Scripture Guide, Part 6: The Blessedness of the Poor and Our Responsibility to Them

Scripture Guide, Part 6: The Blessedness of the Poor and Our Responsibility to Them August 24, 2012

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.


Read Part 5:  The Sin of Helping the Rich at the Expense of the Poor

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  • Tom Wiley

    I’m a life long Republican and I’ve never heard your views on Republicans policies before. I live in a Liberal town and attend a Liberal town, so on a recent mission trip to help the poor in Mexico it was very refreshing to see that we were ALL conservatives from many cities and many churches. I wish Liberals would put their words into action instead of all spouting hatred.

    ” It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

    People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.” – Penn Jillette

    • Meggie

      “… if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. ”
      The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t work. Look at England during the time of Charles Dickens when there were no government programs and the poor had to rely on charity. That is not the sort of society I want to live in!

      • Ted Seeber

        I think it’s better than living in a society where the poor have to kill their children to access basic welfare.

    • Lois Denneno

      I am a liberal and do not spout hate nor do I carry a gun. What are you talking about? Call me crazy but it seems to me that a lot of conservatives used guns in a war in Iraque. Of course it was to help those poor people under the gun of Sadam.

  • Meggie

    “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!”
    So true and so sad! Walmart workers can work full-time and still be eligible for food stamps. The US is no longer a land of opportunity and upward mobility because the poor can’t afford to educate their children, while the rich can send their kids to good colleges and perpetuate the status of their family. We need to preserve Pell grants!

  • Bob Cahill

    Finally! Thank you for some great essays!

  • J. Bob

    An interesting Philanthropy study came out recently, on true charity. That is giving freely. One of the striking things is the states who population give of there of their own. It notes that the most generous givers were what could be called “traditional” states, Those states who were more “progressive”, the population gave the least.

    While one party notes they are the party supporting the poor, the facts tend to give a far different picture.

    • Digger

      I know it has been a while since you wrote this; I stumble across it and wish to comment:
      Not everyone who SAYS “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but those who DO the will of the Father in Heaven.
      Great post, thank you!

  • Greg

    Balance, balance, balance. As Christians we are obliged to help the disadvantaged. However, it is not charity to be forced by a powerful government to help the poor. It is not charity to be forced to provide contraceptive insurance against your religious beliefs. It is not charity to call what is evil, good, in the name of civil rights (homosexual so called marriage). IF you really have Christian compassion for someone, you give them what they need to survive in this life and to eventually make it to heaven. I have attend quite a number of charitable functions and what is commonly lacking are those of left leaning political background. It’s time that the left put their money where their mouth is rather than feeling that they have the moral high ground by forcing others to provide “charity”.