Poverty in the biblical world was commonplace; it was so acute that we scarcely can appreciate it from our modern, American vantage point. While there are different economic levels among Christians, no one with whom I am acquainted in the church is “poor” in the biblical sense (cf. Mark 12:41-44). Furthermore, the Scriptures nowhere demand the Communistic concept that Christians are required to “level out” their resources so that everyone has precisely the same measure of economic prosperity.
Under the Mosaic regime, ample provision was made for the poor (Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 14:21, etc.). But being poor was not itself a reason to set aside all other considerations. For example, a murderer might not plead his innocence on the ground that he was poor (cf. Leviticus 19:15).
Tragically, today many would significantly ignore the guilt of criminals who live in slum areas. But what about those who live in disadvantaged areas who are honest? Clearly, one’s environment does not determine his morality.
Jesus declared that “you have the poor always with you, and whensoever ye will ye can do them good” (Mark 14:7). Note the emphasis that has been placed upon the verb “will.” This indicates that “when,” “where,” “how” and “whom” one assists as “needy” is a matter of judgment (cf. Galatians 6:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). In discharging one’s personal obligations, he/she makes those decisions. In congregational situations, the elders make those determinations. Sometimes our choices are wise; sometimes they may not be.
Phone calls that are directed to the church facility may ultimately come to my residence. Occasionally I am forced to make decisions regarding requests for benevolence. If it is a serious issue, I refer it to the elders. If I judge it to be trivial, I may handle it myself, and I accept that responsibility.
Recently I received a call from a gentleman asking for money. He had driven to our town from a city in the northern part of the state. He was about to head home and he needed gas money. Perhaps I was a bit curt, but I asked: “Sir, when you left home, did you not calculate that you would need money for the fuel to return?” There was a long pause. “Are you still there?,” I inquired. “Yes,” was the soft reply. “Well, didn’t you think about the return trip?” “I guess not,” he said. “I am sorry, sir, we cannot help you.”
The church of the Lord is not a re-fuelling station for travelers who seem to think Christians should finance their trips hither, thither, and yon. And yet some folks hand out cash to beggars with no sense of judgment in the process.
Theoretically, we could place a sizable container downtown in the slum district of our city. Each Monday morning we might fill it with one-dollar bills. The poor then could pass by and help themselves to what they might need. Might some good be done? It’s possible. But would not this be a very foolish maneuver? There is something to be said for “wisdom” along with “good intentions.”
Both individuals and congregations need to think judiciously about their benevolent plans. We need to look for worthy recipients, rather than simply providing gifts for any and all who pass by.
One man recently called and asked if I would take a hamburger and fries to his girlfriend at a nearby motel. Unbelievable! I was tempted [not really] to ask: “Would you like ketchup with those fries?”
This is not the type of benevolence that Christ and the early church practiced. It is more akin to ill-conceived denominational programs. We must learn to be prudent in our good works.
We must not swing to the radical position of our kinsmen in Christ who advocate the “saints only” benevolent doctrine, but we assuredly need to be wiser than we sometimes are.
Scripture references: Mark 12:41-44; Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 14:21; Leviticus 19:15; Mark 14:7; Galatians 6:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:10