How Should We Treat the Poor?

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How should the poor be treated according to the Bible? Should they work for any help they receive? What leads to poverty?

Two Kinds

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).

Resting Beggar
Resting Beggar
Giacomo Ceruti, 1720s

The Early Church

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).

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! He defines the true worship of God as entailing visiting orphans and widows in their trouble.

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27, HBFV).

Now then, if there be a brother or sister who is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; be warmed and be filled," and does not give to them the things necessary for the body, what good is it? (James 2:15 - 16, HBFV, see also Proverbs 3:27).

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).

How serious does God take the treatment of those less fortunate than ourselves? 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).

Wisdom, Generosity Required

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).

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