“…the poor you have always.”
I live and labor in a land that has many poor. It is one of the first things that strikes a new visitor when they first venture out past the airport’s custom stations. From the moment they leave the security of the airport in this land they are surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of poverty.
A new visitor discovers people living in conditions that far exceed anything one might find in the slums of the prosperous countries of our world. Beyond the surface, there are similarities and common denominators such as discouragement, despair and a sense of hopelessness.
Education, perhaps, is the key to moving beyond these confines. But then the “catch 22” of college expenses, and the means to pay for their higher education, assaults them. Many will be born into these conditions and live in them all their lives. They will raise their own families here, and watch their grandchildren grow up in the same conditions they did. Many of them are squatters, living and growing up with the uncertainty of how long they will be able to live where they currently dwell before some major company desires the property they call “home” for another shopping center or lofty overpass.
The Lord stated to His disciples an undeniable fact. “…the poor you have with you always.” The question then, for us becomes: What is our responsibility as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ towards these less fortunate men, women and children? Do we have a responsibility at all? Or, can we simply watch, see the conditions, express our sadness, shed a tear, then turn the channel or divert the eye so as to avoid the pain and twinge we feel in our soul.
The scriptures, which we read and seek to obey, have a great deal to say about how our Lord feels about the poor and His concern for them. It is easy for us to say, “Oh how sad…how very sad that so many must live in such desperate conditions. But what can I do? I cannot meet the needs of the world. After all, are there not many Christian and Non-Christian humanitarian societies working selflessly to meet these needs?” “Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?”, is what Scrooge, in Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”, said in response to men seeking charity for the poor. Do our hearts respond in the same manner? We may say, “There are many useful institutions which meet the needs of the poor, and from time to time I have given my dollar to help. What more can I do?” We must learn to be Biblical.
The Lord made provision for the poor, by using the resources of His people, from the blessings they received from His hand: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, thou shall not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shall thou gather any gleanings of thy harvest; thou shall leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger, I am the LORD your God.” Lev 23:22
You will quickly notice whose harvest it is, whose fields they are, and who owns the gleanings. They are the people’s fields. They are the ones who own the fields, the ones who work them, who labor in planting, watering, and harvesting. They are the ones who pay the laborers. Of their labors, of their harvest, be it great or small, they are to be sure they give to the poor so that those who lack may glean, harvest and eat.
But, they may retort, “But they didn’t work!” The poor, the stranger, didn’t plow their fields; they had no field to plow. They didn’t labor in the fields; they had no one hire them. They are the truly needy, not the lazy or the sluggard, but the poor among you. The LORD said, “care for them.”
“For the poor shall never cease out of the land, therefore I command thee saying, thou shalt open thy hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to the needy in thy land.” (Deut 15:11)
“Open thy hand wide unto thy brother, to the poor and needy” I think, sometimes, my heart is haunted by the words of James. “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also your faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.” (James 2:15-16)
When we live in a land of great prosperity and build walls to shelter ourselves from the slums of the inner city; when we willfully and knowingly separate ourselves from our own brothers and sisters in Christ living in other countries who are in deep need; when we pray for those unable to get the hospital care they need, those unable to put healthy food on the table each day, those unable to meet the meanest of needs, how dwells the Love of Christ in us, if we lift no finger to help? We often times think, I suppose, that in some mysterious way God will bring manna from heaven to feed the poor. We pray for the Lord to meet their every need, but in reality we say with those in James…”Be warmed, be filled…”, and do nothing to help.
Shanties, beggars, the crippled and the maimed line the streets in many sections of the main thoroughfares of this land, as they do in many throughout this world. The sad thing I have experienced, is that after a while you do not see them anymore. They are now blened into the regular fabric of daily life and our soul’s grief for them is jaded. But the word of God and the Spirit of God will just not let it be so. “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever” (Psalm 9:18) “For the LORD hears the poor….” (Psalm 69:33)
In Deut. 15:1-11 we read of the Law regarding the Lord’s Release.
Once, again, the LORD, in concern for the poor, lest they be perpetually in a state of indebtedness, makes provision for them. In this provision of His mercy, He commands that every seven years they would be free from their debts to their brothers. Their brothers could not, according to this law, try to retrieve money lent to them. This did not mean that there was no moral obligation on behalf of the people to seek to repay, but it relieved them of the burden of continued debt. It was the LORD’S release. He provided it for them.
Verse four of this chapter seems to tell us that this law would keep the poor from being constantly in debt and getting further in debt. But, every seven years the poor would be given a fresh start. What a wonderful provision from the Lord! It is not designed to help the lazy and the sluggard, but those genuinely in need.
The chapter goes on, and in the Lord’s continual advocacy for the poor He says to them, “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open you hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.” (15:7ff)
The next few verses in Deuteronomy seem to echo the words of our Lord in Luke 6:34-35 when He said, “…and if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what thanks is it to you? For even sinners lend to sinners that they may receive the like. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return, and your reward shall be great and you shall be sons of the Highest.”
In Deuteronomy 15:9-10 He says: “Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart saying, “The seventh year, the year of release is at hand, and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing and he cry out to the LORD against you and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand.”
Paul, under inspiration of the Spirit, says…”God loves a cheerful giver…” (2 Cor. 9:7) Once again we see the same theme echoed that were in the words of verse 10 above.
Deuteronomy 15 continues with verse 11; “For the poor will never cease from the land therefore I command you saying you shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy in your land.”
Again, the LORD is making careful provision for the brethren. Those with abundance are to recognize the poor brother and open their hand….not stingily, nor tightfisted; not with a list of questions as to the “why?” of their poverty, but open it wide and meet the need. Further questioning and help can be given later to improve the situation , first meet the need. And, they are to give without usury. They are to give without the expectation of profit to themselves.
“The poor shall never cease from the land…” “For you have the poor always with you...” (Mathew 26:11) 1 Samuel 2:7 makes this rather startling statement: “The LORD makes the poor, and makes the rich, He brings low and lifts up”. This is found in Hannah’s song of thanksgiving to the LORD after she gave her son of promise unto the Lord for His service.
I realize that it falls among a group of similes, where one thought is placed against another for emphasis. Yet the truth of the verse remains. Does the LORD make the poor so that the rich can have compassion on them? Does He allow there to be poverty in order to give others an opportunity to serve Him, by not closing their eyes to the poor? Does He allow the rich to have abundance so as to give them an opportunity to share with those less fortunate? These are not only interesting but things to meditate on, but necessary to spiritual growth.
Wealth often is a relative thing. You may not consider yourself to be wealthy when you measure yourself against your neighbors or against others who live in more affluent areas of your country. But, when you place your wealth beside one in Uganda, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Peru or the Philippines, you may indeed appear quite affluent by comparison. In those countries, even a few dollars can make a significant difference.
Proverbs 22:9 states: “He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor.” Matthew Henry, in his classic commentary on the whole bible, says of this verse:
“The description of a charitable man; he has a bountiful eye , - an eye that seeks out objects of charity, besides those that offer themselves, - an eye that, upon the sight of one in want and misery, affects the heart with compassion, - an eye that with the alms gives a pleasant look, which makes the alms doubly acceptable. He has also a liberal hand: He gives of his bread to those that need - his bread, the bread appointed for his own eating. He will rather abridge himself than see the poor perish for want; yet he does not give all his bread, but of his bread; the poor shall have their share with his own family. 2. The blessedness of such a man. The loins of the poor will bless them, all about him will speak well of him, and God himself will bless him, in answer to many a good prayer put up for him, and he shall be blessed.” Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Matthew Henry (1662-1714)
The writer of one of the Proverbs adds to these thoughts, in that, “He that gives unto the poor shall not lack; but he that hides his eyes shall have many a curse.” (Proverbs 28:27) These words are certainly a challenge to my heart and to any open heart. To learn to have a “bountiful eye”, to pray that the Lord would remove the scales if scales there be. To learn, by His grace, to give willingly and with a cheerful heart, lest the poor be further saddened in their plight. To allow the Lord to create in us a heart that; “…considers the cause of the poor...” and does not respond like the wicked and unregenerate made who “…regards it not….” (Proverbs 29:7)
It is said of the Proverbial woman…”She stretches out her hand to the poor, yes, she reaches forth her hand to the needy.” (Prov 31:20) She puts action into her pity. She reaches out with more than prayer.
When the saints in Macedonia and Achaia heard of the need of their brethren in Jerusalem, having never met them, Paul could say of their charity; ”For it has pleased those of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26)
One of the requests of the elders of Jerusalem, after meeting with Paul and Barnabas to discuss issues concerning the gospel presented by them to the Gentiles, was that they “remember the poor.” And that was, according to Paul, “…the same which I was forward (diligent or zealous) to do.” (Gal 2:10)
The statement of David to Araunah the Jebusite, I suppose, may be a fitting way to end these few thoughts. The story is familiar to us all. David said to Araunah, in response to his offer to give David the threshing floor wherein he was to make his offering unto the Lord for the sin he done and the suffering he had allowed to the people of Israel, “I will surely buy it from you for a price, nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which cost me nothing…”
Does our offering to the LORD come from that which will cost us nothing? May we search our hearts and count the cost, then give freely and with a cheerful heart. For it is the Lord that we serve, and He will be no ones debtor.
Ken & Joyce Hardisty serve as missionaries in Benguet Province Baguio, Philippines