This past Sunday I drove right past a panhandler on my way to church. I barely noticed him. I went right on to church, worshipped, listened to a good sermon, fellowshipped with my brothers and sisters. But I have to confess that I didn’t really practice my religion as I should have.
I suppose many – maybe most – of my fellow middle-class Christians would have done the same as I did. Some, if asked, could have come up with very good reasons for ignoring a panhandler:
-- “He’d probably spend whatever you give him on booze!”
-- “He could get a job if he wanted to!”
-- “How did he get that way anyway?”
-- “I work for a living, why can’t he?”
-- “I’d never, ever ask anyone for a handout!”
-- “People like that are what’s wrong with our country!”
It may seem strange that though the Bible has much to say about the poor, It never condemns them for being that way. It condemns those who ignore or oppress them.
God is concerned about the poor. There are at least eight words in the Hebrew Old Testament and three in the Greek New Testament for “poor” or “poverty,” besides the words for needy groups or persons such as widows, orphans and aliens. There are literally hundreds of references in the Bible, nearly all of them dealing with the need to care for the poor.
Throughout the Law of Moses there are instructions concerning care for the poor and underprivileged. Leviticus 19, for example, the chapter in which we find the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (vs. 18) also contains commands about relationships with “the poor,” “the stranger,” “the hired man,” “the deaf” and “the blind” (vss. 13-15, 33, 34). Deuteronomy 15, however, contains some of the clearest commands for taking care of the poor. In fact, it states that “there will be no poor among you” (vs. 4), if they follow God’s commands. Specifically this chapter deals with the laws concerning remission of debts every seven years, but it also deals with generosity to the poor (vss. 7-11). Paradoxically this chapter also states that “the poor will never cease to be in the land.” This is the verse that Jesus alludes to in Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7 and John 12:8, which unfortunately is often ripped out of context as an excuse for not caring for the poor.
The prophets spoke severely against mistreatment or neglect of the poor, not only by denying them material care, but also by denying them justice (Amos 2:6, 7; 4:1; 5:10-12, 15, 24; 8:4-6),
There are many passages in the New Testament dealing with care for the poor and it may be difficult to place them all in a neat system.
1. The coming of Jesus was especially related to salvation for the poor and in need. See Mary’s song in Luke 1, especially verses 51-54. Also see Jesus’ sermon which Luke uses to introduce Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:18, 19; quoted from Isaiah 61).
2. In His Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Luke 6:20, 21, Jesus pronounces a special blessing on the poor and the hungry. This is a contrast (but not a contradiction) to Matthew 5:3, 6 where He says “poor in spirit” and “those who hunger … for righteousness.” Perhaps these are two separate sayings, or perhaps Jesus is implying that material poverty often leads to humility.
3. Jesus, in His prophecy of His judgment on the nations specifically, homes in on their treatment of the poor and those in need (Matthew 25:31-46).
4. James tells his readers that the poor are the objects of God’s choice (James 2:5). Paul agrees with this, reminding his readers that God has chosen “the foolish … the weak … the base … the despised” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). We tend to exalt the wise, the rich and the powerful, but God does not (see also James 2:6, 7).
5. Paul’s ministry, though mainly involving evangelism, church planting and discipleship, also devoted time to the care of the poor (Galatians 2:9, 10; Acts 20:34, 35). He organized a collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem and personally carried it to them (Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8, 9).
6. “Pure religion” is defined by James as involving two things: care for “the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). Paul especially lays on the rich “to be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
So, what is our responsibility? Many of my middle-class Christian friends try to ignore the issue of poverty, perhaps because it’s an issue that defies simple solutions. We cannot pass a law or a constitutional amendment abolishing it. We cannot just find a place to picket. We cannot just give counseling. In fact the Scripture condemns counseling alone. “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15, 16).
Some suggestions for our thinking:
1. We need to recognize that all that we have is from God. We do not deserve it. It’s all grace. “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)
2. We need to develop an attitude of contentment and an attitude of generosity. “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:6-10; also see verses 17-19).
3. We need to develop a compassion for those in need. “ … put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12), following the example of our Savior. (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32).
Some suggestions for our action:
1. We can give more money to organizations that minister to those in need. There are Christian organizations that minister to both the body and the soul.
2. We can give away some of our “stuff.” Many of us have garages, attics and sheds, full of things that are useless to us, but which could be useful to others.
3. We can put a buck in the bucket of the panhandler with no questions asked.