March is Bible month, so I’m jumping on that bandwagon and taking a look at what the Bible says about poverty and hunger.
Like most comfortable middle-class Americans, I squirm when faced with the reality of a poor and starving world. I’ll admit that I sometimes play dumb and ignore my responsibilities to my fellow man. It’s really easy to feel that I have no time or money to give, or that helping others might put me in danger (picking up hitchhikers is something I will probably never do, sorry Jesus). We have made ignoring what the Bible teaches about poverty into an art form. We pick and choose, brushing aside the directives and attacking the poor with verses that condemn laziness and drunkenness. If we can pass the blame for poverty, our guilt is appeased and we can go back to enjoying our favorite TV show.
It is not God’s plan for you to be guilty and miserable. He isn’t glorified by your guilt.
The simple truth is that there is a big, hungry world out there. Innocent children and hardworking adults suffer as the result of corrupt systems, natural disasters, and physical and mental disabilities as well as bad decisions. It is time for us to put down the remote and take an honest, open-eyed look at what the Bible teaches about poverty and hunger.
As Christians, we are no longer subject to the law God commanded on the Israelites. Jesus paid that debt, fulfilled that covenant, and created a new contract with humanity. But the law still has much to tell us about the God who authored it.
*Leviticus 19:9-10: When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard: you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.
*Deuteronomy 15:11: For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’
God’s covenant with the Israelites commanded them to leave enough margin in their lives that they could provide for the poor. Do we have enough margin in our lives, or are we strapped so tight that we just feel powerless and guilty?
The Psalms and Proverbs overflow with references to God’s feelings for the poor.
Psalm 41:1: Blessed is he who considers the poor; The Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.
Psalm 72:4: He will bring justice to the poor of the people; He will save the children of the needy, And will break in pieces the oppressor.
Psalm 82:3-4: Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; Free them from the hand of the wicked.
Psalm 140:12: I know that the Lord will maintain The cause of the afflicted, And justice for the poor.
Proverbs 14:31: He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who honors Him has mercy on the needy.
Proverbs 19:17: He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, And He will pay back what he has given.
Proverbs 21:13: Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor Will also cry himself and not be heard.
Proverbs 22:9: He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives his bread to the poor.
Proverbs 29:7: The righteous considers the cause of the poor, But the wicked does not understand such knowledge.
Proverbs 31:20 (The virtuous woman): She extends her hand to the poor, Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.
And that’s just a sampling of the many verses David and Solomon wrote about God’s concern for the poor and our role in meeting the needs of others.
Proverbs also contains a number of verses condemning laziness.
Proverbs 10:4: He who has a slack hand becomes poor, But the hand of the diligent makes rich.
Proverbs 19:15: …An idle person will suffer hunger.
Proverbs 24:33-34: A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest; So shall your poverty come like a prowler, And your need like an armed man.
The same author, King Solomon, tells us to give to the poor and that laziness causes poverty. I don’t believe his opinion on poverty changed from day to day, nor do I think Solomon had any idea of blaming the poor for their condition. I think the reason for including both commands is because they are both aimed at the reader, not the reader’s perception of others. Think of it as a parent imparting wisdom to a child. We strive to raise generous kids, and we also want them to be hard working. Solomon wasn’t giving his readers a means to judge others, he was instructing them on how they themselves should live – both generous and hard working.
A few other favorites:
Isaiah 61:1-3 (Prophesy in Isaiah, read and fulfilled by Jesus in Luke 4:18-22): The spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound: To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.
If this is a (rather poetic) summary of Jesus’ ministry here on Earth, it is abundantly clear that Jesus didn’t come to bring us prosperity, but comfort, peace, freedom, and hope. Our end goal is to be like Jesus and bring glory to God, so we need to do the same – bring comfort, peace, freedom and hope to those in bad situations.
Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?
Mercy AND justice. Victims want justice without mercy, and the guilty want mercy without justice. But God doesn’t see it as an either-or situation like we do. He commands us to be fair to others and offer mercy, even to those who are not fair to us. It sounds hard, that’s why we have to walk humbly with our God. Sometimes poverty is caused by injustice that we should fight, but sometimes people need mercy to help them step away from their past mistakes.
Matthew 25:31-46: (from verse 40) Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.
We may be comfortable here in modern America, but as the story in this passage shows, one day we will stand before Jesus and He will want to know why we ignored Him when our fellow man was hungry, naked, or in prison. And judging by the end of the passage, “we didn’t know it was you” isn’t going to be the right answer.
Luke 14:13-14: But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
Acts 20:35: …it is more blessed to give than to receive.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3: Though I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
We are instructed over and over to care for the poor, but as the 1 Corinthians verses show, it’s not about the actions, it’s about the attitude. Care for the poor and hungry shouldn’t come from fear of a smiting God, but from genuine love. Seeing the world the way God does, and stepping up to be His representatives to the precious people who are poor and hungry.
John 13:35: By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
Obviously, the main source for this post was the Bible. All verses quoted are from the New King James version, and the odd random looking capitalization is included just the way it looked in my Bible app. I also gathered information from Ronald J. Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. Feel free to add your thoughts or favorite verses in the comments!