I had the privilege to travel to Tanzania last November, courtesy of Compassion Australia, to observe the work ‘on the ground’ in that country. My family has sponsored children through Compassion for the last fifteen years, and it was wonderful to witness first-hand the ministry being done among children.
I was stunned by the poverty I witnessed in Tanzania, which is a typical response I suppose. I was expecting to see families huddled in one room, and mud brick homes with dirt floors. But it was the widespread scale of the poverty that shocked me; it was everywhere, with no end in sight. Actually, I was stunned by the widespread poverty at the start of the week; by the end of the week I was angered by the widespread corruption. We even witnessed it in the police force. Sadly, corruption reinforces poverty, making it difficult for people to rise above their current situation. And poverty causes corruption, as people are forced to do whatever they can to put food on the table.
Having spent the week with the Compassion team, I had dinner with friends of mine in Dar es Salaam. He is a music mate and his wife works for the United Nations. As we talked, I couldn’t help but compare the work of Compassion to the UN. The UN struggles to reform national problems through infrastructure. Compassion deals with individuals and families.
Though fixing national problems is not really the agenda of Compassion, it occurred to me that it might ultimately have more success than the UN in resolving the national problems of Tanzania, because it seems to me that such problems cannot truly be solved through structural approaches. Poverty may be reinforced by unjust structures, but I’m not sure it can be solved structurally. This is because structures do not address the hearts of people. At the root of corruption and the perpetuation of poverty is a spiritual problem—a problem about which the Bible has much to say.
The fall and love
Poverty is a consequence of the fall. While it does not directly address poverty, Genesis 3:17–19 sets the ‘ground’ for it:
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
With the ground cursed, work will be difficult. The land will not easily produce what we need for food. Poverty in its most basic forms is a direct consequence of the land not providing abundantly for those in need.
Not only is poverty a consequence of the fall, but, according to Jesus, it will always be with us in this world: “For the poor you will always have, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). We’ll come back to this text, but suffice to say it seems clear that poverty is a permanent consequence of the fall of humanity and will not ultimately be solved until Jesus ushers in the new heavens and new earth.
Though poverty exists due to the fall, God cares for the poor. Protection for the poor is written into the covenant codes of Exodus:
You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. (Exod 23:6)
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. (Exod 23:10–11)
In Deuteronomy, God states the standard that is expected among God’s people—that there is to be no poor among them:
But there will be no poor among you, for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess. (Deut 15:4)
And yet, only a few verses later, it is acknowledged that this standard will not be met, and thus the poor are to be looked after:
‘For there will never cease to be poor people in the land. Therefore I am command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” (Deut 15:11)
In the book of Amos, God sides with the poor against the corruption of the rich:
Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks. (Amos 4:1–2)
For I know how many are your transgressions
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5:12)
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying,
“When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8:4–7)
James also indicates God’s compassion toward the poor and disadvantaged:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (Jas 1:27)
Listen, my beloved brothers: has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (Jas 2:5)
God has compassion for the poor, and we are to share God’s heart. Believers are to protect those with no protector, feed the hungry, and release the oppressed from oppression.
Caring for the poor is important and God expects his people to do it. Having said that, however, in John 12 Jesus indicates that some things are more important.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1–8)
The quality of the oil that Mary uses to anoint Jesus’ feet (v. 3) has royal overtones, and Jesus indicates that it is for his burial (v. 7). Through such a gesture, Mary acknowledges that Jesus is God’s king, the Messiah. Judas, however, complains that the expensive oil should have been sold and the money given to the poor (v. 4–5). But as Jesus indicates in verse 8, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”. The message is clear: honouring Jesus as the Christ is more important than caring for the poor.
These observations lead us to acknowledge two common, and opposite, mistakes when it comes to thinking about the poor.
The first mistake is to equate the gospel with caring for the poor. There is no doubt that God expects us to show love to the poor and the disadvantaged, but it is a mistake to think that that good work is what we are all about as Christians. It’s not. The gospel is about proclaiming Jesus.
The second mistake is to think that ‘gospel people’ have no responsibility to care for the poor. Clearly, that is not God’s opinion on the matter. His people are to reflect his heart—as he has compassion for the poor, so too are we. It’s all too easy to distance ourselves from mistake one by going too far in the other direction: “caring for the poor is not the gospel, and it’s not as important as the gospel, so we’ll spend all our time and money on the gospel and none on the poor”. That way of thinking is just wrong.
There is a subtler version of this second mistake that might be more prevalent among us. This version involves our perceptions of what is and is not ‘strategic’. Of course, it is appropriate to consider strategy when we decide how to allocate our resources. The Scriptures teach us to use wisdom in decision-making, and strategy is a form of wisdom. But the reality is that caring for the poor is not very strategic. It’s not likely that it will lead to the raising up of the church’s future leaders. It probably won’t result in significant church growth. And so, we might prefer more ‘strategic’ uses of our time and money. The problem with that way of thinking is that God does not command us only to do what is strategic. He tells us to care for the poor because he cares for the poor. It’s not strategic. It’s just right.
In fact, church history is replete with examples of Christians for whom the proclamation of the gospel is absolutely number one, and yet they are not therefore ambivalent about the poor. George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon are two great exemplars. No-one could question their gospel credentials. George Whitefield was arguably the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century, having preached to hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and North America. And yet, in 1740 he founded the Bethesda Home for Boys—an orphanage in Georgia, which still operates today as a boys’ school. Charles Spurgeon was one the great preachers and evangelists of the nineteenth century, with a church of over five thousand people. And yet, in 1867 he founded the Stockwell Orphanage in London, which still exists as Spurgeon’s Child Care. These two men were outstanding preachers and evangelists, but they were not too busy to found orphanages. They were not so consumed by gospel strategy that they failed to care for the disadvantaged.
Blessed are the poor
An interesting element in the Bible’s teaching about poverty is the way in which Jesus uses the poor to teach about the kingdom of God. One example is found in Luke 14:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:7-14)
Worldly values are inverted in the kingdom of God: the poor are valued, the downcast are lifted up, and the proud, self-important, and arrogant will be thrown down. Why is this so? The answer seems to be that poverty cultivates dependence. As James says, God chose the poor in this world to be rich in faith (Jas 2:5). If anything is clear to a person of poverty, it is that they cannot rely on themselves for their own wellbeing. It is often the case therefore that the poor will turn to God for security. They will entrust themselves to him for justice, blessing, and peace. In this way, the poor who turn to God honour him. They declare that God is a generous provider, and that he is a just judge. It’s not that poverty is a good thing, but the poverty of spirit that often accompanies material poverty is valuable in God’s sight.
To the rich
Finally, we can’t address the issue of poverty without also addressing wealth. After his interaction with the wealthy ruler in Luke 18:18–23, Jesus’ famous words about the rich remain striking:
“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24–25).
Why is it so difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God? It is no doubt the reverse of the reason that the poor are honoured: the wealthy tend not to be dependent upon God. Wealth cultivates self-reliance, leading to pride. The proud are opposed to God, who hates pride. Again, it is not wealth per se that is the problem. In fact, wealth is a good gift from God. But the lack of humility and lack of dependence that often accompanies wealth is the issue.
Furthermore, greed is idolatry, and a failure to be generous is symptomatic of greed. In 2 Corinthians 8:1–9, Paul makes the extraordinary move of describing the gospel through economic terms. He is not addressing the topic of poverty as such, but the matter of generosity for the sake of ministry:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:1-9)
In verse 9, Paul describes the grace of Christ by saying that he became poor in order to make us rich. The principle at work is that Christ represents God’s generosity to us. We are likewise to be generous. In other words, the gospel teaches us to be generous. Generosity is an implication of the gospel.
Christians must love the poor. It’s not that we ought to embark on a misguided mission to end world poverty—since we know that while the world is subject to the consequences of the fall there will be poverty. But we are to love as we have been loved. God cares for the poor through the generosity of his people since he chooses to work through human agents. By changing our hearts and teaching us to care for others, God brings good things to the weak.
The poor will always be with us. To care for the poor will be an ongoing struggle, but care for them we must, because God has a heart for the poor. Do you have such a heart? If not, pray that God will change your heart to be more like his. After all, God loves a cheerful giver; there’s no point engaging in loveless obligation.
Caring for the poor is not the gospel, but the gospel teaches us to do it. It’s not strategic. It’s just right.