When Are We Obligated to Help the Poor?

Wes  —  June 1, 2016
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The Bible has much to say concerning helping the poor. Proverbs 28:27 says the person who hides his eyes to poverty, “will get many a curse.” But we are quick to argue, “Yeah, but doesn’t the Bible also say, ‘If a man won’t work, neither should he eat.” So how much should Christians give to the poor? When should we give to the poor? What is our responsibility? This issue may be more important than you think.

help the poor

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Jesus told a parable, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ (Luke 12:16-17). So the man decides he will tear down his barns and build bigger barns. That way, he figures, he can rest from his labor and live on all the grain he had stored up for himself. But before he has a chance to enjoy any of it, God says to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be” (Luke 12:20)? Jesus concludes by saying, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Most of us hope this story is just about not being materialistic. We hope this story is about not trusting in our riches, or something like that. But the beginning of the parable tells us what it is about. Jesus was warning them to, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

The meaning of the parable seems rather simple, though we often complicate it so it doesn’t bite so much. The rich man had a bumper crop and he was afraid the extra would ruin. So instead of inviting his poor neighbors to come and share in his abundance, he hoarded it all for himself. God was not happy.

A Salvation Issue

Few things are made clearer in Scripture, if we are not generous towards those in need, we have no place in the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Proverbs 21:13 says, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” The apostle John makes the point, if you have “the world’s goods” and see your “brother in need,” but close your heart against him, the love of God does not abide in you (1 John 3:17).

James, the brother of Jesus, makes a similar point while talking about faith. He says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16).

Let those words from Proverbs sink in: if we close our ear “to the cry of the poor,” we ourself will “call out and not be answered.”

So, How Much?

When we know something is a “salvation issue,” we want to quantify our responsibilities. We want to create a systematic checklist, “In this case we must help, but in that case we do not have to help.” We want to know exactly how much, and in what situations, we’re obligated to give.

But Christianity doesn’t work that way! It’s not about checklists. It’s a lifestyle. It’s about principles, discernment, and wisdom.

Believe it or not, there were several times Paul told churches not to financially support people. The church in Thessalonica had a problem with some lazy Christians who weren’t working. So Paul told them, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). So how do we know when to refuse to feed someone (because they are lazy) and when to give them food (because they are truly in need)? The answer is wisdom, compassion, and love.

Paul wrote to Timothy in Ephesus and gave him instructions about financially supporting widows. First, he said, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4). Then he went on to say, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work” (1 Timothy 5:9-10).

Should these become hard and fast rules? If a woman never had children, but was a faithful Christian her whole life, and fell into poverty in her eighties, should the church refuse to support her because she hasn’t “brought up children”? If we are not careful, we will miss the fact that Paul’s main point is that if the church makes a habit of financially supporting young or ungodly women, they will likely “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (1 Timothy 5:13).

The key for knowing when to give money and when not to give money is developing a wise and compassionate heart.

We Don’t Like that Answer, Do We?

Like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18), we want to know the checklist. We want a quick and easy answer. We don’t want to hear Jesus saying, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).

We don’t want to hear that our salvation depends on us cultivating a generous Christ-like heart. We don’t want to hear that we must learn to be mature, wise, and discerning. We want clear-cut rules that say we must always do this in this situation or always do that in that situation.

But, again, that’s not Christianity. Christianity is about learning when to give and when to refuse to give. Christianity is about learning when to spend and when to save. Christianity is about learning when to enjoy something for yourself and when to help someone in need.

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Proverbs 4:7).

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams