In a world of contrasts we have the rich and poor in every culture, and regional variations produce strange contrasts. Some considered poor in one economy would be reckoned rich in another. Those who can only afford an old car are not to be compared to others who can only dream of owning any transport. So we come back to the problem of definitions. How do we interpret this verse: “The poor shall never cease out of the land” (Dt. 15:11 KJV)? Clearly the poor in this context are those in dire poverty. Some who consider themselves poor are no more than persons who are not self-sufficiently rich. Their low incomes mean they have to work hard to sustain life. But it does not imply that their children have to beg in the streets. Deuteronomy 15:11 refers to souls needing food, clothing and shelter. In this connection, God demanded compassionate care of widows and orphans (Dt. 10:18; 24:17-20). Also, disabled persons who had to beg for a living were not to be neglected by their healthier and wealthier brethren (Lev. 19:14; Job 29:15; Mt. 6:1; Mk. 10:46; Lk. 16:20; Acts 3:3). Deuteronomy 15:11 explicitly implies that destitution will remain in the world until Christ returns to reign (Amos 9:13). Though the truth that the poor will always be with us (Mk. 14:7; Jn. 12:8) is abhorrent to utopian thinkers, to this day it remains a fact in many nations. In spite of the best plans, the demand will always exceed the supply.
In the meantime, God demands the relief of the poor by means of practical and timely help. For despite advancing science and technology, the struggle for survival continues. The Son of God, confirming Deuteronomy, stated that “the poor always ye have with you” (Jn. 12:8). This verse also implies that the rich will remain with us. In other words, the obligation of the wealthy to ease the agonies of the poor will not go away. God said to Israel, “There shall be no poor among you; for the LORD shall greatly bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it” (Dt. 15:4). That is, the rich would have bread enough to spare.
When we project this principle internationally, the richer nations are morally obliged to help the poorer, for we are one human family and should love one another. We should also treat the needy with dignity and respect. They must never feel that they are being fed the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Let’s consider the obligations of Christians to those in desperate need.
Precedence And Priority
While we rush to relieve the homeless of an earthquake, we should not neglect our own children. Paul commands us, “If any provide not for … those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). With no more than natural affection, most unbelievers will hardly neglect their own flesh and blood, for even the “evil know how to give good gifts” to their children (Mt. 7:11). Therefore, a believer who neglects his own is condemned by the good care of parents who have no time for God. In the same vein Paul writes, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). In other words, when fulfilling our obligations to the poor, our first responsibility is to those in our family and our faith.
All Things In Common
One of the most remarkable events in the early Church was when the saints created a “common- good” fund under the stewardship of the apostles: “All that believed were together, and had all things common” (Acts 2:44). This precedent at Jerusalem, though temporary, was an example of the first love of that early fellowship. For “the multitude of those that believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of … the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common” (Acts 4:32). Indeed, those who have gone to preach Christ in other lands are familiar with this same spirit.
Without much instruction, babes in Christ will bond together into a spiritual community of shared resources. This does not mean that they may always have the formal and business-like discernment of the Jerusalem Jews! Nevertheless, every dwelling, however humble, will be another home to their brothers and sisters. Their tender care for widows, orphans and the poor prove that they are children of their heavenly Father. They will also give of their time, money and possessions to build a gathering place. And so like the churches in ancient Macedonia, their liberal giving will be seen as inversely proportional to “their deep poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2). However, once established, these churches will become capable of their own upkeep, and able to implement the Pauline household-and-church-management principles set forth in 1 Timothy 5.
The Wet Ink Of Holy Writ
Those who dismiss 1 Timothy 5 as out of date forget the Church worldwide. For most Christians in nonwestern cultures have no access to state benefits, widows’ pensions or child-welfare allowances. Indeed, their poverty is often lower than that described by Charles Dickens in his social reform novels of the victorian era. Wherever people are compelled to eat dogs, cats, snakes and bugs, Christians know the practical value of Paul’s provision for “widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:3,16). James has blunt words for any who neglect those “naked and destitute of daily food.” He says this: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (Jas. 1:27; 2:15-17).
Christian Precedent Of International Aid
Now as far as I am aware, there was nothing written in the Old Testament Law which explicitly obliged Israel to relieve the poverty of the heathen nations. In contrast, there was no uncertainty about their having to treat anyone visiting the Land of Promise like a home-born national (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:34). It took a Samaritan to prove that the commandment to love one’s neighbor applied to neighboring nations. For while all deserted the dying victim of thieves, it was a foreigner who rushed to his rescue (Lk. 10:33). And so the Good Samaritan became an example to the whole world.
Insofar as none but Luke records this glorious parable, so it is Luke who reveals that it was Gentiles in the church at Antioch who followed suit. For when the prophet Agabus revealed that a great dearth was due to come upon the world, “Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea” (Acts 11:29). Indeed this resolve was imitated by Corinth, Macedonia and Achaia (2 Cor. 9:2).
The Widow’s Mites
While the Christian is obliged to help the poor, true alms are those which deprive the giver. It is easier for a billionaire to donate millions than for a poor man to share his meager resources with one in need. For this reason the Son of God denounced those who made a public relations event out of sharing their superabundance with those in need. For if there are those who delight in crushing the poor (Dan. 4:27), so there are those who use the destitute to enhance their reputation with open acts of charity.
While the glory seekers were casting lavishly into the temple treasury “there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites” (Mk. 12:42). The value of the gift is directly proportional to the resources of the giver. Therefore the Master “called unto Him His disciples, and saith unto them, ‘verily I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury; for all they did cast in of their abundance, but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living’” (Mk. 12:43-44).
Let us not forget that Jesus condemned those who neglected their parents by claiming that they had given their excess to God (Mk. 7:11). Nor should our offerings to the local church prohibit individual acts of love and relief (Jas. 2:15). As to the eternal benefit of sacrificial almsgiving, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 that those who give, gain – while those who retain, lose.
The Poor And Needy
On two instances Jesus said, “The servant is not greater than his lord” (Jn. 13:16; 15:20). The mystery of this statement is that there are millions of disciples today who have more than their Lord did when He spoke these words. Mary of Bethany poured ointment upon her Lord when He was too poor to purchase anything so costly. And in a world which sought riches, comfort and pleasure, the Creator of silver and gold had nowhere to lay His head (Mt. 8:20; Lk. 9:58). He began His life on earth in the humblest of circumstances. Yet even in His poverty He taught His disciples never to forget the poor.
When Jesus sent Judas out into the night some thought it was either to buy things needed for the Passover or to “give something to the poor” (Jn. 13:29). Let’s not miss the point: Jesus was not buying anything for Himself. Nor did He ever ask for financial support or charge a penny for miraculous cures. He sacrificed His substance and finally Himself: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
For this reason, He will never forget those “many women” who “followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him” (Mt. 27:55). Likewise He will always remember the hospitality at Bethany at a time when every door in Jerusalem was slammed in His face (Jn. 11:8,45- 57). He will also repay a hundredfold those who provided Him with the upper room and the garden tomb. And we would all say, “Had we lived in those days, He would have been welcome to all we had.”
In the light of this confession, the good news to the generous is, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.” Conversely, the bad news to the miserly is, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to Me” (Mt. 25:40,45). Therefore, blessed are those who obey the Master’s command: “When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Lk. 14:13).
By Tom Summerhill
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org