On this point the message of the Bible is clear: God cares deeply about the poor and expects His people to do the same. Let’s take a closer look at the scriptural teaching in this regard.
We’ll begin with the Old Testament. A mechanism designed specifically to provide for the needs of the poor was built into the Mosaic Law in the form of regulations governing the reaping and gleaning of fields: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:9, 10). Concern for the needy was in fact regarded as part and parcel of Israel’s religious life and an aspect of worship: “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker,” declares Proverbs 14:31, “but he who honors Him has mercy on the needy.” This is why the prophets consistently railed against the rich and powerful who were guilty of “plundering” the poor and “grinding their faces” (Isaiah 3:14, 15).
In the New Testament, the apostle James gives expression to the same idea when he writes, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). When he penned this, James might have been thinking of the poor widow who, according to Jesus, made a greater contribution to the temple treasury than all the rich donors combined, since “out of her poverty she put in all that she had to live on” (Luke 20:4). He may also have had in mind Christ’s memorable words to the “rich young ruler” who wanted to know what he needed to do in order to be saved: “If you wish to be perfect,” Jesus said to this man, “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). Another key passage in this connection is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ well known Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in which the glorious Son of Man tells the righteous, “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me” (verses 35-36). When the righteous ask Him, “When did we do these things for you?” He responds, “To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (verse 40).
Contributing liberally to the needs of the poor, then, is a cardinal Christian duty. According to Proverbs, it’s one of the marks of the righteous man that he “gives and does not spare” (Proverbs 21:26). But when we’ve said this, we haven’t exhausted what the Scriptures have to tell us on the subject of poverty. Not by a long shot. On a very different and far more radical level the Bible also has a great deal to say about the spiritual advantages of the poor. The kingdom of heaven, as preached by Jesus, is a topsy-turvy place where the first are last, the weak are strong, and the poor are rich: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly,” sings Mary in the Magnificat, praising the Lord in anticipation of the coming of this kingdom; “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52, 53). “Blessed are you poor,” says Jesus, “for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). James is perhaps clearest of all: “Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation …” (James 1:9, 10); “Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5).
If we put these two thoughts together – that is, if we approach the importance of being generous to the poor in light of the notion that they are actually our superiors in spiritual things – we come to an astonishing conclusion: namely, that Christian giving is not so much a matter of helping the poor as it is of identifying with them and embracing their poverty as our own. Disciples of Jesus are not called to be saviors of the poor but sharers with them. By giving to the needy out of what we have, we cast our lot with them, entering into a kind of mutual bond and solidarity in terms of both want and wealth, “that there may be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14). The central goal in all of this is spiritual in nature. It’s that each and every one of us should learn to approach God’s throne of grace with the attitude that we are absolutely destitute: “This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him” (Psalm 34:5) – that’s the mental attitude behind every genuine and effective prayer.
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