Seeing a Brother in Need

How should Christians give to the poor? This is an issue that I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of weeks. Somehow the argument that giving to the poor is a job for soup kitchens and churches, and that the individual either isn’t required to or shouldn’t give money to beggars has never sat well with me. Despite the fact that there are excellent thinkers on both sides of the issue, I wanted to throw my paltry two cents into cyberspace. (I feel okay doing that, as 2 cents isn’t enough for anyone to buy a bottle of liquor.)

Defining Poverty

First of all, let’s define what we mean by poverty. Some have suggested that true poverty is almost nonexistent in the United States, but is found mostly in Third World countries. In other words, true poverty is an Ethiopian child starving to death. I think that this definition for poverty is far too narrow, especially in light of the relative opulence of American life. A person can easily be relatively poor in our country without falling to the level of a starving peasant.

Obviously the worst type of poverty is destitution: the total inability to survive apart from outside help. The answer to this type of poverty seems easy enough. In this situation the short-term solution is essential. Give to them whatever they need. Restore them to health. Then start looking to the long term. To put it in terms of the old adage: “Give them the fish now, teach them to fish later.” But there are other types of poverty that we should recognize and react to.

There is the poverty of the hourly worker, whose wages only suffice to get him through the month. He can pay his bills, and put food on the table, but only barely. He is poor, and, yes, this is true poverty. How should we help this man? This is another clear-cut situation: “Teach the man to fish.” In other words, apply preventative measures such as stewardship education to make sure he doesn’t fall into a deeper level of poverty, and teach him to be content and live within his means.

That leaves the final type of poverty, often called beggary. These are those who either don’t or can’t supply all their needs sufficiently, and must depend on others to fill in the missing amount: the guy on the street who is obviously not starving, but asks you for $10 to buy groceries. This is the one that gets a little tricky. Do we teach him to fish first? Do we give him a fish, and then teach him? Or do we tell him, “Get a job”? This is the group that I want to deal with for the remainder of this post.

Protestant thoughts on Poverty

In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber outlines what he believes are the religious foundations that, though they did not themselves bring about capitalism, made America a fertile ground for capitalism to grow and flourish as an economic system.

The Puritans had a high view of work, and this is a Biblical and very good thing. The mindset, however, that developed among the New England Puritans was that if a person was making a lot of money, they were hardworking, and therefore virtuous. This laid the ground for the making of money to be an end rather than a means, and, with the erosion of faith in the New England states, for Capitalism as a system to flourish in America. I believe, though Weber doesn’t specifically say it, that the flip side of this proposition also became part of the collective mindset: if a person was poor it was an indication of their laziness, and therefore their lack of virtue. Unfortunately for many Protestants, poverty still holds a great moral stigma. The guy begging on the street must be there because he’s lazy or involved in a sinful lifestyle, or both. This sort of statement makes me nervous because it sounds a lot like Jesus’ disciples when they encountered the blind man. “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus, as he often does, redirects their thinking along better lines: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

Our modern world can be a harsh, cruel place. We always hear the capitalistic fairy tales of the men who raised themselves up from being dirt poor to being fabulously wealthy. However, for every person that makes it, there are many, many more who try and fail. Their businesses close, their homes are foreclosed on, and they suddenly find themselves lacking a means of support. And perhaps they’ve been brought to you now so that the works of God may be made manifest in them, through you. Most of the people you meet asking you for money have this kind of story or an even more tragic one. Some of them will be telling the truth, and some will be lying to you. Many are there because of unwise decisions, sin dividing them from their families, or substance abuse. But here’s the caveat: you don’t have the divine quality of omniscience to be able to know.

Giving to the Poor

I have given money to people who have asked me for it on several occasions. I have also given people a lift to a different part of town if they couldn’t afford a bus or taxi. However, more often, I generally avoid such people that look like they may ask me for money, and try not to make eye contact. It makes me ashamed to be this way, which is partly why I’m trying to think about almsgiving. Besides I usually don’t carry cash, being a debit card kind of guy. Which brings us to the question of what to do with these people when they accost you.

If I may channel the writing style of Aquinas for a few moments…

It appears that it is not wise to give money to beggars for 4 reasons:

Objection 1:
This sort of giving enables sinful and lazy behavior. If beggars can get easy money just by asking for it, they will see no need to try to get a job. Furthermore they are likely to just spend it on liquor anyway.

Objection 2:
It is the job of the corporate Church to give. Individuals are to give to the Church, and the Church can then give to the poor within the context of accountability and ministry.

Objection 3:
2 Thessalonians 3 says that if someone will not work, neither should they eat.

Objection 4:
It is unwise stewardship of your money.

Answer 1:
On the contrary, those that are lazy and sinful will continue to be so whether or not you give them money. Likewise, for a man determined to work hard in order to find gainful employment, no amount of goodness shown to him will be wasted, and no amount of love showered upon him can make him lazy or sinful.

Furthermore, dealing with poverty is not merely a matter of meeting material want, but of honoring basic human dignity. When we give to the poor, we’re not only supplying a physical need, but also recognizing the image of God in another person; we are caring for Christ in that person. “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:37-40 Most people who ask for money on the streets do so with a deep sense of shame and embarrassment. It behoves us to recognize the image of God in such people and not degrade it by making them feel even more ashamed than they already do. They have been humbled by having to ask a stranger for money. Lift them up.

Thirdly, as we do not know the state of a person’s heart and soul, we should use every opportunity to share Christ with a stranger. But we are not called to judge them to see if they are worthy of our giving or to try to determine if they will spend their money well or poorly. John Chrysostom writes: “How much most of us would complain, if God had bidden us first to examine each person’s life exactly, to interfere with his behavior and his deeds, and only then to give alms? But as it is we are freed from all this kind of annoyance…A judge is one thing, an almsgiver is another. Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy….Need alone is the poor man’s worthiness;…we show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from the Master His great mercy, in order that we ourselves, unworthy as we are, may enjoy His philanthropy….’For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged.’”

Answer 2:
It certainly is the job of the corporate Church to give alms to the poor. But this does not excuse the individual from similar personal duty. Second Temple Judaism contained what were known as the Three Pillars: three major duties that were the basis of the Jewish religion. These three were study of Torah, Worship at the Temple, and gemilut hasidim which means “bestowal of lovingkindness.” Gemilut hasidim almost always (though not without exception) has reference to giving alms to the poor. This is why in Jesus’ time, beggars would line up a the Temple gates to receive alms. Now let’s place this in a modern context. We all believe that two of the major parts of Christian life are studying the Bible and going to church. How many of us add giving to the poor to that list? How would we react if we came to church one Sunday to find a line of beggars out front challenging us to give on the basis that we are Christians? Many would say, they’re simply trying to manipulate us because of our faith. To which, I would reply, “So?” Perhaps as Christians we should be willing to be manipulated a little more than we are. Perhaps we should let ourselves be taken advantage of.

The question is, is it a duty for us to give to the poor, or is it optional? We tend to think of it as optional. Chrysostom, however, writes: “I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.” “But wait!” says the capitalist. “I worked hard for this money! And now I’m supposed to share it with some lazy bum who doesn’t work?!” I think there are two good reasons to say, “Yes, you are.”

Firstly in the Old Testament, debts were cancelled every seven years, and anyone that had sold their land had it returned to them. And yet, throughout the Old Testament one of the greatest duties of the people of God is to care for the poor in their midst. If caring for the poor was so important in a society where it was impossible to be homeless or in debt for more than 7 years, then how much more does God want us to care for the poor now in a society where debt can strangle people and hold them for the rest of their lives?

Secondly, in the New Testament, care for the poor is one of the essential aspects of the Gospel as it goes out into the world. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19) From this passage we see that the gospel and the kingdom are for the down and out, the poor and the sick. These two groups are near the center of God’s plan for renewing the world.
What is our Biblical duty with regard to the poor?

But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” 1 John 3:17

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” Matthew 5:42

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” James 2:14-16

Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also? But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you.” Luke 11:40-41

He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.” Luke 3:11

So as giving to the poor is a corporate duty of the Church (and giving your tithe to the Church is a duty of the individual), so it is also the duty of the individual to give above and beyond their tithe money to the poor and destitute, both by donations to charitable organizations and by direct giving to the poor themselves.

Answer 3:
The answer to this one is short and simple. In the context of this passage, those who are to be refused food if they will not work are those within the Church, the Christian community that were sponging off their fellow brothers and sisters. It is not referring to the guy on the street asking for money.

Answer 4:
The answer to the objection that giving to the guy on the street is bad stewardship of your money, I have to agree and concede. That is, if you are a materialist and consider only investments that return monetary gain to be good stewardship. But giving to the poor is not only about providing their physical needs, but also about recognizing the image of God in them and honoring that image. So giving to the poor does a positive spiritual good for them.

But for those still looking for a return on their investment, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that those who are generous with their money are blessed.

But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Hebrews 13:16

When King Nebuchadnezzar repented, Daniel’s advice to him was: “Wherefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable unto thee, and break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquillity.” Daniel 4:27

And finally, Jesus spoke of giving to people not expecting anything in return. Even those who are unthankful and evil. Wow. One certainly can’t justify refusing to give money to people because of their immorality from Jesus’ words. “And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:34-36) The reason for this attitude of giving is because we ourselves did not deserve to have our debts (sins) forgiven by God, and yet He forgave us. How much more should we give to the undeserving? So giving alms to beggars is not bad stewardship because it is spiritually good both for the beggar and the giver.

Conlusion

It appears now that giving alms to the poor is a duty of the Christian individual, and it now remains for each person to decide how best to do that. I know that in studying these things, I have personally been very convicted about my attitude toward giving to the poor, and my reluctance when approached on the street to part with the money God has entrusted to me just for such an occasion. I am certain at least that I should be far more worried about leaving a fellow human being in need than I should be to lose $10 to a con man on the street.

For a further summary of these issues, I highly recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I find it contains very Biblical teaching in this area.

Comments

Xindaeltal said…
Riiiight. See, I'm already convinced of the need to help the poor. I don't understand the need to break it all down for everyone. ;-)
Rick said…
Everyone is interested in helping the poor. The question is how to go about doing that. There was a small debate going on on Doug Wilson's blog a couple weeks ago about third world debt. Some say forgive third world debt to help the poor countries. Some say doing so would only benefit tyrants and not the actual starving peasants. If we were to forgive third world debt, would we be responsible for giving the dictator free reign to continue with his atrocities with fewer restraints or would we be raising the quality of life there? What about giving ten bucks to a guy on the street? Are we responsible if he spends it on liquor. Should we only give food coupons and not money? Should we try to hold them accountable in some way? These are the sorts of things I was trying to answer.

It's nice to want to help the poor. The question is: what does that look like incarnationally, lived out in day to day life?