The Christian and Poverty
These pages could not hold all the words our Lord delivered to his saints on the subject of poverty and wealth distribution. Without exception, in both the Old and the New Testament, a spirit of generosity and empathy is enjoined while greed, materialism, injustice, and covetousness is soundly condemned.
"He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker: But he that honoreth Him hath mercy upon the poor" (Prov.14:31). "He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will he pay him again" (Prov.19:17). "The rich and the poor meeteth together: and the Lord is the maker of them all. He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor" (Prov.22:2,9).
Some Odd Feelings Towards Poverty
The United States is the richest nation on the face of the earth. Even our poor have access to charity clothing, food and shelter unavailable to the poor in other lands. But with our material wealth has come some strange attitudes. There is a definite attitude among those who have in the "land of opportunity," that if a man is poor, or destitute, or in need that his condition is a moral failing. The poor are held in contempt. Those ground down by poverty "could help themselves if only they weren't so lazy." Brethren salve their indifference to the poor by joking about "Welfare Cadillacs" and noting that "shanty town" has T.V. antennas. At the check out counters of the supermarket as we wheel our loaded shopping carts up behind the poor soul who is buying "junk food" with food stamps, we silently tell our self in derision, "I wish I could sit back and quit work, and munch chocolates living off of other people's labor." I saw a filler in a Gospel paper a few years back that said, "I am a soldier in the war on poverty. I work for a living." I think that people with such attitudes should quit their jobs for a few months, and then make application for welfare and food stamps. If they would try living on the level such support provides, they would not be as contemptuous of those that do. It is easy to call those in poverty as "lazy" when we are warm, full, and secure.
Since most of those who live in poverty are black (or non-white) there is often a racial slur attached to poverty. Some preachers and brethren effect heavy southern Negro dialect and mock the poor in contempt. "Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker: and he that is glad at calamities shall not go unpunished" (Prov. 17:5). Racial discrimination causes non-whites to work at the lowest paying jobs and they suffer much higher unemployment than whites. Often unskilled and poorly educated they are not motivated to better themselves because of the cultural effects of poverty. Many of these poor suffer mental, social, and physical damage.
Who are the poor? They are the very young and the very old. The old are often sick, immobile, and lonely, living their last years in neighborhoods that have changed or in rented rooms. The young often live in areas where they must grow up too quickly; where juvenile crime runs wild; where human life is cheap, human character counts for little, and where sex, narcotics, alcohol, and perversion are ever present and available. They live in an atmosphere where they are merchandised by religion, government, and the rich. They quickly develop unhealthy attitudes which undermine a lifetime.
The Invisible Poor
The poor are invisible to those who are comfortable. The inadequate housing of the poor are often concentrated in a section of town that the comfortable never visit. These neighborhoods are not in areas where the rich may go to shop, visit, or frequent for entertainment. And because the comfortable do not have to see poverty they delude themselves into thinking that it is not a very great problem.
I have found brethren in slums in Baltimore that would make most people shudder. One girl lived with her brother in a "squatter's row home." The row homes had been condemned by the city and some had been burned and gutted by vandals. As I walked into the "front room" through a door which hung on a shoe sole nailed to the door, I saw that their garbage was stacked in the next room that had been gutted by fire. The floor had been mended with flattened beer cans to keep out the cold. The plaster on the walls had been broken and smashed so that the lathing showed through. The roof leaked and the ceilings were moldy with water. The newly converted girl lived in a windowless room overlooking the street. Her brother and his "woman" lived across the hall on a soiled and burned mattress lying on the floor. I recall that before this girl was taken into the home of one of the members, brethren used to comment to one another out loud, "I wonder why she is so dirty? Soap and water are cheap." In her case, soap and water was what she used at the local filling station bathroom.
The far emotional distance many brethren have and like to maintain from poverty is illustrated in another example. One of our women, converted and faithful to the Lord in all things, fell ill. Her husband was profligate, and a couple of the women decided to visit and help her by doing some housework. For some, this was the first time they had visited this woman. They worked hard all day, and afterwards one woman who lives in a $60,000 house commented, "I didn't think people could live that way!" The old tenement building they cleaned was not an example of abject poverty, but this woman actually got sick at toilets that did not work, at showers whose floors were black with mold, at inadequate kitchens, and furniture. She was appalled that the children slept on thin mattresses, and the parents had no bed but a mattress, while she had extra furniture stored away in her two car garage.
Many think, "Because I have all my needs met, everyone else must be in the same situation. If they are not, then it is their fault, not mine." This is a human reaction and an old one. The poor are embarrassing, and we do not like to be made uncomfortable in our affluence. "All the brethren of the poor do hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him? He pursueth them with entreaties, yet they are wanting to him" (Prov. 19:7).
"Ye Did It Unto Me. . ."
Jesus was poor. He was readily accepted by the poor, the unskilled, the beggars, the menial workers, the socially unacceptable. He ate his meals with "publicans and sinners" in his effort to help them. He had no place to call his own, no home, no apartment, no walk-up flat, no rented room, not even a bed to call his own (Matt. 8:20). He had everything when he was with the Father, but became poor for our sakes (2 Cor.8:9). He depended upon others for his support, food, and lodging (Luke 10:38-42; 19:1-10). Jesus gave us an example. He told us that the manner in which we treat the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the man in trouble-this was to be as we cared for Him. If we neglected our opportunities then we had neglected Him. I wonder what our reaction would be today if a good man came to our assembly in ragged, vile clothing and said that he was a preacher of righteousness. Would it be the same if a man came to our assembly in a $200 Brooks Brothers suit, sporting a razor trim and wearing an expensive cologne and declared the same thing? The way we treat "the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matt. 25:35ff; Jas. 2:1-10).
Our hospitality is to be a freely offered thing, with no strings attached. It is not to be offered with a superior attitude of charity, but in a spirit of love and dignity (1 Cor. 13:3). God is concerned as to motives and attitudes displayed in our hospitality. "When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors; lest they also bid thee again and a recompense be made unto 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" (Luke 14:12-14). When so much of our social life is directed towards selfserving ends, the words of our Lord need attention sorely. Social meals for self-advancement or ingratiation are unworthy of those who serve Jesus.
We may think that God has given us responsibility to work for only one purpose: to provide for the needs of ourselves and our families. But, the scriptures give a second reason for labor, and a primary reason for the Christian. "I have shewed you all things, how that so laboring ye ought to support the weak and to remember the words of our Lord Jesus, how he said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:35). "But rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good that he may have to give to him that needeth" (Eph. 4:28).
Jesus taught that the test of our discipleship is our willingness to support those who are without with what we have. "Who so hath this world's goods, and seeth his brother hath need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him" (1 Jn. 3:17-19).
The Church's Role in Combatting Poverty
The church has a definite responsibility, clearly taught in the word of God, to care for the needs of the saints wherever they may be throughout the world. There ought not to be one saint among us that should go without while we have so much. The collections of the churches are for the needs of the brethren. Today those collections go primarily to support church meeting places, provide for the evangelism of the church and in support of Gospel preaching. Within bounds of propriety, expedience, and conscience this is a lawful, proper, and godly use of the collection. But the primary use of our weekly collection is to be the same as it was for the first century church: "The daily ministration" (Acts 6:1); "Relief unto the brethren... who dwelt in Judaea" (11:29); "...to minister unto the saints ...the poor saints who are at Jerusalem" (Rom.15:25; "The collection for the saints" (1 Cor. 16;1); "The fellowship of the ministering to the saints" (2 Cor. 8:4; 9:12,1; Heb. 6:10, etc). I wonder how many churches would petition for benevolence from other churches to enable them to care for their own today? I wonder how many of them would question the "scripturality" of giving such support on a regular basis to another church, until the need was met?
In my experience I have seen that "church benevolence" often is a case of several brethren "chipping in," to meet an immediate need on a one time basis. These special collections are unscriptural. The reason we "lay by in store" is that there be "no gatherings" of a special nature that will be necessitated by need (1 Cor. 16:1-3). The primary use of our treasury is for "distribution unto every man as he hath need."
I have known "church treasurers" who refused to write checks for needy saints, on the grounds that "Our money is the Lord's money, and we are going to use it to preach the gospel, not waste it on the poor." The church overruled his objections and set aside the funds for the poor's use. A month later when one of the brethren came upon one of their number begging from door to door because of hunger, it became known that the treasurer had refused to write the check because such support was "unscriptural."
I have known brethren who have said, "Why not let them go on welfare. That is what we pay taxes for. Let them go on welfare that the church be not charged." There should be no brother 'who is on welfare. The church cares for its own!
I have known churches who "loaned" money to brethren who were in need and expected that the benevolence be paid back. Some even charge interest! Our benevolence is without usury; it is a gift, not a loan.
I have known churches that would not care for their own needy because "it isn't in the budget." They had air conditioning plants to pay for, and new pews. They had a reputation to uphold as a generous church that sends $25 a month to 25 preachers. They could not "cut back" their "evangelistic work." They had "commitments." The church which is of Christ has only one budget: "As every man hath need." To meet that budget the church of the first centruy raised its funds when brethren "sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men as every man had need"(Acts 2:45). "...having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostle's feet" (Acts 4:37). "How that in a great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality ...beyond their power they were willing of themselves; praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering of the saints" (2 Cor. 8:1-4). Those brethren first gave themselves to God. They did not count their substance as their own. They did not set arbitrary "budgets". They served the Lord and made whatever sacrifices were necessary to see that the needs of the church and the gospel were met.
Individually we are to seek opportunity to help whom we can (Ga1.6:10; Jas.1:27). As a people, a church, a congregation we minister to the needs of the saints. God is concerned with the needs of his children and their suffering. God cares when people are hungry, poorly clad, and hopeless. Whatever stunts a person's potential is of concern to God and should also concern his people.
But, not only should we have an abiding interest in relieving people's immediate needs, but we need to take thought of eliminating the causes of poverty. Men do not need charity as much as they need an opportunity to work for a living, or to recieve the training necessary to get a job. The effects of poverty are certain. Poverty perpetuates itself and the poor are often caught up m the vicious cycle of poverty linked consequences. Inadequate housing, diet, education, unhygenic facilities, frequent illness, or racial animosity make it difficult to get steady and profitable work. Without work the conditions of poverty persist, the unwholesome conditions are not removed.. Thus a culture of poverty results. Hopelessness leads to social "dropping out" and animosity towards the "system." Crime increases as hopelessness, bitterness, futility, and apathy flourish. The Christian must replace the futility of poverty with hope "as each man has opportunity."
Truth Magazine XXI: 36, pp. 571-573