Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Helping the Poor

Don Burke recently had an article in the Baptist Trumpet titled ‘Remember the Poor’: Are We Doing It Right? [June 13, 2012 issue] If you have time, I highly recommend you read his original article, but I’ll summarize what he said. He gave the example of stranger showing up at a church and asking for help to pay the rent. He went on to say that though it is common for people like this to show up at churches and we often help them, these are probably not the poor that Paul was talking about in Galatians 2:10 when he wrote, “Remember (to help) the poor.” Don suggests that this raises two questions: Who, exactly, are “the poor” and in what ways should we help them?

Based on his study of the Bible, Don identifies four categories of poor: Those who want to be poor, those who are poor due to their choices, those who are poor due to short-term circumstances, and those who are poor due to long-term circumstances. As for how we should help the poor, he looked at what the Bible says about that as well and found that we have no responsibility to help those who either want to remain poor and those who continually make bad choices that will cause them to be poor. If a person is unwilling to work, for example, we have no obligation to provide for them.

As for the other two categories, which are those who are willing but unable to provide for themselves, either for a short time (sudden loss of investment) or a long time (physical diability), our obligation is to help provide for the most basic needs of life. But is that for everyone who rings the church doorbell? Apparently not. The first responsibility for caring for a poor person belongs to that person’s family. You recall that Paul mentioned that the widows with families to take care of them should not be included in the number of those needing care from the church. If the family is unable or refuses, then the poor person’s care falls to that person’s home church. If they aren’t working in that church to the best of their ability, they have no right to expect the church to give them anything.

I don’t think that means we have to turn people away if we see they have a need and we know we can help them. Jesus healed many people who were strangers. But our resources are not unlimited. So often, we see people come asking for money when it is clear that they have the ability to work, but they would rather put effort into asking for a handout.

How different things would be if we limited our charity to our church members. Or maybe, instead of just giving strangers money, we could offer to let them do some work in exchange for money. They could plants some flowers in flowerbeds. They could clean the building. They fold church bulletins. We might could take them over to the houses of some of our invalid church members let them do some work for them. And when they were done, we could pay them a fair wage. I imagine that some of them would quit showing up if we did that.

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