An underlying assumption in many Republican policies is that poor people deserve what they get and that they are poor because of some character flaw. But poverty is not a sin, and it is not necessarily caused by sin. In fact, 1 in 5 Americans with a full-time job is paid so little that–even with both parents working–their family still lives in poverty! Sadly, one of the best ways to tell someone in poor in America is that they are working more than one job.
Jesus was homeless throughout his ministry. His disciples were unemployed. Elijah the prophet fled into the desert from Queen Jezebel and went homeless and hungry because of his righteousness. Although some people in poverty today are there because of choices they have made and perhaps even sins they have committed, just as many (if not more) are there through no discernible fault of their own. This is especially true of children in poor families. But regardless of cause, God’s love is not dependent on our worthiness (Hallelujah!). And as the passages that follow demonstrate, God has a special place in his heart for the poor (something the Roman Catholic Church articulated several decades ago as God’s “preferential option for the poor”).
The Bible is quite clear and unambiguous about our responsibility to the poor. The question Republicans need to ask themselves is if they think the teachings of Jesus and the prophets are still relevant today…or do they need to be taken with a grain of salt and not at face value?
“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 6:20). Most people are probably more familiar with the Beatitude in Matthew 5:3, which adds “in spirit” after “poor.” But both refer to the same people, with Matthew just making it more clear why being poor is a blessed state: The destitute poor are so helpless that they do not trust in themselves (and thus focus inwardly) but instead must trust in God and the kindness of others.
“The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release from darkness to the prisoners [not to vote against or veto bans on torture], to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
When Jesus begins his public ministry, he makes it very clear how he sees the mission God has given him and who the object of that mission is by paraphrasing the above quotation from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). It is worth noting that the phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” is a reference to the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25) in which property was to be redistributed in a remarkably Socialist (dare we even say Communist) way to its original owner (see below). Most likely Jesus was not declaring the year in which he was speaking to be a Jubilee year, but was indicating that the beginning of his ministry marked the beginning of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God which is characterized by a radical restructuring of society where “the last will be first, and the fist will be last” (Matt. 20:16).
In his portrayal of the Day of Judgment (one of only a very few times that Jesus talks about the subject and only time he lists the criteria he will use to judge us), Jesus told of people from all nations gathered before him, separated into “sheep” and “goats.” To the “sheep” he says, “Come you blessed of my Father, for I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.” In their astonishment they ask, “When did we do that?” And he answers, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did it for me.” Conversely, to the “goats” he says, “Out of my sight, you who are condemned, for I was hungry and you did not feed me…etc.” (Matthew 25:31-46).
Democrats cannot ignore the centrality of loving and submitting to God throughout the Bible (all the calls to service and loving the poor stem from a love of God, see John 21:15-17), but it is striking just how much Jesus Christ’s description of how he will separate the saved from the unsaved differs from the criteria for judgment we so often hear from the religious right! Jesus makes it unambiguously clear that salvation and personal purity rest on a person’s willingness to help the poor rather than the classic wedge/judgment issues emphasized by Republicans in recent years.
The only other major story Jesus tells about judgment is commonly called “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” in which the rich man takes no pity on the impoverished Lazarus and is damned for it. Here, Jesus points out that when it comes to how we live moral and righteous lives that are pleasing to God, we should be looking to the very prophets cited earlier in this guide, who provide us with all the direction we need: “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table…[both men die and Lazarus goes to heaven while the rich man goes to hell from which he pleads with Abraham for relief]…But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish… And the rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them’ “ (Luke 16:19-29).
“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13).
Other passages on God’s love for the poor: Job 5:14-16; Psalm 35:10, 40:17, 41:1, 69:33, 70:5, 72:12-14, 109:31, 113:7, 140:13. Psalms calling on God to help the poor: Psalms 72:4, 82:4, 86:1, 109:22 (Note, all of the prior passages in this paragraph use the Hebrew word “‘ebyon”, which is sometimes translated into English as “needy.” But “’ebyon” is the word for “the destitute, the beggar, and the economically or legally distressed” and therefore “poor” is always an appropriate translation). Habakkuk 3:14; Zephaniah 3:12.