This past weekend in worship, we had the opportunity to consider Proverbs 3:27. In the NRSV and NIV translations of the Bible, it says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due.” But in the New Living Translation, it says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it.” This difference in translation seemed like a powerful enough metaphor to merit a blog post.
The Hebrew word that is getting translated is ba’al which means “owner, husband, or lord” according to my lexicon. So it’s a strange use of the word. It’s saying that the recipient of the good that you do is the “owner” of the good you do, which seems to suggest that they are entitled to it. There is nothing I can see about the word ba’al which connotes an assessment of merit. It’s simply not the word you would use to describe whether or not someone is “worthy” of receiving good.
Now the NLT’s primary agenda is to write the Bible in more accessible language. “Those to whom it is due” is an awkward phrase, so the translators figured they could paraphrase with “those who deserve it.” But this interpretive move invokes an American capitalist subtext. American capitalism divides those in need of financial aid into two categories: the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor.”
Homeless military vets, especially those with missing limbs, are part of the “deserving poor” (unless they’re struggling with addiction which completely discredits them). Other “deserving poor” would include anyone who is physically or mentally incapacitated enough to be dependent on others. The “undeserving poor” for the most part are people who are poor because they had sex out of wedlock and/or dropped out of high school, which are the two reasons that most people of color are presumed to be poor.
But Proverbs 3:27 is not asking us to make judgments about the recipients of our good based on their merit. Verse 28 elaborates: “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’—when you have it with you.” So who is the one to whom my good is due? My neighbor, plain and simple. Proverbs 3:27 is doing the opposite of telling us to judge whether or not others deserve our help. It’s saying you owe it to your neighbors to help them. When our neighbors ask for help and we help them, we are giving them what we owe them. Proverbs 3 is built on an entirely different understanding of community than the radically individualist meritocracy in which Americans live.
So what does this mean about the homeless guy with the strong whiskey breath who’s asking for a dollar? Do we owe him that dollar? By no means. We owe him good, which is to say we owe him the time and consideration to act according to his best interest to the best of our discernment instead of impulsively reacting and dehumanizing him. It’s reasonable to evaluate whether we are enabling addiction with our well-intentioned but harmful good deeds.
What is absent from our analysis is the question of merit. There is no one who doesn’t deserve our help because every human being has infinite worth as a child of God. This doesn’t mean that we can help everybody all the time in exactly the way that they ask. It does mean that we need to stop making up myths in our minds about “undeserving” poor people we don’t know in order to make ourselves comfortable with not helping them.
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