The Biblical Way to Care for the Poor

We all need to participate. But how exactly?

From the outset, I admit that I get nervous about applying specific Biblical texts to our modern national policy.  The Torah was the law of God, so ancient Israel was a theocracy.  We shouldn’t bring these old laws forward to today in all their literalness and details.

Instead, we need merely to look for general principles.

So let’s get started interpreting the Bible for today, cautiously.

If readers would like to see the verses in various translations, they may go to Biblegateway.com and type in the references.

Participation from the Giver

One of the striking features of charity in the Torah is that people physically participate in it.  They hauled their crops and produce to the nearby towns to help out the poor.

In one law, the people are to bring the tithes (one tenth) to the local town, every third year, and store them, so the poor, orphans, widows, and resident aliens could take what they needed.  The Levites who had no allotment or inheritance in the land also received from this once-every-three year tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).  So this act of charity was done locally and physically.

In still another law, about celebrating the Feast of Weeks, people are to swing the sickle on the crops, harvest them, and then celebrate a feast at the place God chooses.  Not only do the well-off celebrate, but the Levites, resident aliens, orphans, and widows do, too, thus breaking down class distinctions (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).

In these passages and others, a big central government, such as it was back then, does not stand over the shoulders of the people and perform charity in their place.  People did it with their own hands.

The best charity is local.

Participation from the Receiver

Another feature of the Torah is that the poor had to work for charity.

If, for example, a man became poor and had to sell himself to a wealthier family who would employ him as a hired servant, he could redeem himself out of his servitude once he got his finances in order, or when the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10) or the sabbatical manumission year came around.  The sabbatical year means that he had to work six years and was freed in the seventh (Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18, Leviticus 25:39-41).

Finally, the landowners were commanded to leave behind some of the crops and grapes so the poor could go out to get them; in other words, the poor had to work (Leviticus 19:9-10).

The Book of Ruth shows this harvesting law for the poor in action.  Boaz, a righteous man, left part of his harvest for Ruth, an impoverished Moabitess, a foreigner.  She regularly went out to the field to gather in the leftover grain.  Eventually they got married and lived happily ever after.

The dominant picture is the landowner Boaz being generous, while any government, such as it was, does not interfere with him.

Thus, the wealthy who earn a living from their growing, profitable business and hire workers who also earn a living from that same prosperous business must step up and help the poor who are willing to work for it.

The best charity is done locally, and by the hands of both the giver and the receiver.

New Testament Participation

In the New Testament era, Jesus and his church looked beyond the nation of Israel.  Their mission was to go global.  The same is true in the kingdom of God: participatory charity.  But by and large, the New Testament is interested in the giver — what is his motive and attitude?

To begin with, five thousand men followed Jesus to a mountainside in the country to hear him speak.  After a while he saw they were hungry, so he asked what food the disciples could gather from the people.  One boy had five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:9).  Working a miracle, Jesus multiplied the food and fed the entire crowd, with seven baskets full of leftovers (Mark 6:30-44).

That is, Jesus did not call Peter, James, and John over to him and say, “Hey, you three!  Run like the wind to Jerusalem and report that there are a lot of poor people out here!  The Jerusalem central planners need to form a committee and set up a bureaucracy to feed them!”

No, Jesus used a private, nongovernmental initiative to feed the poor.  First he got the food from the people themselves.  They participated.  Then, apart from a gigantic central Jerusalem bureaucracy, he multiplied the food that was available.

Further, in one of his discourses, Jesus says he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, and sick, and in prison, and his followers cared for him. They asked him when they had seen him in that condition.  He replied, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-40).

Jesus was speaking to his followers, not a cadre of government bureaucrats.  Performing these acts of charity is the job of his kingdom’s people, who should not wait for the government.

The early church also practiced giving food to the poor, privately (Acts 6:1-7, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10).  The leaders did not depend on the Jerusalem and Roman governments.

Paul also says widows can be cared for, but only if they meet certain requirements, like living a godly life and not being busybodies (1 Timothy 5:9-16).

Paul says that members of the church are to lead quiet lives, mind their own business, work with their hands, and not depend on anybody (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).  Maybe in those two verses the poor could get day laborer jobs, which often required working with one’s hands.

And finally, Paul says: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

In all these cases, the church does not wait for and depend on the Jerusalem or Roman governments.  Rather, Christians participated in the charity work with their own hands.  The best charity is local.

Key Principles

The main principle that comes across clearly is that the ordinary citizen participated in charity.  Call it participatory charity, both from the giver and receiver.

This principle also appears in the biblical text: since the ancient Hebrews did not have a centralized powerful government early in their history, which comes later in their theocratic monarchy, they had to work out a system that bypassed bureaucrats doing charity in their place.

However, even the numerous Old Testament verses relating to the poor, written during the monarchy, do not necessarily assume a centralized government doing charity in place of the people of means (e.g., Psalms 10; 12; 15; 72; 82; 112:5-9; Proverbs 13:23; 14:21, 31; 17:5; 21:13; 22:3, 16, 22-23; 28:3, 15, 27; 29:13; Isaiah 1:2-5:30; 58:1-14; Jeremiah 7:1-15; Amos 2:6-8; 5:21-24; 8:4-6; Micah 6:6-8).

Another principle: the best charity is local.

Incidentally, though much of poverty, according to the Bible, is caused by no fault of ordinary people, the Bible directs some criticism at those who become impoverished due to their own laziness (Proverbs 6:6-11; 24:30-34), greed (Prov. 11:24; 28:22), and failure to follow counsel (Prov. 13:15-18).

However, these self-inflicted poor are not the concern of this article; rather, we are talking about the genuinely poor.

The Modern American Context

We should not bring back the specific commandments of the Old Torah or the radical call of the New Testament Kingdom of God to modern American legal policies in all the Bible’s literalness and details.  That’s not what this article is about.

Instead, we have been looking for general principles, just as our American Forefathers did, as they scanned the Greek, Roman, and biblical authors for ideas about what to do and what not to do.

In a modern American context, the religious left generally supports big government to implement economic and social justice (as leftists define the terms).  However, studies confirm that if all Christians tithed, poverty would just about end.  Even if, hypothetically, that were only two-thirds true, the churches of America could support feeding and housing programs that would go a long way toward ending poverty, in addition to preaching the gospel and changing people’s hearts.

That’s participatory charity.  The best charity is local.  That’s true and full Biblical justice.  That’s the moral high ground.

Can we apply those principles to our society today?

Yes, for big government gets in the way; it is notoriously inefficient.

We can hardly call the government super-computer biblical participatory charity.  A huge government bureaucracy enforcing charity laws or performing charity in our place breaks the spirit of the biblical text.

Maybe we are forced to compromise with the game show: part of our state budgets, paid for (hopefully) by fair and reasonable taxes, can go to a temporary “safety net” for the genuinely poor and others who hit bumps in the road.

But a decentralized government program, moving away from Washington, D.C., follows the spirit of the old Law of Moses and the new Kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in more closely than a centralized bureaucracy does.  If we insist on government bureaucracy doing our charity in our place, then at least it should be local.

Yet, better than any state program, individual citizens, working together, need to step up and not wait for or depend on the government to do their charity work for them.  And the poor need to work.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

It’s simple: We the people need to participate.

Here are important verses about helping widows in your family and others in need in your own family:

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:3-8, NIV)

Those verses teach that if a widow has children and grandchildren, they should take care of her and not put her name on a list of widows (v. 9, not shown here) )who may not have them. Then Paul broadens the family obligation. If anyone does not care for the members of his own household, he is worse than an unbeliever. In other words, applying this today and your life, if you have frail members of your family, take care of them, and don’t depend on big government.

Written by James Malcolm

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