Poor Laws in an Age of False Beneficence

Whether it is teaching classes on mercy ministry or counseling with others on a case involving someone needy, again and again I find the church struggling to know what to do in helping the poor.  Often I start by telling folks that it is good they are struggling, because every situation will be difficult to discern.  Beware of the one who comes in with the quick, easy answer!

But then I also will ask, “What does the Bible have to say in cases like this one?”  People often fumble around a bit at this question.  Usually a mention of how we have an obligation to care for the needy or a reference to the story of the Good Samaritan is offered by the sensitive, tender-hearted ones on the one hand; and remarks about the poor needing to learn to work or how we cannot be giving handouts to every drunkard comes from the bolder, more stout-hearted folks on the other.  Too infrequently do I hear a reasoned articulation coming from the Scriptures that echoes with the proper Micah 6:8 blend: “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The location of this verse just quoted explains why.  Notice Micah 6:8 is in the Old Testament. The church has turned from the poor ordinances found in the Mosaic Law, believing them to be outdated and, in essence, almost cast out like demons by Christ’s New Testament ministry. How tragic this is!  Israel was established by God to be a place where the nations could look to see how justice was done, how mercy was delighted in, and how humility was called for.  Yet many read the laws in the Book of Moses and just smile at the quaintness of them.  They feel no duty to them, much like one might enjoy visiting an Amish village but sense no obligation to live that way.  Yet these laws are God’s laws!  Within the commands and pictures of the old covenant we find the binding principles we need in caring for and dealing with those in poverty.  As we study and meditate on God’s Law and apply it (Psalm 1), something amazing will occur.  We will see Christ in them and His care for people!  We must believe that.  Christ believed that.

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Recall this story is set in the context of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees, the supposed keepers of the Mosaic Law.  The rich man was cast into a burning Hades for failing to care for poor, sickly Lazarus during his earthly existence, while Lazarus enjoyed the heavenly presence of God in Abraham’s bosom.  When the rich man asked Abraham for his thirst to be relieved by sending Lazarus to him with his finger dipped in the cool waters of heaven (notice his arrogance even in hell in asking for Lazarus to be his servant-boy), Abraham told him he could not do that because the chasm between them was fixed.  Abraham also reminded him of how he had treated Lazarus during his life. In essence, Abraham told this man that eternal justice and mercy are now being served.  At its heart, this story is reminding us there will be eternal ramifications for how we have treated the needy, just as Jesus clearly states in Matthew 25:31-46 about the Final Judgment.

Yet this story reveals something further.  When the (formerly) rich man realized his effort to find relief was futile, he then asked Abraham at least to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers about the agony of hell (notice that arrogance again). Abraham responded that his living brothers had Moses and the prophets, and that they should just listen to them.  The rich man argued against the sufficiency of this. “But no, send one back from the dead and surely they will listen.”  Hear Abraham’s response. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, then they will not listen to one raised from the dead.”  In the story the rich man referred to Abraham several times as “father.”  This man was an Israelite who should have known Moses and the prophets.  Yet he is in hell because he did not believe and obey them. If he had, he would have clearly known what to do with this poor, sick man at his gate.  And if he had believed Moses’ law and cared for this poor man, the point of this parable is that He would have been led into a knowledge of the resurrected Christ!  (See John 5:39-47; I Corinthians 15:3-4)

The church does not know what to do with the poor because it does not know what to do with the poor laws of the Scriptures. The church has impoverished itself by not heeding the grace found in the Law of Moses, which is filled with instruction on how to care for the poor.  Read Deuteronomy 14:22-15:17 for one such example. Reading this text, yes, you will find it contains ceremonial aspects no longer obligatory for the Christian to observe, such as the sabbatical year.  But you can find wonderful principles of the general equity contained in these laws, where discernment is called for so that applications such as these are to be made:

  • Using the church’s tithe to aid widows, orphans, and immigrants.
  • Offering interest-free loans to Christians in need.
  • Giving liberally to a brother who has a demonstrated faithfulness.
  • Recognizing some people need long-term oversight in meaningful work.

From experience, I realize that many will balk at this post, especially pastors, so let me end with this question.  How do we know we should pay pastors for their work?  In the New Testament book of I Timothy, right after a discussion about which widows were to be supported by the church, we read in I Timothy 5:17-18 Paul giving instructions to Timothy about supporting pastors.  “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” How does he support the need to honor them with pay?  He uses an Old Testament law and a New Testament reference to support this teaching. “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (I Timothy 5:18).

If Paul can use a principle from an obscure law about caring for a beast to establish the idea that ministers are to be paid, can we not use the repeated Old Testament commands to help the poor to, well, help the poor?  And if a minister is not helping lead his people in so doing and preparing them for the Day of Judgment, might it not be time for a salary review?

4 Comments

  1. Paul April 23, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    I could not agree with this more! Our churches are so concerned with building up their empires, yet those that are in their care could use help. Instead we let them go to the state for help. It drives me nuts that our deacon fund for benevolence is only $2000 per year!!! But out building expenses are triple that!!! Thank you for writing this!

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