In considering the Christian obligation for the poor, we should clarify that obligation. It is not an obligation to the poor, but to God for the poor. That has implications for both rich and poor.
For the rich, it means resources we have are not our own but entrusted to our stewardship by God. This applies to all resources at our disposal – time, knowledge, family, health, and everything else. God grants them to provide for us and that we might use them to his honor and glory. None of it is mine. For all of it I must give an account and much is expected from those who have been given much. When I ignore the pleas of the poor and marginalized, it is not really the poor I am ignoring but God himself, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 25 with the parable of separating sheep and goats.
Repeatedly, throughout Scripture, we are directed to use at least a portion of these resources to care for the marginalized – the poor, the alien, the widow. Just as those resources entail more than money, so this care entails more than money. One of the things that strikes me when I read Ruth is how careful Boaz is to protect Ruth’s dignity. He encourages her to work in his fields and instructs his workers to surreptitiously make sure there is something to glean. He explicitly commands his workers not to embarrass her. His concern is not to feed a statistic, but to care for a person – for Ruth.
In that famous Matthew 25 passage, while we are told to provide food, water, clothing, and shelter, there is also simple visiting. Specifically, visit those isolated from the community. Providing shelter is “…you took me in.” There’s more to taking in than putting a roof over top and a bed underneath. It includes him in the community, treats him as “us,” not “them”. In an era of large charitable organizations and massive government programs, the personhood of the poor can get lost. We must reclaim it, seeing not the adjective (“poor”), but the noun (“person”) – or better yet, the proper noun.
For the poor, the fact that the obligation is to God and not us means I have no claim on my neighbor. God does, but I do not. Thus it is to God whom I must look for salvation, both physical and spiritual. “Do not put your trust in…mortal men who cannot save,” the Psalmist tells us. “[The Lord] upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry…” (Ps. 146:2, 7ff). The Lord may provide through means mundane (a person or a job) or mysterious (manna), but it is to the Lord we must look.
The poor, too, must use the resources God has given to God’s glory. This is why Ruth went to glean rather than prostituting herself or waiting to die. This is why, in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25), the servant with the one talent was chastised and in Luke the poorer brother is warned to beware of greed along with the rest of Jesus’ audience. If God in his wisdom should give one of his servants five times, or even ten or a hundred times what he gives to me, what is that to me? The fact that resources might be few does not absolve us of the command to serve God with them, and neither our need nor our obligation is met by taking what has been entrusted to another.
We must also remember there is a time to suffer. Sometimes suffering is to test others or ourselves; sometimes to prove a point (Job); sometimes to discipline; always to glorify God (cf. John 9). Jesus tells us his burden is light, not that there is no burden. Paul tells us suffering is redemptive, for in suffering we participate in Christ’s sufferings. Knowing this, Paul is content in plenty or in want.
None of us is entitled to anything. We are all sinners, and the wage due us is death. If we insist on our rights, we insist on death. Praise be that our Father in Heaven sent his Son to suffer, die, and rise again that we might have undeserved life and, rich or poor, have it abundantly. Let us use our lives for God using everything at our disposal for him and his glory.