God’s Concern for the Poor
Martin Luther King, Jr. is most often remembered for his leadership in the struggle against racial injustice, but it is sometimes forgotten that at the end of his life King had begun to focus his efforts on the problem of poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign, organized in 1968 by MLK and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was an attempt to draw attention to the needs of poor Americans of all races. Regardless of one’s views of the policies this campaign advocated, Christians can agree that the needs of the poor are of great concern to God.
God’s concern for the poor is a major theme throughout scripture. Over 2,000 verses about poverty and justice can be found in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. This theme appears in every major genre of biblical literature:
In the Mosaic Law:
“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
In the Psalms:
“[The LORD} upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry…. The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” (Psalm 146:7a, 9)
In wisdom literature:
“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31)
In the prophets:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 56:6-7)
In the words of Jesus:
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)
In the writings of the Apostles:
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
Frequently in scripture, God’s concern for the poor is focused on three representative groups of people: the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants. What these groups had in common was their economic vulnerability and their lack of social capital. A discussion of poverty today might also mention groups such as: the elderly, the disabled, the rurally isolated, the educationally deprived, the undocumented, and the racially marginalized.
Addressing the needs of the poor is a complicated subject. Sometimes efforts to alleviate poverty can do more harm than good, creating patterns of dependency and robbing the poor of their dignity. To deal effectively with the problem of poverty involves relief, empowerment, and structural change. But, despite the difficulty of the task, those who take scripture seriously will agree that ignoring the needs of the poor is not an option.
When we read what the Bible says about poverty, it is important not to filter its words through the lens of American political debates. Not everything is about politics.
As a pastor I have observed that church members from conservative political backgrounds sometimes get nervous when they hear God’s compassion for the poor proclaimed from the pulpit. I find this reaction perplexing. Political conservatives do not hate poor people. They simply feel that the expansion of government programs is not the best way to alleviate poverty. Political conservatives should rejoice to hear their preacher challenge the church to help the poor rather than shuffling this responsibility off on tax-payers.
In the same way, political progressives sometimes assume that the Bible’s emphasis on justice for the poor means that God is a member of their party. This reaction is equally mistaken. It is easy to neglect our personal responsibility to love our neighbor and to hide, instead, behind our voting record. On judgment day, what we long to hear our Savior say is, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me …” (Mt. 25:35-36a, emphasis added). It will do no good to hear Jesus say, “I was hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in need, and you supported a candidate who promised to help me.” 1 John 3:18 says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
Personally, I sometimes find it overwhelming to walk through our neighborhood and think about how to respond to the needs around us. There are so many people and so many needs. This makes me grateful for our church’s Diaconate and how they provide us with practical ways to serve others. By connecting us with programs such as Safe Families for Children, the Hour Children Food Pantry, the Hillside Center for Education, and the church’s ESL Program, they give us opportunities to get involved. Similarly, the Diaconate helps us to serve needs within our congregation through the rides ministry, the meals ministry, the helps ministry, and the Faith and Finances class. You can learn more about these ministries here and here and here.
Perhaps the most important thing any Christian can do for the poor is to get involved in the life of a healthy church. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas often made the point that “the first social task of the church is to be the church.” What he meant was that merely existing as a community where everyone is treated with respect regardless of their socio-economic status and where people share their resources with each other provides a bold witness to the world of the power of God. This calls for us to be a church that not only serves the poor, but also a church that includes the poor and embraces them in its fellowship. As Costanzo, Yang, and Soerens have written in their book Inalienable: “A key measure of true health in our churches – of far greater importance than the quality of our programming – is the meaningful belonging of a socially and economically diverse membership.”
When Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” he was primarily talking to the church not to individual Christians. It is when people see the good deeds of the church that they “glorify [our] Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16). Let us pray that God will empower us to be a congregation from which the light of Christ shines brightly through our love for and service to those whom Jesus called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matt. 25:40).
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