Your Duty to the Poor: Some Cautions and Commands.

Recently in my study of the Gospel of Luke, I was reminded that we have a duty to those who are materially poor, and that duty is to remember them by sharing what we have with them. There are qualifiers to this duty; it is not an absolute duty. Here are three qualifiers to your duty to the poor.

a. Not all duties are equal. Thus, we owe to God our duty first, and then to our immediate family. Furthermore, if we are Christians, we owe our charity and material support to those, first, who are “of the household of faith” (Galatians 6), and only after to those who are “without.”

b. Giving may be harmful, not helpful. Habitat for Humanity requires “sweat equity” from those who receive houses from them, as a way of checking the harmful effects of giving. When you’re invested in something, you tend to care more about it.

Therefore, giving material aid can at times be a kind of aiding and abetting a crime, and therefore, tantamount to stealing in reverse. Giving aid, and alms, and assistance to those who lack it requires discernment and wisdom, and not just blindly throwing one’s resources (time, money, efforts) away.

c. We give as servants and stewards. More on this below, but if we are stewards and servants, we have a proper assessment of our power. We cannot fix the poor, or the needy, or the sick. Only God can. He may choose to use the instrumentality of our gift, or He may not. So we must give as servants who trust their Master, God, to provide and protect as He sees fit. We must not forget when we give that “God alone is the Lord,” and ultimately it is not our job to fix or cure or repair anyone’s life.

While we will eventually give an account of our stewardship, it will only ever be an accounting of stewardship. So we must resist the pride that creeps in and whispers to us that we are “god” in someone else’s life, or Lord over someone else’s problems.

With these caveats as an introduction, I ask: why are we to remember the poor? Here are nine reasons; many more could be given, but these nine come to mind as very important:

1. We remember the poor because forgetting them is great wickedness. So writes the Psalmist in Psalm 109 of the wicked:

For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted, to put them to death. (Psalm 109:16 ESV) 

2. We remember the poor because it is proof that we have the Gospel. St. Paul was examined by the apostles of the early church and they recognized that grace was given to him in part because he was willing to remember the poor:

and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:9-10 ESV)

3. We remember the poor because sharing our bounty is holy. All that we have been given is holy (“whether your eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” Romans 11), how much more the excess of what we have been given? After rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, the people were instructed to share their excess bounty because the day was Holy:

“…Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 ESV)

4. We remember the poor because the poor remind us of our need. Jesus warned the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3 that they had forgotten their real need:

“…to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: “‘…you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:14-17 ESV)

5. We remember the poor because the kingdom of God belongs to them. Jesus teaches in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” As we remember those who are so rich in God’s blessings, we become enriched as well.

6. We remember the poor because we were once poor. Whether rich or poor, in the Gospel, we who were once spiritually poor (regardless of whether we had money or not) and now, in Christ, we have become lavishly rich: 1 Corinthians 6,

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)

7. We remember the poor because in doing so, we honor Jesus. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus separates those who are blessed from those who are cursed on the basis of their ministry to the poor; and when they express surprise, Jesus says,

“inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, so you have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25, par)

8. We remember the poor because they have need of greater honor. Paul portrays the church as a body, and calls it the “body of Christ,” with many members. Some members, he says, are in need of greater honor; some less. The poor are counted as those who are in need of greater honor, and so we remember them and bless them:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:21-26 ESV)

9. Finally, we remember the poor because riches are dangerous. Giving money away for the rich is a spiritual discipline that guards against the corruption of wealth, and the desire for wealth is a dangerous trap. Paul taught Timothy to warn the rich of the dangers of their riches:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10 ESV)