The Bible on the Poor
or, Why God is a liberal
The Bible contains more than 300 verses on the poor, social justice, and God’s deep concern for both. This page contains a wide sample of them, and some reflections. It’s aimed at anyone who takes the Bible seriously.
As you read these passages, you will very likely feel a good deal of resistance (possibly at first manifesting itself as indifference). American churches have departed strongly from Biblical values in these areas, and even created a rationalization– “prosperity theology”– for rejecting them. It takes time and reflection to get past this misteaching.
But try to get past the resistance. Spiritual growth doesn’t come from what goes down easily, or what we like to hear and read. It comes from what’s different, and even difficult.
This page can easily be used as the basis for a Bible study. I tried writing it like one, but ultimately decided that web pages just don’t work that way. It makes a smashing good one, though; if you want to try, replace the commentary with questions. The best questions to ask are those without a fixed answer (e.g. “Why does Jesus say this?” or “What did you learn from these verses?”).
God’s concern for the poor
In this section we are not yet concerned with what the believer should think or do for the poor, but with God’s thoughts. Though we often forget poverty and oppression, it is clear from the Bible that they are always on God’s mind.
Deut. 26:5-9. The Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to… this land flowing with milk and honey.
Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read… “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Ps. 140:12. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.
Is. 25:4. For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress.
Ps. 10:14. The unfortunate commits himself to You; You have been the helper of the orphan… O LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed.
Is 41:17. The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them.
Luke 6:20-21. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
James 2:5. Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?
Commentary: I think it’s fair to say that American attitudes toward the poor– and perhaps not just in America– are mostly disdain and fear. They’re dangerous and different. Sometimes there’s a suspicion that their condition is their own fault, that they’re simply lazy or inferior. Other Americans are more kind-hearted, but prefer not to look at the poor too closely; it’s depressing, and they’re surely not fun people to be with.
These attitudes are a world away from God’s attitudes, as described in these verses. Neediness arouses compassion in God– and action.
We may think: “Of course God loves the poor; he loves everybody.” But it’s not so simple as that; God’s character is presented as a model for our own. If God values the poor, we have to think about what that means for us.
God’s commands concerning the poor
This section collects some specific commands from Old and New Testaments on serving the poor.
Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.
Deut. 26:12. When you have finished paying the complete tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, that they may eat in your towns, and be satisfied.
Lev. 19:19ff. Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.
Prov. 31:8ff. [Commandment to kings.] Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.
Is. 58:66ff. Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Jer. 22:3. Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
Luke 12:33. “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys.”
Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”
Mt. 5:42. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
Commentary: The message here is really very simple: help the needy. It’s not hard to understand; it’s just hard to do.
And the message is continuous. It’s in the Torah; it’s in the Prophets and Psalms; it’s in the Gospels; it’s in the Epistles. How many churches emphasize serving the poor as much as the Bible itself does? Would the world look the way it does if all believers followed these commands?
Another thing to note about these verses is the lack of caveats– the lack of excuses. None of them add “…once a year” or “…when you feel you can” or “…if they’re moral” or “…unless they’re black” or “…if they speak English”. We have plenty of reasons (I’m sure you can think of a dozen) why we can’t go out and feed the hungry, why we have to turn away the needy borrower– and God help us, how many of us have sold so much as a lawnmower in order to have money to give away? But all those reasons belong to our sinful human nature, not to God. God just wants those needy people helped.
If you wanted to be a Biblical one-issue voter, you’d do well to make that one issue serving the poor.
Blessings on those who serve the poor
Serving poor may be The Right Thing To Do; but the Bible also associates it with material and spiritual reward. Here we’ll look at the benefits promised to those who serve the poor; in the next section we’ll examine the consequences of not doing so.
Prov. 22:9 He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.
Jer. 22:16 “Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is that not what it means to know Me?” declares the LORD.
Deut. 15:10. You shall give generously to [your poor brother], and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.
Prov. 19:17. He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.
Jer. 7:5-7. “For, if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”
Is. 58:10. “And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”
Luke 14:12-14. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 12:44. “Sell your possessions and give alms; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Mt. 19:20ff. The young man said to Him, “All these commands I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
Commentary: Americans like money; the American dream is about being rich. No wonder we’re susceptible to religious quacks who promise riches to those who believe in God.
We do find promises of reward in the Bible– to those who serve the poor. God’s making a very simple proposal here: “You help the poor, and I’ll repay it.”
Full disclosure: there’s a little bait-and-switch going on. Jesus promises treasure in heaven. In the sociology of religion game, we call this spiritualization. In plain English, it means that Jesus is asking us to go way past our comfort level in giving things away. And in not getting them back.
Who are the poor, by the way? Among our rationalizations is the feeling that the actual poor aren’t people we really have to pay attention to. They may be of different races, or not speak our language, or aren’t moral enough for us; they may be illegal immigrants. (Imagine that, a class of human beings that are illegal. Imagine explaining that to God.)
God doesn’t want to hear these excuses; he specifically commands us to help the stranger, the alien, the sojourner. Jesus’ command on dinner parties couldn’t be clearer: the people you need to help are not the people like you, the people you like, the people who can repay you. As for racial prejudice, note that the first person in the gospel of John to whom Jesus clearly confesses to being the Messiah is a Samaritan; Samaritans were despised by the orthodox Jews of the time. (And for that matter, she was a woman, and an adulterer.)
Can you give too much? We believe in moderation in all things. Unfortunately, we get this idea from the Greeks, not the Bible. Jesus asks for immoderate giving.
Consequences of not serving the poor
As there are blessings for those who serve the poor, there are consequences for those who oppress them… or who simply ignore them.
Ezek. 16:49ff. “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.”
Is. 10:1-3. “Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who continually record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights… Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar?”
Luke 1:52ff. [Mary’s Magnificat.] “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were hungry. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.”
Ezek. 22:29,31. “The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice… Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD.
Jer. 5:28f. “[The wicked] do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan, that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor. Shall I not punish these people?” declares the LORD. “On such a nation as this, shall I not avenge myself?”
James 5:1-6. Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. …Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and with you have withheld, cries out against you; and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
Luke 6:24. “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.”
Luke 16:19-25. “Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.
And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony…'”
Commentary: Many Evangelicals worry what might happen to our country if sexual immorality flourishes. Now, the sexual morality the Bible tells us to be worried about is our own, but that’s another discussion. A more serious worry is what will happen to us, our churches, our nation, if we don’t serve the poor.
Obviously, adding to the misery of the poor is bad– exploiting workers, oppressing immigrants, robbing the needy. But it doesn’t stop there. Merely ignoring the poor is a crime. Sodom wasn’t destroyed because of sexual immorality; it was destroyed because it “had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease”– and isn’t that a pretty good description of America?– and it “did not help the poor and needy”.
There isn’t the least suggestion that the rich man being punished in hell was responsible for Lazarus’s condition… except in the most general sense: he was responsible as a fellow human being, as a man who was aware of the one suffering at his door and did nothing to help.
“Pleading the cause” of the poor, being their advocate and defender, is simply something a righteous person does. Are you someone who, when others are silent, advocates for the poor in your company, your church, your nation, your political party?
Biblical attitudes for believers toward the poor
So far we’ve examined only the surface God’s commands concerning the poor, what happens if we obey or if we don’t. Here we consider the spirit in which we respond. Without some of these correctives, we might make many mistakes serving the poor.
Prov. 29:7. The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern.
1 John 3:17. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
Luke 6:33ff. “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same.”
2 Cor 9:7. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.
Mt. 6:2-4. “When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
Mt. 6:24. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.”
1 Tim. 6:10. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang.
Gal. 2:9ff. Recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John… gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor– the very thing I also was eager to do.
Lev. 19:15. “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.”
Acts 2:44. All those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began to sell their property and possessions, and share them with all, as anyone might have need.
Acts 4:32-35. And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.
Eph. 4:28. Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.
Commentary: Some unimpressive ways to give:
With a big frown on your face
Back to those who’ve given you things
Showing others that you’re giving
How do you tell if you’re worshipping Money? Well, how do you tell if you’re worshipping anyone? What do you spend your time on; what do you worry and talk about the most; what do you make sacrifices for? I often wonder how people can read these verses on Sunday, and on Tuesday go vote for the Money Party. James and Peter and John don’t exhort Paul to remember the tax cuts.
Acts 4 is a mini-description of the proverbial Christian Nation. There was not a needy person among them. Why isn’t that said about us? We have a lot more resources than a mob of mostly poor first-century Palestinians.
Another excuse sometimes used to ignore passages like this is Dispensationalism– roughly, the idea that since we have Scripture, we can ignore large parts of Scripture. It doesn’t make much sense when you state it in plain English, does it? There are some good reasons that we need not follow the Jewish Law; but the obligation to help the needy has not been repealed. It’s found throughout the New Testament, with a good deal more emphasis than many subjects that Christians prefer to focus on.
With the prohibition on stealing, we may feel that we’re on more familiar ground. But note the actual advice; it’s not “Build so many jails that you rival the worst dictatorships for the percentage of your population in prison.” Simply let the thieves stop stealing and do honest work.
When you think “thieves”, by the way, do you picture a poor person? The Bible doesn’t assume that the poor are especially prone to sin; on the contrary. Rich thieves as well should put aside their thievery: accountants swindling stockholders, corporations cheating taxpayers, CEOs making millions while their companies fail, presidents spending money they don’t have to benefit their wealthiest contributors.
God’s identification with the poor
Like a good king, the Lord is concerned with his poor subjects. In the passages below, we see that His heart goes deeper still: he identifies with the poor; he puts himself in their place.
2 Cor. 8:9. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.
Prov. 19:17. He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.
Prov. 14:31. He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.
Mt. 25:31-46. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’
Then they themselves will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’
Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Commentary: God isn’t a conservative; he’s a revolutionary. He not only takes the side of the poor; he puts himself in their place. In the very alarming parable of the sheep and the goats he speaks of salvation as depending on how we treat the poorest and the most afflicted.
According to prosperity theology (and according to the best Pharisaical opinion) Jesus should have come as a lord, a tycoon, a cult leader. Some of his followers today act as, presumably, they felt Jesus should have acted, building multi-million-dollar cathedrals. But Jesus came as a poor man.
There’s all sorts of meaning in that, but at the very least we can say that Jesus takes the issue of poverty personally. A church or a nation that ignores its poor or places stumbling blocks in their way, whose supreme good is Money, is very far from the spirit of God.