The Biblical Way to Care for the Poor
The religious left tells us that budgets are moral documents. The religious left also assumes that the federal government should take up the cause of helping the poor. One report says the federal government runs 126 different anti-poverty programs1.
The religious left further tells us that across-the-board budget cuts will hurt the poor. But how do we define the poor, and who gets to define them? Are government programs always the moral high ground? What happens if our national debt has reached $16 trillion because of budget deficits (Obama: nearly $5 trillion in four years, a record), while our national income (GDP) is smaller?
Are those big-government budget deficits moral or immoral? Where's the moral high ground in that?
Despite the 126 programs, does anyone notice that we still have poor people? Maybe we need another way.
What does the Bible say about helping the poor?
From the outset, I admit that I get nervous about applying specific Biblical texts to our modern national policy. The Torah was the law of God, so ancient Israel was a theocracy. We shouldn't bring these old laws forward to today in all their literalness and details.
Instead, we need merely to look for general principles.
So let's get started interpreting the Bible for today, cautiously.
If readers would like to see the verses in various translations, they may go to Biblegateway.com and type in the references.
Participation from the Giver
One of the striking features of charity in the Torah is that people physically participate in it. They hauled their crops and produce to the nearby towns to help out the poor.
In one law, the people are to bring the tithes (one tenth) to the local town, every third year, and store them, so the poor, orphans, widows, and resident aliens could take what they needed. The Levites who had no allotment or inheritance in the land also received from this once-every-three year tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). So this act of charity was done locally and physically.
In still another law, about celebrating the Feast of Weeks, people are to swing the sickle on the crops, harvest them, and then celebrate a feast at the place God chooses. Not only do the well-off celebrate, but the Levites, resident aliens, orphans, and widows do, too, thus breaking down class distinctions (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).
In these passages and others, a big central government, such as it was back then, does not stand over the shoulders of the people and perform charity in their place. People did it with their own hands.
The best charity is local.
Participation from the Receiver
Another feature of the Torah is that the poor had to work for charity.
If, for example, a man became poor and had to sell himself to a wealthier family who would employ him as a hired servant, he could redeem himself out of his servitude once he got his finances in order, or when the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10) or the sabbatical manumission year came around. The sabbatical year means that he had to work six years and was freed in the seventh (Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18, Leviticus 25:39-41).
Finally, the landowners were commanded to leave behind some of the crops and grapes so the poor could go out to get them; in other words, the poor had to work (Leviticus 19:9-10).
The Book of Ruth shows this harvesting law for the poor in action. Boaz, a righteous man, left part of his harvest for Ruth, an impoverished Moabitess, a foreigner. She regularly went out to the field to gather in the leftover grain. Eventually they got married and lived happily ever after.
The dominant picture is the landowner Boaz being generous, while any government, such as it was, does not interfere with him.
Thus, the wealthy who earn a living from their growing, profitable business and hire workers who also earn a living from that same prosperous business must step up and help the poor who are willing to work for it.
The best charity is done locally, and by the hands of both the giver and the receiver.
New Testament Participation
In the New Testament era, Jesus and his church looked beyond the nation of Israel. Their mission was to go global. The same is true in the kingdom of God: participatory charity. But by and large, the New Testament is interested in the giver -- what is his motive and attitude?
To begin with, five thousand men followed Jesus to a mountainside in the country to hear him speak. After a while he saw they were hungry, so he asked what food the disciples could gather from the people. One boy had five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:9). Working a miracle, Jesus multiplied the food and fed the entire crowd, with seven basketsful left over (Mark 6:30-44).
That is, Jesus did not call Peter, James, and John over to him and say, "Hey, you three! Run like the wind to Jerusalem and report that there are a lot of poor people out here! The Jerusalem central planners need to form a committee and set up a bureaucracy to feed them!"
No, Jesus used a private, nongovernmental initiative to feed the poor. First he got the food from the people themselves. They participated. Then, apart from a gigantic central Jerusalem bureaucracy, he multiplied the food that was available.
Further, in one of his discourses, Jesus says he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, and sick, and in prison, and his followers cared for him. They asked him when they had seen him in that condition. He replied, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:35-40).
Jesus was speaking to his followers, not a cadre of government bureaucrats. Performing these acts of charity is the job of his kingdom's people, who should not wait for the government.
The early church also practiced giving food to the poor, privately (Acts 6:1-7, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10). The leaders did not depend on the Jerusalem and Roman governments.
Paul also says widows can be cared for, but only if they meet certain requirements, like living a godly life and not being busybodies (1 Timothy 5:9-16).
Paul says that members of the church are to lead quiet lives, mind their own business, work with their hands, and not depend on anybody (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Maybe in those two verses the poor could get day laborer jobs, which often required working with one's hands.
And finally, Paul says: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
In all these cases, the church does not wait for and depend on the Jerusalem or Roman governments. Rather, Christians participated in the charity work with their own hands. The best charity is local.
The main principle that comes across clearly is that the ordinary citizen participated in charity. Call it participatory charity, both from the giver and receiver.
This principle also appears in the biblical text: since the ancient Hebrews did not have a centralized powerful government early in their history, which comes later in their theocratic monarchy, they had to work out a system that bypassed bureaucrats doing charity in their place.
However, even the numerous Old Testament verses relating to the poor, written during the monarchy, do not necessarily assume a centralized government doing charity in place of the people of means (e.g., Psalms 10; 12; 15; 72; 82; 112:5-9; Proverbs 13:23; 14:21, 31; 17:5; 21:13; 22:3, 16, 22-23; 28:3, 15, 27; 29:13; Isaiah 1:2-5:30; 58:1-14; Jeremiah 7:1-15; Amos 2:6-8; 5:21-24; 8:4-6; Micah 6:6-8).
Another principle: the best charity is local.
Incidentally, though much of poverty, according to the Bible, is caused by no fault of ordinary people, the Bible directs some criticism at those who become impoverished due to their own laziness (Proverbs 6:6-11; 24:30-34), greed (Prov. 11:24; 28:22), and failure to follow counsel (Prov. 13:15-18).
However, these self-inflicted poor are not the concern of this article; rather, we are talking about the genuinely poor.
The Modern American Context
We should not bring back the specific commandments of the Old Torah or the radical call of the New Testament Kingdom of God to modern American legal policies in all the Bible's literalness and details. That's not what this article is about.
Instead, we have been looking for general principles, just as our American Forefathers did, as they scanned the Greek, Roman, and biblical authors for ideas about what to do and what not to do.
In a modern American context, the religious left generally supports big government to implement economic and social justice (as leftists define the terms). However, studies confirm that if all Christians tithed, poverty would just about end. Even if, hypothetically, that were only two-thirds true, the churches of America could support feeding and housing programs that would go a long way toward ending poverty, in addition to preaching the gospel and changing people's hearts.
That's participatory charity. The best charity is local. That's true and full Biblical justice. That's the moral high ground.
Can we apply those principles to our society today?
Yes, for big government gets in the way; it is notoriously inefficient. Nowadays the central bureaucracy is preventing churches and other charities from feeding the homeless because of an imaginary concern that the food may not meet the highest bureaucratic standards.
Further, liberals generally give less to private charities than conservatives do, perhaps because liberals depend on the gigantic central-government super-computer to transfer funds to the poor. Never mind that the government super-computer has been transferring money anonymously for a long time, and, despite the 126 anti-poverty programs, there are still poor people.
And never mind that more people are on welfare and food stamps than ever before. The latest analysis suggests that Obama has jettisoned the work requirement in the 1996 welfare reform law. If so, that's unbiblical.
We can hardly call the government super-computer biblical participatory charity. A huge government bureaucracy enforcing charity laws or performing charity in our place breaks the spirit of the biblical text.
However, since FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, we do have a Game Show Government that hands out cash and prizes, even though our national debt has recently reached $16 trillion -- more than our national income (GDP). Nonetheless, people are unwilling to give up the game show.
Maybe we are forced to compromise with the game show: part of our state budgets, paid for (hopefully) by fair and reasonable taxes, can go to a temporary "safety net" for the genuinely poor and others who hit bumps in the road.
But a decentralized government program, moving away from Washington, D.C., follows the spirit of the old Law of Moses and the new Kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in more closely than a centralized bureaucracy does. If we insist on government bureaucracy doing our charity in our place, then at least it should be local.
Yet, better than any state program, individual citizens, working together, need to step up and not wait for or depend on the government to do their charity work for them. And the poor need to work.
We the people need to participate.
James M. Arlandson, Ph.D. has written a book: Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity. He has recently completed a series on The Sword in Early Christianity and Islam. He has posted a series on sharia at jihadwatch.org.
1In this article I'm not talking about major programs like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security (very defective ObamaCare needs to be repealed). Those three programs need major reform. It's too late to eliminate them.
(See also "The Biblical Case for Limited Government and Low Taxes.")