The poor in the Bible

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How should the poor, based on the Bible, be treated? Should they work for the help they receive? What leads to poverty?

There are two kinds of poor people in the Bible. The first kind are those who are truly destitute and in need, many times through no fault of their own. The second kind are those who are poverty-stricken but are able-bodied people that are lazy. They either will not work not make a living or simply refuse to work even for the help offered them (see Proverbs 6:10 - 11, 10:4, etc.). They are poor more by choice than by chance.

Some people end up being poor because of the destruction of their harvest by a natural disaster. A large fire may cause the loss of a family's home and livelihood. After the death of a husband, a widow might find she has very little money and no family to help her. Without parents, an orphaned child becomes destitute and poor through circumstances beyond their control. Still others have poverty overtake them due to sickness or handicaps that prohibit them from making money.

God's will is for us to develop a heart of compassion for the poor and distressed and to, when possible, supply them with the necessities of life. These necessities include food, shelter, and clothing. Jesus taught that even if our enemy is in need of life's basic essentials that we should still help him or her (Matthew 5:44 - 45).

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The early New Testament church was eager to aid those less fortunate. The apostle Paul not only remembered the poor (Galatians 2:10) but also encouraged others to do so. He wrote, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10).


Resting Beggar
Resting Beggar
Giacomo Ceruti, 1720s

The apostle James not only states it is our duty to help those in poverty, he also warns that offering them useless platitudes is not enough (James 2:15 - 16, see also Proverbs 3:27)! He defines the true worship of God as entailing visiting orphans and widows in their trouble (James 1:27).

The Bible offers us principles regarding treatment of the poor. For example, although God does not show partiality because someone is needy (Exodus 23:3, Ephesians 6:9), He is concerned for their rights. He does not want anyone, especially leaders, to take advantage of the needy (Isaiah 3:14 - 15, Jeremiah 5:28, Ezekiel 22:29). In fact, the Lord considers those who mock the destitute as mocking him, "He who mocks the poor reproaches his Maker" (Proverbs 17:5).

In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to not harvest the corners of their fields so that the poor and strangers (travelers) could glean food for themselves. This was one of the ways the Lord taught them about the importance of helping those in need and opening their hearts to the plight of those less fortunate (Leviticus 19:9 - 10, Deuteronomy 24:19 - 22).

The Bible wants us to use wisdom when helping the poor. This means we should not give them whatever they ask for. Those receiving assistance should expect (as much as they are able) to work for it and not just get "something for nothing" (Leviticus 19:9 - 10). The able-bodied poor should do at least some work or they should not eat! Those who are able but refuse to work should not be helped (2Thessalonians 3:10).

According to the Bible, when we help those who are poor we should not do so grudgingly. We should also not help the less fortunate because we think we have to in order to please God. We are commanded to offer aid with a willing, generous heart (2Corinthians 9:7).

Additional Study Materials
What does it mean to covet?
How to handle family inheritance
How should we treat illegal aliens?
Laziness versus Diligence in Proverbs

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