The homeless man on the sidewalk waved. I waved back as I turned the corner. I didn’t know his story. If I’m honest, I didn’t even think about the fact that he had a story. In fact, I don’t even remember his face. I subconsciously noticed that there was a person there, but I didn’t acknowledge his humanity.
Most of us are accustomed to seeing poverty around us in some form, whether as a distant issue or a personal reality. As believers, how are we supposed to respond to the poverty we encounter? And how does the Bible speak to this issue?
When we hear the word “poverty,” we don’t often think of specific people and needs. It causes us to consider a broad issue while being able to safely ignore all of the individuals who are personally affected by it. When Scripture references “the poor,” on the other hand, it encourages us to see people as people. The poor are people with faces and names and stories. The poor are people with fears and doubts and questions. The poor are every bit as human as anyone else.
Who are the poor?
Anyone who lacks “sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society” is considered poor. There are many reasons someone could be poor. Sometimes poverty is the result of foolish decisions (Prov. 6:10-11, 10:4, 14:23), and other times poverty is no fault of one’s own (John 9:3). Often, systemic injustices contribute to the cycle of poverty (Psa. 12:3; Isa. 10;1-3; James 5). Poverty, though, does not deprive a person of his or her humanness. Everyone bears the image of God because we are humans—created by God and made in his image. The reason for someone’s poverty shouldn’t determine the value we place on him or her, and the way we treat the poor around us is a reflection of how we view their Maker (Prov. 14:31).
What does the Lord require of you?
Throughout Scripture, God reveals his heart for the poor. We see God’s concern for poor people when he speaks of the injustices toward them. Consider the prophets Amos and Micah. Although they were both ultimately getting at Israel’s heart-issue, in the process, they addressed God’s concern for the poor, God’s judgment on those who abuse the poor, and the reality of systemic injustice and the cycle of poverty.
The reason for someone’s poverty shouldn’t determine the value we place on him or her, and the way we treat the poor around us is a reflection of how we view their Maker (Prov. 14:31).
In the cities where Amos was prophesying, people were faced with unexpected food shortages (Amos 4:6-9). Those who maintained some measure of wealth clung to it by exploiting their poor neighbors (Amos 5:11-13). In this time of need, the righteous were not standing for justice. Amos tells Israel that without justice, there is no righteousness (Amos 5:7). There should be no disconnect between the Christian’s work and worship. Justice and righteousness should flow from the same heart (Amos 5:21-24). Wealthy Israelites were showing contempt for the poor among them, so when Amos told of the coming punishment, he said that the wealthy would be the first to go into exile (Amos 6:1-7). The complacent heart of the wealthy was not a heart aligned with God’s heart. And because God cares for the poor, he proclaims judgment on those who trample the poor—those who do not leave anything behind for the alien, widow, or orphan to glean from and those who exploit the poor in order to gain power (Deut. 24:19; Amos 8:2-8; Micah 2:1-3, 7:1-2). The poor are a people God cares about, so he will not withhold judgment from those who abuse the poor.
In light of God’s care for the poor people among us, how should we treat them? We should begin by remembering the words of Micah: “Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the LORD requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This should guide us as we seek to care for poor people the way that God does. Jesus perfectly exemplified the heart of God and didn’t neglect the poor or their needs. In fact, he tenderly cared for the poor and often spoke about how we should treat them.
Furthermore, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he tells the church that we should work so that we have enough resources to be able to give to those who are in need (Eph. 4:28). This call to give to those in need is reiterated throughout Scripture. And when we give, the attitude of our hearts matters. We are to give generously and without a grudging heart (Deut. 15:10). We should not be manipulated into giving, and we should not be reluctant in our giving. God desires for us to give cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). The Christian’s calling to give to those in need is not a checklist item that must be completed in order to be in good favor with the Lord. It is an opportunity to reflect the extravagant love of God to our neighbors.
As we use the voice and the opportunities God has given us to pursue justice for the poor and to help them get food and shelter, we may be surprised at how much the poor can teach us and help us to grow. We have neighbors who understand what it is to have no place to lay their head or who cling tightly to Jesus day after day because they know that they can not place lasting hope in a paycheck or a home (Luke 9:58). As we seek to truly love these neighbors, we should learn all we can from them, watching how God will shape our hearts through their example.
As Christians, we must be intentional in truly loving the poor people among us as we seek to serve them. It is easy to give away some unwanted clothes or to serve a bowl of soup, but really loving the homeless man on the corner is much harder. It requires relationships—as messy and inconvenient as they can be. It means asking about and listening to the needs of the person sitting across from us rather than assuming that we know what she needs. It means empowering an individual to be self-sustaining rather than causing him to be another person depending on us. Genuinely loving someone is hard, but in the power of God’s Spirit, we can truly love our neighbors as ourselves.