Are we obligated to help the poor? We’ve all seen them – standing outside a fast-food restaurant or on a street corner, perhaps sitting near a subway or bus station -- poor people, probably homeless, asking for money. Oftentimes we just walk or drive on by. We might feel a little bad about not donating, but we rationalize it in a number of ways. “Oh, he’ll just use it to buy more booze.” Or, “If he were more careful with money he wouldn’t be homeless.” But it’s okay to rationalize it away because not giving to the poor isn’t that bad, right? Surely it isn’t a sin, is it?
In Matthew 25, Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven in well-known parables. He starts out with the parable of the ten virgins, then goes on to the parable of the talents. From there he moves on to say:
Verses 31-46: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (All scriptures are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.)
There is a fairly obvious conclusion to be drawn here. Jesus says plainly that those that have treated their fellow man well have by extension treated him well. Logically, we can conclude that those that have treated their fellow man poorly have by extension treated him poorly.
It’s fairly simple to understand. The concept of treating others well is the foundation of Bible-based Christianity. The Bible seems to take special consideration of the poor:
Exodus 23:6: “Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor in his cause.”
Leviticus 19:20: “And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger:”
Deuteronomy 15:7: “…thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:”
Psalm 41:1: “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.”
Proverbs 21:13: “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.”
It’s easy to forget the poor, to take very little, if any, thought for them. The rich have nice clothes and big houses and shiny new cars – they’re flashy and pretty. The poor are often the exact opposite – shabbily dressed, small houses, driving old beaters – if they have a car at all. To look at them makes us feel bad, and we don’t like feeling bad. If we can manage to ignore the poor, not think of them and their plight, we can continue to go on about our lives feeling good.
But this is not what the Bible preaches.
James 2:1-4: “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”
We aren’t to treat people better based on their physical, material wealth. The opposite therefore must be true: we aren’t to treat people worse based on their lack of physical, material wealth either.
Surely we don’t mean to treat any one person or group differently than any other. Surely it’s just a matter of forgetfulness, of innocent neglect, if we don’t go out of our way to help those in need. Surely it isn’t that serious a deal. Jesus understands. Right?
Ezekiel 16:49: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”
The above passage makes it sound as if neglecting to “strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” is a bit more serious than it may at first sound. Also, going back to Matthew 25:
Verses 41-45: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
Even if our failure to help the poor and needy is only “innocent” neglect instead of malicious intent, the end result is the same: condemnation.
James 4:17: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”
We recently came into contact with a small Sabbath-keeping group in the United States which has a ministry in East Africa. The East African brethren are faithful and devout – and poor.
We all know the tales of what life is like in poor African countries – starvation, drought, poverty. We’ve heard of the violence inflicted on places like Darfur in Sudan. We see the commercials on TV that exhort us to donate, with accompanying videos of sad, pathetic-looking children. And we change the channel, and try not to think about it. We don’t want to feel bad for others while our TV show is on.
The situation in Africa is certainly unpleasant to think about. Many people go days without food. Some people have to walk two and a half hours one way just to get water. A car is an unheard-of luxury. A man who has taken it upon himself to help the Christians in Kenya travels long distances to help his flock – all by foot, except for the rare occasions when he can afford the $.25 bus fare. Money goes a lot further there than it does here.
We were told of the leader of a large Sabbath-keeping church, a splinter from the old Worldwide Church of God, who refused to help church members in Kenya. When told of the situation in East Africa, the brethren suffering there, and the ways that money – any amount – can be put to use there to ease the situation of the brethren, this church leader said that church, religion, is a business, and that he wouldn’t send any money to help the East Africans in need, because he “wouldn’t get any return on the investment” – even though his church is reported to have around $500,000 in tithes and offerings sitting in a bank account.
1 John 3:17: “But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
The poor and needy should not be looked on as an investment!
Exodus 22:25: “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.”
Usury is an Old English word that essentially means interest. In other words, Exodus 22:25 states that if you lend to the poor, don’t charge them interest on the loan – don’t look at it as an investment!
Luke 14:12-14: “Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.”
In other words: don’t look on charity as an investment – don’t expect to get money back from giving to those in need.
We cannot sit idly by while a brother is in need. But who is our brother? Only those affiliated with our church group? Only those who attend a church at all? Or, in fact, is all of humanity our brother?
Luke 10:25-37 “And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.”
In Jesus’ day, Samaritans were personae non grata. The Jews would avoid having anything to do with them, at all costs. And yet this Samaritan went out of his way to help a stranger, one who was presumably a Jew.
There is no excuse we can use to relieve ourselves of the duty, the obligation, to help fellow humans in need.
Galatians 6:10: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
We have a responsibility to do what we can, what is in our power, to help those in need. We are all, after all, of the body of Christ, at least potentially – and Jesus Christ is also a part of this body. Scripture establishes that whatever we do to our brethren – other members of the body - we do also to him. Do we really want to be guilty of neglecting the needs of our poor brethren – East African or otherwise – and thereby be guilty of neglecting Jesus?
Matthew 25:41-45: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”