What Is Our Responsibility to the Poor?
The Bible describes God as having a special concern for the poor and needy. Deuteronomy 10:18 says, "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing." The next verse is a charge to God's servants to reflect this same attitude: "You are to love those who are aliens." Often the Bible presents concern for the poor as an accurate measure of an individual's faithfulness (Luke 3:11; James 2:14-19).
As Christians, we should always be thinking about how we can fulfil our responsibility to the poor and needy. They are our neighbours, and we are to love our neighbours as ourselves (see Luke 10:27-37). This becomes all the more urgent when we realize that one-fifth of the world's population lives in absolute poverty while another fifth consumes four-fifths of the world's income. A large percentage of this second category identify themselves as Christian. When Jesus saw the hungry crowds, he fed them (Mark 8:1-10). As his followers, we too should do something to feed the starving millions in the world today.
There are many who say that if only the poor would work hard, they could improve their lot in life. The Bible recognizes that some people are to blame for their poverty. There are lazy people (Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4), drunkards, and gluttons (Proverbs 23:20, 21). Yet many of the world's poor are placed in surroundings that are not conducive to self-advancement. They lack the basic requirements for keeping healthy. Even if they want to do well, they cannot. In such environments, most people lack the ambition to succeed because they think it is not possible for them to escape from the rut they are in. They struggle with feelings of inferiority, and this keeps them from developing a healthy ambition to achieve. An exceptional person may succeed in freeing himself from the shackles of poverty, but such a person is rare. We cannot expect all to be like him.
This is why the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, gives elaborate guidelines about assistance to the poor and needy. One of our greatest responsibilities is to help change the environment in which these people live. This often involves the introduction of policies and programs aimed at eliminating the unjust causes of poverty. The Bible says over and over again that the poor because they are powerless, fall victim to exploitation (see, for example, Isaiah 10:1-4).
So we Christians need to support programs aimed to improve the health, education, housing, and legal rights of the poor. Indeed, such programs are often abused. This is inevitable, for we are working with fallen individuals. We need to ensure that safeguards are included to minimize abuses, but the abuses should not dissuade us from this work.
How can Christians support such schemes? Some may serve as volunteers or full-time workers in organizations that help the poor. Some may help raise the awareness of the general public of the needs of the poor. There is a great need for preachers and Christian journalists who will highlight these needs. Some may use their professions as springboards to help the poor. I am thinking of lawyers, bankers, teachers, and technical specialists such as agriculturalists who all have expertise that could be directed against poverty.
Those not directly involved in helping the poor can give financially to those who are. Proverbs 19:17 says, "He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done." Voting to bring in programs that will help the poor also becomes a Christian responsibility. Sometimes such programs cause the comfortable and the wealthy to sacrifice some of their own privileges. Christians gladly sacrifice for the underprivileged, because sacrifice is an important aspect of the Christian lifestyle.
Yet we know that however much we help the poor and change their social and economic conditions, this does not deal with the worst form of poverty—spiritual poverty. The most serious poverty of all comes from the separation from God in this world that results in eternal punishment in the next. So our primary responsibility toward the poor is to preach the gospel to them.
Sadly, however, in many countries, the gospel has had very little impact on the poor. The poor have not been interested in following our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes this is because they feel we are not interested in their problems. Until we show them that we are concerned about their needs, we will not earn the right to be heard by them.