someone’s house or car; etc.

Never forget God’s promises to those who help the poor! Start looking today for ways you can show the love of Christ to those in need.

Author: Tim Cowley, Films for Christ

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