ON ALLEVIATING POVERTY
I am aware that different people understand poverty differently. Everyone has his own concept of poverty because we see images of ‘poor’ people on television and internet every day. We daily hear their stories and situations over the radio and so we recognize the ‘face’ of poverty. Images and stories have power to create a certain concept in our mind shaped by our own unique personalities, experiences, backgrounds, cultures and thought processes.
However ‘we need to begin by reminding ourselves that poverty is the condition of people whom we describe abstractly as “the poor”.’ One definition of ‘poor’, for example, states that they are ‘those who barely survive. They struggle to obtain the necessities of life.’ One may consider poverty simply to be short of money or wealth. Another may associate it with hunger, malnutrition or homelessness. Still others may see it as a curse or bondage wherein one is bound and destined to suffer for the rest of his life.
Since there are so many ideas floating around us about poverty, we need to understand it and how we think and feel about the poor. How often do we tend to view the poor as a bunch of helpless people who need our money or goods? When we start thinking about them this way we give ourselves permission to play ‘god’ or ‘messiah’ in their lives.
This article is a shorter version of a paper I wrote way back in 2006 as part of my requirement in Pastoral Care and Counseling course. Here I briefly survey the Bible’s view on ministering to the poor. Then I’m proposing some courses of action in caring for the poor which individual Christian, families and even pastors could easily do.
A BRIEF BIBLICAL SURVEY ON MINISTERING TO THE POOR
Here I will try to summarize the Scripture’s view of and concern for the poor and the needy.
The expressed will of God in the Mosaic covenant regarding poverty is summarized in Deuteronomy 15:4. God says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess…” This revealed will of God is deeply rooted in his goodness toward his people and his mercy toward the pitiable who looks to him as their only hope and help. While poverty is a social reality throughout history it is never idealized. The Scripture teaches that poverty is a need, a distressing situation and a form of suffering. This is not delightful in the eyes of God for even in creation, before man fell into sin, he provided man with everything he needs in order to glorify God and enjoy life in His presence (Gen. 1:29-30; 2:16).
But although God’s will on poverty is clear, its realization is conditioned by the people’s covenantal obedience to God. Deuteronomy 15:5 continues, “if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” These commandments are embedded in many Old Covenant institutions and principles such as the observance of Sabbath (Ex. 20:6-7), the gleaning principle (Lev. 19:9-11; Deut. 24:19-21), Jubilee year (Lev. 25:39-43), Sabbatical year (Ex. 23:10-11), the law on credit (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-36), the law on wages (Deut. 24:14-15), the special tithe for the poor (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12-13), and many more.
Knowledge and faithful obedience to these laws mark the person as one who fears the Lord and is righteous before his eyes (Prov. 29:7; 31:9). But unfortunately Israel failed to keep them when they settled in Canaan and as a result “there will never cease to be poor in the land” (see Deut. 15:11).
These laws also were among the grounds for the charges brought by the prophets against Israel. They did not promote and protect the rights of the poor around them. According to Isaiah true piety includes care for the poor and genuine fasting includes sharing bread with the hungry (58:1-10). This teaching is echoed by James in the New Testament when he said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27).
God’s expressed will for the poor was never fully realized in history, but it became the basis for the prayers of the righteous for the hope that it would become a reality (Ps. 9:18; 132:15). Consequently, God’s will that there be no poor in the land continues to be mandated for the church, the ‘new Israel,’ as the obedience required by the kingdom of God that has been and will be given to those who acknowledge him as Lord and King (Luke 12:32-34).
In the Gospels, Jesus not only identified himself with the poor and the needy but also cared for them. In fact the Gospel writers present Jesus as the fulfillment of the hope of the poor and the needy when he inaugurates the kingdom of God in his person and work as the Lord’s Servant (Lk. 4:18-19; Mt. 11:2-5; cf. Isa. 61:1f.). He maintained the Old Testament teaching that the way of righteousness includes caring for the poor and his disciples assumed that this was so (Mk. 10:18-21; Lk. 18:22; Jn. 13:29). He strongly admonished his disciples to look for the poor (cf. Lk. 11:41; 12:33). In his epistles, Paul was consistent in urging the churches to give to the poor (Rom. 15:26-27; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Gal. 2:10). James in his letter also emphasized that discriminating between the rich and the poor is both a sin against God (2:9) and an insult to the poor (2:6).
Ultimately the problem of poverty will cease and poor people will be no more when Christ will consummate his kingdom in his second coming. Until then the church’s responsibility remains to take care of the poor, the needy and the orphans around them.
HOW DO WE CARE FOR THE POOR?
Our ministry as a church toward anyone who is in need must be motivated first and foremost by the love of God and love for our neighbor (Mk 12:28-31). This is the summary of God’s law. Just as God has blessed us with his goodness and mercy so also our work among the poor and the needy must be characterized by grace, compassion and kindness. The help we extend to the poor should be an expression of our gratitude for the manifold blessings God has given us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Biblically and historically this is always the case. Ministry to the poor springs from the fact that the church throughout redemptive history has been called by God to minister to the poor not only because this is the right posture to receive his blessing but also because God’s undeserving grace constrains the church to be generous and compassionate. This generosity is first extended to but not limited within the covenant community, the church (Lev. 25:25; Gal. 6:10). Then our generosity should also go to those outside the church, the non-believers: (1) neighbors in need (Lk. 10:25-27); (2) strangers or sojourners within our gates (Lev. 19:10; 23:22; Mt. 25:25, 43); and (3) enemies, on the basis of God’s benevolence to them (Mt. 5:45; Lk. 6:32-36).
The church’s responsibility toward the poor can be summarized as “Word and good works.” James writes to the believers, “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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:15-17). The Belgic Confession also declares that the first mark of the true church is the faithful preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel and that her members are known with their love for the one true God and their neighbors (Article 29).
I understand that there are many ways to care for the poor in our community as a church and individuals. Some churches and individual Christians have attempted to address the problem of poverty – including its roots (like injustice, oppression, exploitation, etc.) and its consequences (like malnutrition, hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, etc.) by getting involved in socio-political arena.
Two prominent examples of individuals in history who promoted the cause of the poor are John Calvin and William Wilberforce. The former, being a pastor and a theologian, led the Reformed church in Geneva in putting into action many social and economic reforms in the city. Calvin not only taught godliness and holy living but also good economics and work ethics. He promoted godly education to prepare the children for ministry and involvement in the civil government. The latter, being a parliamentarian, advocated for the abolition of slavery in 18th century England. Wilberforce’s effort to outlaw slave trade and slavery was finally rewarded by God after more than 30 years of patient and persistent introduction of anti-slavery legislation year in year out in the British Parliament.
Word and good works must go together as we reach out to the poor and needy. The Great Commission involves not only the proclamation of the gospel and training the people unto holiness but also the observance of all that our Lord Jesus has commanded, which include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick and the prisoner for his name's sake (Mt. 25:34-40). We should not only minister to the poor in terms of telling them that they are sinners and need to be reconciled with God through Christ but also in terms of providing them food to eat, clothes to wear, and job or skills to earn their keep.
Assuming that the church does her job in the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the things that church members could do as acts of mercy for the poor are captured in this amazing passage from the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions. In this collection of apostolic teachings the churches are instructed to provide: (1) to the orphans the care of parents; (2) to the widows the care of the husbands; (3) to those of suitable age, marriage; (4) to the artisan, work; (5) to the disabled, sympathetic response; (6) to travelers, a house; (7) to the hungry, food; (8) to the thirsty, drink; (9) to the naked, clothing; (10) to the sick, visitation; (11) to the prisoner, help…(12) to young, assistance that they may learn a trade. These apostolic commands are not that hard to apply in our context.
Regarding pastoral responsibility toward the poor, I think Thomas Oden’s insight on this is not a bad place to start. Oden, an American Methodist pastor-theologian who has been converted from liberalism to ‘classical Christianity’ after reading the church fathers, has written in his book Pastoral Theology a sound advice for pastors and elders on taking responsibility in ministering to the poor. He said,
In seeking to understand pastoral responsibility to the poor, pastors do well to begin with serious self-examination of their own attitudes, class interests, biases, potentially idolatrous relation to personal wealth, and temptations to exaggerate the importance of possessions for genuine happiness.
This self-examination according to Oden may be a difficult one for it involves honest assessment of the things that really matters to us. Reality sometimes hits us that our own attitude toward God and self are simply informed by our own intuition and not based on the knowledge of God. We need a good dose of self-examination that would lead to self-transformation, by the grace of God. It may mean to adopt a moderate lifestyle (Heb. 13:5), to learn to be content in every situation (1 Tim. 6:6), or to learn to give sacrificially without neglecting our own needs and the needs of our family. If we are to minister effectively to others we must learn to be self-disciplined and generous but not neglectful to the point that our families or we ourselves become a liability or burden to others.
Sometimes it is lamentable that our concept of the poor is simply shaped by the images we see in the television detached from the real world of the poor and the oppressed. What this means for individual Christians, and especially for pastors, then in terms of the ministry to the poor is to learn and to have firsthand experience of the situation of the poor themselves. We need to go out where the poor people live in order to see in their faces the pain they try to hide, listen with their voices the needs they aspire, and feel their sufferings behind every sigh they sound. With this kind of experience a minister will be able to identify the real issues involved and can start an intelligent course of action that would truly help the poor, either those in his congregation or those outside.
Firsthand experience of poverty will not only help minister in identifying its real issue and sympathize with the poor but also it can deepen his teaching and preaching ministry in his congregation, emphasizing the importance and urgency of obeying Christ in caring for the poor and needy. He should also patiently teach the congregation until every family and individual, if possible, will be moved by the grace of God to own the responsibility and start engaging themselves in actual outreach or relief work among the poor.
In his letter to the Roman Christians Paul made mention of his relief work for the Jerusalem church. The relief or gifts came from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia for, he said,
Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings (Rom. 15:26-27).When one body of believers is in need and another body of Christ responds in generous giving, the Lord is pleased and the whole body is edified. Pastors play a significant role in effecting this ministry among needy brethren. The recent calamity that hit the Philippines in November 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda (International Name: Haiyan), has moved many pastors and churches in the Philippines and all over the world to send aid and meet the immediate need of millions of families devastated by the typhoon. Emails from pastors and mission agency heads from various churches and denominations from North America has reached my email inbox asking how they can help the people affected by the calamity. They responded well to the needs of the poor and needy in our country. As a result many thanked the Lord and those who were skeptical to gospel preaching have started listening to God's Word.
So the minister should preach, pray for, and practice generosity and compassionate giving until the church actively seeks to help people in need. Like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable who rescued the dying man on the road to Jericho, the church should learn to pray and look for opportunity to do the same (Lk. 10:37).
If the church does not have a concrete ministry yet that meets the need of the poor and needy in the community, I think the pastor can initiate that ministry together with the elders and deacons. They can take smaller steps at first but should aim at establishing a more orderly and systematic approach of helping the poor, first in the congregation, and then to the community where the church is located. Again needy people in the church community should be the priority but not the only recipients of the aid. Maybe the church can set up a steady fund for benevolent purposes or gather all kinds of stuff from church members who have more than enough that can be given to the poor members of the church and the community.
While doing this, a team led preferably by a deacon should also be assigned to investigate facts like: 1) who are the most needy people in the church and the community; (2) what are their needs; and (3) what can the church do and cannot do with the situation. Then the team could analyze, summarize, and communicate their findings to the whole congregation for prayer and consideration.
Then if the church decides to embark in a concrete and regular ministry to the poor, I think, the idea of working with other local congregations or even with a non-government organizations with the same concern should also be explored. In all of these dynamics, the minister though should not neglect his primary ministry of the Word, the sacraments and prayer.
Blessing is promised to those who care for the poor and the needy for “he who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” (Prov. 19:17). Our Lord Jesus echoed the same note when he related the parable of the sheep and the goat saying,
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matt. 25:34-40).
The church, as God’s covenant community should take the lead in doing every good work to mete out mercy, justice and truth. The famous Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper said,
Jesus set apart and sent out his church among the nations to influence society in three ways. The first and most important influence was through the ministry of the Word…. The church’s second influence was through an organized ministry of charity…. Third, the church influenced society by the equality of brotherhood – in contrast to differences in rank and station…. Indeed, as a direct consequence of Christ’s appearing and extension of his church among the nations, society has been remarkably changed.
For the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and for the good of the poor, especially those in the covenant community let us learn to open our hand to the poor and lend them sufficient for their need, whatever it may be (Deut. 15:8). The Lord summons his people in Deuteronomy 15:10 to be generous to the poor when he said, “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” As members of God’s family in Christ Jesus let us therefore hear this Word of the Lord and rejoice in his promise.