Biblical Treatment of the Poor

In this article, I want to look at how the Bible tells us to treat the poor. There are many ways to examine the numerous passages in the Bible concerning the poor, needy, orphans, aliens, and so on. There are also various designations that can be given to the groups who are in need. Each of them carries a different meaning and highlights a different group of people. The poor for example can be a larger category of individuals that have needs they themselves are not able to meet. Foreigners, sojourners, or aliens in the land are a group who by their national identity cannot, biblically speaking, inherit the land and need care for. Widows are those who were more than likely once able to be self-sufficient and now rely on aid. Orphans who can in some senses be considered the lowest group have nothing and no one to provide for them.

The message throughout Scripture is clear that these categories of people and the larger group as a whole (the poor) are in need and those who have the ability to help are obligated and required to assist. Two passages from the Old Testament and one from the new help show why people should help the poor. There are many that can be used but these have been chosen to show there are reasons behind the commands.

Before that examination, it is also helpful to create categories for the Scripture that are found concerning the treatment of the poor and needy. There are perhaps better ways to categorize the verses but this one is helpful in creating lists. It is also important to note that there are some if not many verses will cross-categorical lines.

A first possible way is to list a verse as compassion. Compassion is to have concern for others. Christians are called to have a concern or care for those who are in need and helpless to help themselves. Those who are poor and needy require compassion partly because they have a lack of honor and esteem. To show compassion is to acknowledge their situation. Job says in 30:25 that he has wept for those in trouble and grieved the poor. Christians should have concern or care for those in need to the point that it drives them to action, but compassion is of high importance.

A second possible category is justice. This will be discussed further below but throughout the Scriptures, there is a constant call to give justice to the poor and needy. The Psalms especially are ripe with commands and verses to either notice the lack of justice or that God will execute justice on behalf of the poor. Psalm 12:5 is an example of God saying that He will rise up to rescue the poor because of their cries. While 82:3 is an example of people calling for God to rescue the needy. Proverbs continue the theme of justice for the poor in 29:7 where it says that the godly care about the rights of the poor. The poor and needy require justice and they are often not able to obtain it on their own.

A third, and final for this list category is provision. This is where the action the stems from concern and justice come out. It is the actual meeting of needs, the providing of goods or relief, the help to better a situation. This too will be discussed further below but suffice it to say there is a clear command from Scripture to meet the needs of the poor. This can be seen in verses that discuss how to clear a field, the year of rest, and so on. The book of Ruth is an example where one can see what it was like for the poor and a foreigner to need the left-over grains.

Now the attention will turn to three Scriptures to see how they show why people should have concern and care for the poor and needy. First, from the Old Testament, Proverbs 14:31 says, whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors Him.[1] The first and most simple reason to help the poor is that it honors God. God is the maker of all and to neglect the poor and needy is to neglect God’s creation. From the Christian perspective all people have the Imago Dei or image of God and to refuse to help or provide dignity to them is to insult the image of God. In the reverse, to care for or be generous to the needy is to honor God Himself. Christ uses the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 to highlight this and says clearly that as it has been done to the least of these it has been done to Christ. When the Lord appears to Saul in Acts 9:4 He asks why do you persecute me? The Lord takes the blessings and insults to the poor as actions directed towards Him. The conclusion is that the reason to care for the poor and needy is that it directs honor to God.

The second passage from the Old Testament that explains the reason why one is to care for the poor and needy comes from Isaiah 58:6-7. Here God explains to Israel what true fasting which could also be read as true worship is. This is an important passage as it shows in rapid succession what those who claim to be religious are to do. In this passage, God tells Israel that true worship is to free those wrongly imprisoned. False imprisonment has always been an issue and can come from various sources from unjust laws, mistaken identity, false testimony, and so on. This is a serious issue and needs to be addressed by the community. The goal of this paper is not to examine current laws or the penial system, but the Christian community should be at the forefront of the battle to advocate for those incarcerated unjustly.

The second item in the Isaiah passage is that the people of God are to let the oppressed go free and remove the chains that bind people. This can be seen as tied to the first point, but it can also have other implications. Drug addiction, for example, is a chain that binds people. Drug addiction is not exclusively an issue that affects the poor, but the poor are at a higher risk of substance abuse or becoming poor because of drug addiction. The people of God are to be concerned about this issue.

Another chain that binds people is that of financial ignorance. While poor people often do not have enough to save for large purchases there are issues and ignorances that affect their spending habits. This includes behaviors such as spending money on unneeded items to ensure they do not lose the money. Not understanding the concept of interest which causes them to seek immediate cash for checks or item pawning. This is more of a Western poor issue, but it is still an issue that should be addressed. People in poor neighborhoods are taken advantage of by those who run check-cashing businesses or title loan companies. These fees seem worth the tradeoff to those in the communities but there are often cheaper alternatives. Christians who have should be teaching and helping those in poor communities learn about more affordable options to receive their money. Some have created some wonderful systems to help educate but some of these are not only cost prohibitive due to the price of attending the sessions but aimed at those who have disposable income.

The next three from the Isaiah list are to share food, give shelter, and give clothes to those who need them. This is quite simply the most basic and easiest of people to accomplish. While prison reform or debt repayment for those who are in prison are issues that require some deeper knowledge and rehabilitation for those caught in addiction require skillsets giving material items to the poor are easily done by almost anyone.

From clothing and food drives to buying groceries for someone, it is not difficult to help meet a basic need. Yes, in different places the requirements may be different, but these are not problems that should still exist in society today. The point is that even if someone’s motivation for care is obligation the Bible directs them to what their obligation is. James writes on 1:27 that true and proper or pure and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. If some one desires to claim religious obedience than care for the poor and the needy is required.

Moving the third passage and the one from the New Testament. In 1 John 3:11-18 John addresses the topic of how to treat those around you. He writes that Christians are not to be like Cain who killed his brother but are to love. Love is the motivation for the Christian, love for God, and for people. In what could be considered a rhetorical question John asks how God’s love can abide in someone who closes their heart to their brother’s needs (v 17). The answer is implied that it cannot. If love for God is professed, then love for others is required. This is not only required by God but exemplified by Him.

In the incarnation, God in Christ so fully identifies with His creation that He seals the connection between concern and action which was motivated by love. John 3:16 expresses this connection and motivation. The incarnation is the most powerful statement on how the concern for the poor and needy because of what is being said. Jesus read from Isaiah 61 when he began His public ministry and in doing so He was showing that not only does God have a religious standard concerning the treatment of the poor, but He puts feet on the ground to show how it can be done.

Isaiah 61 discusses the year of the Lord’s favor and in that it discusses bringing good news to the poor, binding up or as the HCSB says to heal the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, and opening doors to those in prison. These are similar to the items in Isaiah 58. Again, here what is seen is that there is a religious requirement to have concern for the poor and needy and that it can be done. Not only this but that the motivating factor was love. There could hardly be a better example of what to do than in Christ.

The New Testament church understood this well and went about preaching the message of Christ. They did not have to command people to sell their goods to give to those who needed but the people did this as a freewill offering because they were motivated by love. Love requires action because it seeks the welfare of the recipient more than the cost to the giver. The church is called to serve in love and act in love. There are always people who may not be motivated by love and only wish to do the bare minimum but as seen even if obligation is your motivation care for the poor and needy is still required. The Bible leaves no room to not take up the cause of the poor and needy. It leaves no excuse to not serve. It gives no out for anyone who claims to have devotion to God.

[1] All Scripture taken from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

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