Care for the Poor

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Wednesday, September 12, 2018 0 comments

by David Odegard

“Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” -Ephesians 4:28

I have written extensively concerning care for the poor (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and of course, here). The reason that care for the poor must follow after a robust theology of work is that it is from private earnings that voluntary donations are made to care for the poor. To put it another way, one must work and then have something to share. Relief for the poor must be voluntary, not coerced, or it is not truly generosity. Capitalism has improved the lives of almost everyone on the planet.

In the early church, Christians were selling their lands and goods in order to share with other Christians in need (see Acts 2:45). All of this was voluntary, motivated by love and compassion. The early church continued in this way, holding their own possessions loosely and with an eye on the needs of the Christian community as a whole. Christians would “from time to time” sell a piece of land and give the proceeds to the church to distribute unto the needs of the church at large (see Acts 4:32-37).

Nothing in the text suggests that anyone was forced to do this, but that it was the overflow of generous hearts grateful to be saved by Christ. Then we read of Ananias and Sapphira who also sold a piece of land and brought some of the money to the Apostles. They lied about how much the sale was because they wanted to appear to be generous while still retaining some of the money. No problem would have arisen from this situation if they had not lied. Peter said to them, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:3-4).

I write all this to illustrate the point that care for the poor arises out of the fruits of productive labor; furthermore, it must remain voluntary for it to be an act of charity. If I threaten to clobber you over the head with a caveman’s club if you do not give me your money, it makes little difference what I do with the money afterward even if I give it to my poor friend so he can buy noodles. One can never call coerced transactions charitable. They are extractions or extortions, but never an act of generosity.

That being said, Christ has saved my life and therefore, I owe Him my life as a debt. He has become my Lord and Master because I have submitted to His lordship over me. He is my king. Jesus is an absolute monarch, but He is so very benevolent that His “yoke is light,” especially in comparison to the slavery to sin from which He set me free. Therefore, whatever demands Jesus might make on me, I am honor-bound to comply.

Jesus once told a rich young man to sell everything and follow Him (see Mark 10:17-31). This young man was too possessed of his possessions; they held mastery over him. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said (Luke 16:13, Matthew 6:24). For this young man to follow Jesus and thereby receive eternal life, he had to lose a master to gain a master. He chose to serve the master of money and damned his eternal soul. Jesus can make any demand on me that He chooses, and I must comply. But only Jesus has this power over me. I have other obligations, to love my wife, to obey civil authority, to worship with the church every Sunday and more, to tithe, to read my Bible, etc., but all of these duties and obligations arise from my acceptance of the Lordship of Christ.

It is from the Lordship of Christ that I take seriously the command to care for the poor. Unless I become convinced that some specific action is required of me, I am able to decide how best to go about making provision for the poor. To put it another way, I might feel in my heart certain compassion for someone and take that as communication from the Holy Spirit to do something specific. I am then responsible to do so.

I recall on one occasion, I felt that God wanted me to give a missionary $50, but I only had $30 at the time (I was still a broke teenager). I shrugged off the suggestion since I obviously didn’t have the money, I plucked a book from my shelf and a $20 dollar bill fell to the floor. I do not believe it was supernaturally minted, but rather that I had long forgotten that it was there. The timing of the circumstances made a lasting impression on me to always respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Even if I do not sense supernatural guidance, however, I still have an obligation to care for the needs of the poor—especially those who are in the household of believers (see Galatians 6:10). I am able to use my reason to make solid lasting plans to not only meet the short-term needs of the poor, but also their long-term needs. We must teach the poor how to care for themselves. In so doing, we transform a negative situation into a positive one. I have always found joy from seeing someone on welfare subsidies come to Christ and be discipled in the proper use of money. To watch them no longer need welfare and to become a productive person who is then a giver to others and a supporter of the church is a tremendous blessing.

In our care for the poor, we must constantly guard ourselves from two conditions: apathy and creating dependency. Apathy is not caring enough about the condition of the poor to make a difference in their lives. Creating a condition of dependency is scandalous. Giving someone cash is almost always a way to create a dependent. Meeting a specific need is better: paying their heating bill, buying a bag of groceries, etc. The potential to misuse cash is too high. I am not talking only about someone using it for booze, gambling, or drugs, although that is a possibility, and in our society these are the main causes of poverty.

Sometimes poverty comes from just not knowing how to manage money or the proper value of things. Once, I helped a man get out of jail on the condition that he would get a job and remain in a counseling relationship with me. He did get a job, and the first paycheck he ever had was entirely blown on the stupidest things. I recall that he bought three ball point writing pens for $45. I explained that he had higher needs than expensive writing pens and that he should return them to the store. “I need some good pens,” was his stubborn reply. Of course, it was his money. But giving him more of it was not his greatest need, obviously.

Constant reader, avoid apathy and create no conditions for scandal. Be smart in your giving and always give as unto the Lord. Tithe, support the mission of the church, and get advice. And, if you see that your helping is actually hurting, please change your strategy.

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