Biblical Directives for Combating Hunger and Poverty
Poverty is an increasing problem both in the United States and throughout the world. Due to such factors as poor economic conditions, natural disasters, corrupt governments, and family breakdowns, a large percentage of people are living in poverty. While poverty is growing, there are numerous active groups, countries, and international agencies seeking to eliminate poverty and improve economic conditions for people in America and across the globe. Historically, Christians have been at the forefront of the poverty issue. Craig Blomberg declares, “It is arguable that all of the major attempts to alleviate poverty and human suffering have a Christian foundation at one level or another1.”
However, numerous Christian agencies, churches, and individuals are falling short of the biblical expectation of ministering to the poor. Social ministry is, without question, a biblical directive for Christians and the Church, but oftentimes it has either been deemphasized or forgotten. It is vital that Christians be committed to the pursuit of liberating people not only from eternal punishment through salvation in Christ but also from temporal difficulty. Christian salvation is holistic, so taking the Gospel to fallen man is not enough to recover the totality of man, whom God created in His image. As Craig Blomberg states, “Material sustenance without spiritual salvation proves meaningless, but the liberation that God in Christ grants regularly includes a physical and material dimension to it as well. The only way God’s people can consistently obey all of his commands is as the entire Christian community worldwide, and every local expression of it, increasingly captures the vision of sharing its resources with the needy in its midst2.”
A Biblical Structure for Christian Action
The Bible speaks clearly about the need for a social ethic of caring for the poor, and a Scriptural grounding within Christian theology provides a primary foundation for a Christian ethic of social response to those who are less fortunate. The Lord’s directives throughout the Old and New Testaments have both vertical (God-focused) and horizontal (man-focused) dimensions that are inseparable. For example, the Ten Commandments are structured in a vertical and horizontal pattern. The first four commandments deal with man’s relationship with God (vertical), and the next six instruct man in his relationship with other men.
Jesus keeps this structure of the Old Testament Law when He declares, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Jesus reaffirms and clarifies the vertical and horizontal structuring of God’s Law by stating, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The Second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40). Thus, Jesus declares that the vertical and horizontal aspects are the central foci of the Law, Prophets, and the Gospel. God’s laws have a dualistic nature, focusing first on one’s relationship to God and next on the relationship with others.
As well as being the central focus of God’s Law, the vertical and horizontal aspects are inseparable. The God-focused, as well as social-, man-focused, aspects of the Ten Commandments must all be kept in order to fulfill the Law. In the same way, Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Therefore, to fulfill the vertical aspect of the Law (love for God) one must also fulfill the horizontal aspect (love for mankind). They go together. By disobeying the social aspect of the Law, man is not simply guilty of breaking a social law; man is also guilty of falling short in his love for God. God desires that His people show their love for Him through a personal relationship with Him and through loving actions toward His creation.
Jesus further explains this relationship between keeping the social commandments and fully honoring God through a parable in which He explains what will happen when the Son of Man returns. In the parable, the king praises the righteous for their actions, saying, “For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me; I was in prison and you visited Me” (Matt. 25:35-36). But the righteous do not understand what the king is telling them because they do not remember helping, feeding, or visiting the king. To clear up their misunderstanding, the king replies, “I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me” (Matt. 25:40). Those who did not care for the needy are condemned by the king.
The message is clear: A faithful follower of Christ will fulfill the social aspects of God’s Law, and in doing so, he will further bring glory to God because these horizontal commands apply directly to one’s relationship to the Lord. Jesus demands that His followers obey His commandments in order to truly love Him, and Jesus declares that caring for the poor is caring for Him. Thus, understanding His commandments concerning poverty is vital to fully understanding a proper Christian reaction to this hardship.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), the generosity of the Samaritan was given as a wonderful example of neighbor love, the type of horizontal fulfilling of the Law that Jesus wants from His followers. At the same time, within this parable the priest and the Levite were condemned for their inaction. It is clear that religious duty (the cleanliness laws that may have caused the priest and the Levite to pass by on the other side of the road) cannot excuse an unloving heart toward the needy.
Not only is an unloving attitude toward the needy wrong, but Jesus said that it can have negative eternal consequences. In the parable about the righteous followers, who gave the king shelter and food unknowingly by helping those in need, and the unrighteous, who did not take this opportunity, Jesus concludes that “[the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). In connection with not helping the needy, Jesus also explains that the deceitfulness of wealth often keeps people from eternal life. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus states, “Others are sown among thorns; these are the ones who hear the word, but the worries of this age, the seduction of wealth, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19). This is why Jesus proclaims, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). But while it may be difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, it is not impossible, because as Christ says immediately following this passage, “With men it is impossible, but not with God, because all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). What God wants is for those who have been blessed with wealth and prosperity to use it in a way that benefits His kingdom.
However, this biblical understanding of financial blessings does not maintain that wealth is inherently evil. It is the misuse of wealth and the longing after wealth through greed and self-centeredness which are evil. The Bible clearly teaches that financial blessings are gifts from God, making it important to use these blessings for kingdom purposes, not as impediments to righteousness.
Thus, wise management of God’s resources is imperative. In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, Jesus promotes the use of earthly possessions for eternal, kingdom purposes (Luke 16:9). In a similar manner, in Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Minas, He clearly states that one’s time, talents, and treasure are to be used for kingdom purposes, and those who fail to do so will be judged for that failure (Luke 19:11-27). So, Jesus is not saying that to be poor is to be desired or being rich is inherently evil. Rather, like the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), people will be judged for storing up earthly possessions instead of storing up riches for the kingdom, and a main way Jesus promotes doing kingdom work is caring for the needy and the less fortunate.
A Biblical View of Children of God and Their Actions Toward Poverty
The Gospels are not the only place one can find directions to help the poor. Throughout the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament, God commands Christians to help those in need. Poverty is a byproduct of the Fall. Because sin entered into the world and into humankind through the Fall, poverty exists. Sin has affected governments and caused natural disasters, oppressive economic systems, internal greed, and laziness, all of which play a role in the existence of poverty. Blomberg states, “God created the material world wholly good, but sin has corrupted it along with humanity3.”
In response to sinfulness in the world, God promoted a system and rule of law in the Old Testament by which the community would help meet the needs of the poor. This is a reason the Lord blessed the patriarchs of the Old Testament. As Blomberg draws out, the wealth of the patriarchs is directly tied to God’s plan to give His people a special land4. In this land, God blessed the nation of Israel, and in doing so, He charged them, in turn, with blessing the poor among them. “There will be no poor among you, however, because the Lord is certain to bless you in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance—if only you obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow every one of these commands I am giving you today . . . If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has” (Deut. 15:4-5, 7-8). As Bruce Birch states, “This passage suggests that if the demands of the covenant were fully embodied there would be no poverty5.” Apparently, however, Jesus did not anticipate that a fallen people would ever fully achieve this ideal. He declared, “You always have the poor with you” (John 12:8), so the church’s work to help the poor will not be finished until He returns.
The patriarchs appear to have lived by God’s standard of helping those in need (e.g., Abram gave generously to Lot [Gen. 13] and Jacob showed his generosity to Esau [Gen. 33:11]). This fortified the truth presented in Leviticus that land and possessions belong to the Lord (Lev. 25:23). Within the Law, the Lord Himself also cared for the poor by allowing them to bring less expensive offerings, pigeons, to sacrifice (Lev. 5:7) and providing the tithe of every third year to be given to the poor (Deut 14:28-29).
Throughout the Old Testament books of the Law, the Lord established a consistent pattern for His people to provide for those who are poor and less fortunate. God promoted an attitude of a caring heart based in the dignity and unity of humankind and the belief that all possessions were from the Lord. God was establishing a principle for Israel to be a light to the other nations by using what He had blessed them with to care for and bless others. This was put in place to counteract the sin nature that had affected the hearts and economic well-being of humanity.
In the Writings and Prophets there is a continued, consistent message of using God’s blessings to care for the poor. Job provided an example of a man, whom God had blessed, helping those in need. He clearly understood the principle that economic blessings are gifts from God (Job 1:21), and he “rescued the poor man who cried out for help, and the fatherless child who had no one to support him” (Job 29:12). The Psalms, as well, speak to helping the downtrodden. Psalm 41 gives praise to those who help the needy: “Happy is one who cares for the poor; the Lord will save him in a day of adversity. The Lord will keep him and preserve him; he will be blessed in the land” (Ps. 41:1-2). Proverbs also reinforces the idea that the one who helps the needy will be blessed by the Lord (Prov. 14:21; 19:17; 22:9; 28:27). Additionally, Isaiah 58 asserts a similar message that Christ conveys in Matthew 25 when describing God’s desired type of fasting. “Is [fasting] not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and to not ignore your own flesh and blood?” (Is. 58:7). True commitment to the Lord through fasting, worship, and daily living includes caring for the needy and the poor, and this can be clearly seen through the books of the Old Testament. As Blomberg declares, “Even within the Old Testament economy . . . material blessing was never viewed as an end in itself. An abundance of resources was to be shared with the nations and particularly the needy6.” Wealth was not considered as inherently evil by the Old Testament, as some would say; rather, it was to be used for good.
Christ’s teachings in the Gospels concerning poverty have already been established, but the rest of the New Testament continues the theme of the necessity to care for the poor. “With the exception of the promise of material blessings for covenant obedience or diligent industry, all of the major themes of the Old Testament teaching on material possessions reappear in one form or another in the New Testament7.” Paul encourages the church at Corinth to give generously to the collection being taken for the poor in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9), and the author of Hebrews encourages giving by explaining that God will see and understand the heartfelt gift and the love shown to others in need (Heb. 6:10). James explicitly ties the vertical and horizontal aspects of God’s laws together in speaking of the relationship between faith in God and the good works that will duly follow. James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works . . . faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself” (James 2:14, 17). John makes the same claim, stating, “If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need but shuts off his compassion from him—how can God’s love reside in him?” (1 John 3:17).
The message is clear from the New Testament: Christians are required to help those in need; helping those in need is a tangible outpouring of God’s love. Thus, helping the poor is directly connected with salvation. It does not provide salvation, but the desire to care for the less fortunate undoubtedly follows faith in Christ. There is a clear, consistent theme within the Bible concerning ministry to the poor. There is a unity between the vertical and horizontal aspects of the teachings of Scripture, and man honors God by helping his fellow man in times of need.
The Role of Government and Poverty
While it has been shown throughout Scripture that God consistently desires Christians to help the needy, it is also important to understand what, if anything, the Bible says about governments helping the poor. Should poverty and social welfare be left solely to those in the Christian community, or does government have a rightful role in caring for the needy according to Scripture?
While the Bible primarily speaks to individual Christians and churches about caring for the downtrodden, there is also a role for government to aid them. As Stanley Carlson-Thies states, “government, too, has a divine calling to serve the needy8.” The godly king in the Psalms cares for the poor. The Psalmist describes him by saying, “May he vindicate the afflicted among the people, help the poor, and crush the oppressor” (Ps. 72:4). Job recalls the days when he “went out to the city gate and took my seat in the town square” (Job 29:7). There he was lauded and admired by nobles and men because he “rescued the poor man who cried out for help, and the fatherless child who had no one to support him” (Job 29:12). Daniel also instructs King Nebuchadnezzar that as part of repenting of his sins he is to “show mercy to the needy,” in order that his prosperity will continue (Dan. 4:27).
In Romans 13 Paul describes government as being a gift from God, and he declares that the ruler “is God’s servant to you for good” (Rom. 13:4). Part of being a good ruler who does good for the people is obviously taking care of the poor, but many governments, including the United States, have shirked the responsibility of taking care of the poor. In fact, several Christian leaders, including Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote a letter to President Bush in 2005 urging him to increase the country’s support for helping impoverished nations and individuals. According to the letter, the United States ranks last among developed countries in providing governmental aid to helping combat worldwide poverty9. For a rich nation and a global leader, this is unacceptable.
In modern society government is too often seen as the predominant way that society cares for the poor. This is not the clear biblical description. Individuals and churches are explicitly called to care for the less fortunate, and the vast majority of passages dealing with the poor are within a personal calling. There does seem to be a role for government to help the poor, but Christians cannot simply pay their taxes and feel that they have helped aid those in need. While Jesus and Paul both declare that Christians should pay taxes to the government (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:7), Christians are also charged to give to the poor beyond that measure. Jesus clearly states, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Therefore, taxes should be paid to the government to help in its God-given responsibility to help the poor, but one also has a responsibility to give to God, and, as developed earlier, God clearly requires that a portion of His money and man’s abilities be used to assist the poor.
Through explicit Scriptural passages, as well as the obvious structural connection in the Bible between vertical and horizontal relationships, God provides an unambiguous mandate for Christians to minister to the world both on a physical and spiritual level. It is sin that has forced the need for spiritual recovery found only through Christ Jesus, and it is sin that requires economic transformation for some within society. Stanley Carlson-Thies derives a statement from Amy Sherman that is directly developed from God’s special revelation, stating that “many churches need to make the shift from ‘commodity-based’ charity that only hands out things, neglecting the causes of persistent poverty, to a transformational approach, ‘a relational, holistic ministry’ that will enable the family to address its deeper problems and move to self-sufficiency and the ability to contribute to others10.” The goal must remain holistic with the aim being economic renewal and spiritual regeneration, for as seen through the structure of God’s biblical laws, faith in Christ without social concern is dead.
Thus, it is vital to show spiritual concern through physical help by heeding Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. These things should have been done without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). Social and spiritual concerns are vitally connected within the Bible, and they should be explicitly linked within the church and in the lives of individual Christians.
Beyond the role for individual Christians and church organizations, the Bible presents a role for governments to help the needy and the poor. The Old Testament provides multiple examples of government leaders who have helped the poor. However, governmental involvement is clearly not to be the only or dominant method; Christians are given a specific, extended charge to individually help the poor.
Sin pervades all aspects of humanity and societal interaction. Such sinful attitudes as personal greed, pride, and an improper view of money have clearly caused economic hurt and ignorance toward those in need. American Christians, who have been blessed beyond measure by the Lord with wealth and prosperity, should be cautioned by the words of the Lord in Amos. In Amos 4 God likens Israel to the fattened cows of Bashan who are living in luxury and oppressing the poor. “Listen to this message, you cows of Bashan who are on the hill of Samaria, women who oppress the poor and crush the needy . . . the days are coming when you will be taken away with hooks, every last one of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4:1-2). And again the Lord chides the rich and lazy in Amos 6: “They lie on beds [inlaid with] ivory, sprawled out on their couches, and dine on lambs from the flock and calves from the stall. They improvise songs to the sound of the harp and invent their own musical instruments like David. They drink wine by the bowlful and anoint themselves with the finest oils but do no grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore, they will now go into exile as the first captives, and the feasting of those who sprawl out will come to an end” (Amos 6:4-7).
Greed and poverty have deeply influenced American culture. Americans often ignore the poor and live in economic insatiability, not using the Lord’s blessings for kingdom purposes. However, the Bible is clear concerning the relationship between social action and faith in Christ. Caring for the poor is not only being Christ-like; it is also showing faith in Christ. The Lord is honored not only when Christians care for those in need, but also when they provide a tangible sign of the salvific work Christ has done within them.
1 Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 21.
2 Ibid., 145.
3 Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, 55.
4 Ibid., 36.
5 Birch, “Hunger, Poverty and Biblical Religion,” 594.
6 Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, 83.
7 Ibid., 84.
8 Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, “Welfare Reform’s Cahllenge to the Evangelical Church,” in Christians and Politics Beyond the Culture Wars: An Agenda for Engagement, ed. By David P. Gushee (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 171.
9 Tom Strode, “Land, Others Urge Bush to Fight Poverty,” The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission 15 February 2005 http://erlc.com/article/land-others-urge-bush-to-fight-poverty-05v6i3.
10 Carlson-Thies, “Welfare Reform’s Challenge to the Evangelical Church,” 170.