After God delivered his people from Egypt, he prepared them to enter the Promised Land. In all his instructions, God told them, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.

How can we help the poor?

After God delivered his people from Egypt, he prepared them to enter the Promised Land. In all his instructions, God told them, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land'” (Deut. 15:11). In the New Testament, Jesus said a similar thing, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). God said he would deliver the poor (Psalm 72:12), that he would bless the one who is generous to the poor (Prov. 14:20), that he will not answer the one who closes his ear to the poor (Prov. 21:13), and that men should not oppress or rob the poor (Prov. 22:16, 22).

God made provisions for all able-bodied poor. He instructed landowners, “but the seventh year you shall let it [land] rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard (Exodus 23:11). Also, God said, “And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God” (Lev.19:10). For those landowners with fields God said, “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:22).

The landowners were not to harvest their vineyards or fields themselves and give the produce to the poor, but to let the able-bodied poor go into the vineyards and fields and do the work themselves. God made the provisions, but the able-bodied poor had to work or they would starve. In the case of justice, it was the government’s responsibility to make sure the poor were not abused. In the case of providing food, it was the individual landowner’s responsibility to make provisions for the able-bodied poor, not the government’s. If a poor person was not able-bodied, he was dependent on his or her family to provide for needs.It is clear that God does not want the poor to be neglected, and that he wants the able-bodied poor to work to meet their needs. Before the fall of man, work was a blessing given by God to man, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). After the fall, work became burdensome, but necessary for survival (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul, to the Thessalonians who quit working because they thought the return of Christ was imminent, comments on able-bodied work, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat (2 Thess. 3:10).  

The poor in America can either be self-inflicted poor, i.e., drugs, alcohol, gambling, unwise decisions, or get-rich-quick-schemes — or, poor by no fault of their own, i.e., disasters, or unfavorable circumstances not based on unwise decisions. For the sake of this discussion I am not going to differentiate between the two. Instead, I contend that the current system of American, governmental welfare is unhealthy for the poor and society as a whole.

It is not healthy for the poor to receive money or goods from the government without any responsibility to the public from which the money or goods came. It is dehumanizing and a form of slavery. If a poor person is able-bodied, he or she should have work provided by society for the good of society. Since money or goods are provided by society to the poor, able-bodied poor should work for society and earn the money. Therefore, the money will be earned through work and not provided without any responsibility to the public from which it came. It would be irresponsible of the government to simply stop all welfare payments immediately. My suggestion would be an alternative.

An argument could be made that it is not the government’s responsibility to give welfare to able-bodied people anyway. The revenue the government receives is through taxation. The government should not take tax money intended to fund the government and give it out in the form of welfare. There must be another way to help the poor. Perhaps the Old Testament practice of individuals being generous with the poor and the poor’s responsibility to work to meet their needs could be employed in America?

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  1. Mark … you are so eloquent and kind with your words and suggestions. I’m not and this is a touchy subject for me.

    For those that need aid that is fine but it should be a short term thing not something that is 3 and 4 generations of continuous aid.

    I think all states should adopt what Florida did. Want their ‘state aid’ then you need to pass a drug test most companies require of employees before receiving the tax payers money.

    Maybe a return to what President Roosevelt did during 1930’s … CCC Camps would help.

    It provided much needed jobs for the young men during the depression and helped our country’s development.

    Gave them self esteem and taught them how to provide for themselves and to become givers and not just takers.

  2. I’m interested in the rationale/theology behind applying an ancient agrarian economic system to the complex capitalistic monetary system of the United States? Why would the rules from such a simplistic system be seen to apply today? Is there a theological basis for using the Bible as a model for economics?

  3. I think the bottom line is NOT political, but to help them out the best way we all could, and not judge them. These people are someone elses brother, sister, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother. They all deserve some humanity.

  4. rhossack, while drug testing for welfare sounds like a good idea, in the end it cost the state of Florida over $100k. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider this: only 2.6% of applicants failed, and only 40 people ended up canceling the test, as opposed to thousands who took and passed the test. It cost the state tens of thousands of dollars more to do the test on all applicants than it would have to just give the welfare benefits to the applicants who failed or canceled their drug tests. Other states that have attempted to follow suit have been temporarily blocked from doing so, as it is possible that drug test for state welfare assistance goes against the 4th amendment. (NYT 17 April 2012)
    Most of the people I know on state benefits are not lazy, or unwilling to work. I’m not saying there aren’t those who take advantage of the system, but it seems that the majority are in legitimate need.
    As Jesse said, though, it’s not about politics. It’s about helping others as we would like to be helped, or as we would like others to help our loved ones. No one in immune to becoming impoverished, and it’s naive to think otherwise.

  5. Ernesto Tinajero


    On your exegesis. I hope you are aware that the “you” in the Old Testament was Israel, the nation, and not “you” individuals. Later when the Prophets spoke out on the injustices of the “you” it was toward the nation Israel. When punishment for their cold hearts came, it came not to individuals, but to the nation. The Old Testament makes no mention of individualism at all. (The letters of Paul are directed to groups with the exception of one and all the whole of the Old Testament is focused on Israel the nation.)

    Later, when Jesus says “you” he is talking to the church. The text has to understood that Jesus was part of the very poorest part of his people in his time. The poor, we will always have, those living under the chains of injustice we call poverty.

    We the people of United States, if we look to the Biblical principles, must find a way not to make everything equal, but to live justly and care for the poor. Israel did not and God punished them. Now how we the people do it is a point of policy. When Charles Murray wrote his famous (infamous) book claiming social net had to be taken down, we have started to taken down the safety net. Today, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, lost opportunities to move out of poverty.

    God heart is clear that we must help the poor. How we do it as a nation is how we will be judge. Remember, our nation was found as the government by the people and for the people.

  6. Good points Mark and after working and living deep into these issues in East Centeal Spokane, I have come to agree more and disagree more with various points you raise.

    I wish poverty was as simple as addressing the issue from the perspective of work. But I’ve found poverty to be a multithreaded hydra.

    Then there’s the whole matter of wealth and the biblical teachings warnings connected to its accumulation.

    I remember sitting in a bamboo hut among a family that regularly fed its family rats for meat and seeing the depth of poverty and how that made me look at the matters of my own food consumption when I returned home from Thailand.

    I think God sees many more issues connected to this economic discussion that we Americans are willinto look at and change.

    When people “want”…other people start talking a lot about what is our right to “have” and both are symptoms of greed.

    Good discussion, I hope it leads us all to engage the work of justice and mercy and doesn’t become added reasonings to distance ourselves from the poor.

    U.S. Wealth Distribution: http://fcb4.tumblr.com/post/25433449864/for-the-love-of-money-is-a-root-of-all-kinds-of

  7. James McPherson

    As GeriSue suggested above, drug testing of the poor is simply a mean-spirited waste of money. And if we’re going to implement drug testing related to state funds, to be fair we need to include every legislator, teacher, construction contractor, etc. who also gets tax money. For some reason, no one suggests that–despite the fact that legislators and contractors undoubtedly waste more money than welfare recipients do.

  8. Bruce: It is a biblical principle God established for all time. We need to simply adapt the principle to our current situation.

  9. Ernesto: The “you” who was supposed to leave part of the field unharvested was “you” the single landowner, not “you” the nation. God gave individuals private property to steward; the pieces of propert comprising the whole land did not belong to the nation, but individuals.

  10. The issue I’m trying to raise is not directly about poverty. There will always be poor among us and as a Christian it is my responsibility to be generous. Having said that, I am responsible to God how I steward my money.

    The discussion is really about perpetual (genrational) welfare. Does it really help the person to simply give them money without providing the skills needed to responsibly use the money? What about the concept of work? Is working valuable for the growth of a person? Is it wrong to teach someone that they can receive something for nothing in this world? I contend that the present way the American government helps the poor hinders the growth of the person and enslaves them to the government.

  11. “Is it wrong to teach someone that they can receive something for nothing in this world?”

    No it’s not wrong…that’s grace.

    I think generosity is deeply connected to grace and that’s one of the reasons you dont see OT teaching of tithes etc in the NT. The system has changed as well as the methods. Grace runs counter to law based principle and that reality is lived out and practiced radically in the NT community.

    “Who deserves”…becomes a major aspect of the ‘good news’ up against the OT practices and restrictions. I think this is a diffcult aspect of the gospel for those raised in a capitalist society…as your question reveals.

    “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” -Jesus (Matt 5:32)

    The gospel really is good news for the poor.

  12. Ernesto Tinajero


    Deut 1.1 “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan–that is, in the Arabah–opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab.”

    The words are directed to “All Israel” and it applies to Israel throughout its history. The “you” is Israel, the nation. That is why the “you” Israel had to take care of the landless tribe, the priestly class. The land was not private, but part of the covenant. When Israel defied the covenant by treating the poor unjustly, The minor prophets (Amos, Micah etc) warned Israel of the doom awaiting them if they did not start practicing justice. They ignored the word of the Lord, and God took away their land. After some time in exile God restored their land.

    There has to be caution in applying these to USA, because the USA does not have a covenant with God the way Israel does, but we Christians are grafted to the branch so we are accountable to treating the poor justly and to work for the justice of the poor and oppressed.

    This does not mean a bland equality, or socialism, rather it means that we, Christians, are called to fight for the dignity of others. That they have enough food, shelter, health and love to thrive. I do not want the life of the wealthy. I have seen it up close enough to know they biblical principle of rich man, camels and eye of needles. Dignity, not equality.

    I believe what I will say next, while it is harsh to the left and right, and definitely stereotypical on my part also has major grain of truth to it so here it goes: the left treats the poor as dumb children that to be taken care of and the right views them as scumbags who caused their own struggles. Jesus viewed them as human beings and he chose to live among them. I chose Jesus’ way.

  13. Eric: I thought somebody might mention grace. I do believe that salvation is a free gift of God by grace through the finished work of Christ on the cross apart from any human works. That is why I mentioned in this world. The principle of work in this world comes from Genesis 3:17-19. It is hard and laborious. Is it really love to continually give someone money without teaching them to work (that is, if they are able-bodied)? Is there an intrinsic value in work that God wants us as humans to experience that encourages personal growth?

  14. You said, “Bruce: It is a biblical principle God established for all time. We need to simply adapt the principle to our current situation.”

    Are these verses below also biblical principles God established for all time? They are found in the same places as the laws you quoted.

    Lev 19:19
    19 “‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”

    Lev 19:27-28
    27 “‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
    28 “‘Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.

  15. Mark, I’m all for accountability in social services within reason amd with measured means of context. One size doesn’t fit all situations. I know this is a difficult thing to access from a mass system. Tough issues.

    I think the work and labor realities are part of what Paul called “elementary principles of the world” and we all live under or win that system and have to deal with it.

    But we still have to figure out how to be in the world and not of it as well in matters of economics. Revelations speaks of an economic beast system that unfortunately has been handled with movies and religious pulp fiction in such a way that intelligent examination of just how and what one ends up being marked with in buying and selling means.

    Kingdom Or kingdom?

    Jesus turned so much of this stuff on its head.

    -Pulling taxes from fish mouths.

    -Pulling a disciple from the evil Jerusalem Street tycoons.

    -Giving away food for free to the masses.

    -Told people to leave their jobs even though they had families.

    -Was bank rolled by some rich Betties.

    -Told his friend to care for his mom instead of family.

    On an on I could go…I just don’t think the Jesus way can or should be baptized by American Economic Theory or history.

  16. Bruce: Good point. One needs to be careful to distinguish between universal principles and laws given to the nation of Israel.

    The reason I believe that this is a universal principle and not a particular law given to Israel is that the principle about work is given in Genesis before the Law of Moses and in the New Testament to the Thessalonians church, again not under the law of Moses. So, I think it is a universal principle because it is repeated in the Bible in other places than in Leviticus under the Law of Moses.

  17. Eric: I think work is a God-given blessing, not part of the elemental principles of the world. The reason I say this is that the first thing God told Adam after placing him in the Garden of Eden was, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). This is when man was in innocence, before he fell into sin, marring the whole creation. God gave Adam work to do and it appears this was to contribute to his happiness. I think that work is intrinsically good. One can say that work could be seen as an act of worship.

  18. Check out Christ Kitchen. We hire women living in poverty not only to provide much needed wages but also to inspire fellowship with women from local churches. It works.

  19. Jan: Excellent. As a church we support the Union Gospel Mission After Care program and the Medical Lake Community Outreach. We, as a church, are trying to help those in need in our community.

    Last night I attended the Union Gospel Mission graduation. Twelve graduates completed the course and are moving forward in their lives. It was inspiring to see how God can change a life, redirect it and make it a blessing to others. God is great!

  20. I didn’t say EPW were sin…they are natural laws, sowing amd reapin principles. All of us operate win their sphere and rules but e Kingdom is not based on the EPW.

    Work was cursed in the garden….how do you see work differently now for those still under the curse and how is work different for those in Christ?

    How do you propose care for children suffering from poverty because of their parents?

  21. Sheesh…iPad spell check auto fix…wow, sorry about the types on that one Lol

  22. John VanDerWalker

    Great discussion. Three things strike me about the Hebrew Scripture quotes:
    1. The crops that were left standing, grain more than likely, were left at the edges and the corners of the fields, the most easily accessible part of the field. This was a command of grace so that those who may not have been so able bodied could provide for themselves.

    2. The reason that Israel should do this is because “I am the Lord your God.” While not quoted most times that statement is followed with “Who delivered you from Egypt.” So we can also see that the grace of God is the reason we should act with grace.

    3. There is no mention of the law of Jubilee which returned all ancestral land to those who had been forced off due to debt, many times prompted by natural or personal disaster. Talk about redistribution of wealth.

    Finally, “The poor are always with you” is used as a cop out by to many Christians to throw their hands in the air and say, “Oh well, God ordained it, I don’t have to do anything about it.” Ernesto has made a good point, a just and righteous people take care of the poor. In this democratic republic we not only have the opportunity but also the mandate to care for the poor. Is the system perfect? Far from it. Does it need reform? Absolutely! We could adopt the system of the Hebrew Scripture and allow poor people to sell themselves for labor and their daughters and sons off as sex slaves to mitigate debt. It’s in the Bible.

    The witness of the Hebrew Scripture is that God is continually saving God’s people, through grace, challenging the people to behave with each other in the same way. Good lessons for us.

    And by the way, I enjoy work, very much. Curse? hardly.

  23. 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

    Gen 3:17-19
    “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

    John, are you denying the events of this passage?

    Maybe your experience of work has been different than most, especially the poor. Money and labor are at the root of most injustices, abuses, violence, war, divorce and a host of other ills. Talk to most laborers in the world and you are going to get horrible stories.

    Americans live in a bubble fantasy regarding money, power and labor.

    The fallen world is raped because of sin and human depravity, the examples from the high rise to the brothel speak for themselves.

    Jesus redeems us, work and wealth accumulation and propels a counterculture influencing community out to and among the poor of this world be they poor of resources or spirit with Good News.

    In my opinion, obedience to God as exampled and taught by Jesus and his apostles is what matters in these matters…not Benjamin Franklin, CEOs, Republican or Democrat ideologies regarding social policies and economics.

  24. John VanDerWalker

    In 1983 my income for my family of 3 was under $5000 dollars. I never received public aid. I know about meager life. And I do not deny the text, I have chopped thistles from bean and grain fields. I have worn my hands raw on a shovel handle and burnt my skin at the foundry. I know a little about work. I made my living with my back and hands for the biggest part of my life and have been fully employed since I was 13. Do I have cred yet?
    Genesis states fact, it does not curse humanity to stoop labor. It is a story not history, and so there are no events to deny. A story that tries to explain why life is hard. Work is difficult, painful and many times not terribly rewarding. It should never be glorified but should always be honored, no matter the job.

  25. I’m just not going to buy the “get a job” line in this economy amd as the answer to the issues of poverty. It’s far more complex than simply work harder.

    My ideas about poverty, prejudices began to change when my foster daughter came back from work at local restaurant and retold how her manager told her to never seat black people in her section.

    The decks are stacked for some and middle class, religious white privilege is a reality in this very city.

    I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.

  26. John VanDerWalker

    I have driven home and mowed the grass since my last post. I may have got a little riled up there.

    My last paragraph is where I am with the text you quoted. I do not believe that there are events reported in the Genesis text that you cited, or much of Genesis actually. I believe the text to be true in that it tells us that we are not the center of the universe, or even the center of our community. The story tells us we are not perfect, nor can we become perfected by our own effort and it tells us that life is hard. You are right, I do not know about work as most of the world experiences, my perspective is clouded by affluence and the hope that hard work will get me ahead. my understanding is also warped by my own fault. So you see I believe the story of Genesis is true when it tells us that humans are fallen critters, I am.

    I think that you are correct about money and labor. As money represent power and labor many times is exploited by the powerful for personal gain, the evil of the system, when abused as it is, is self evident.

  27. Eric: I would love to see children helped on a local level, from the community and from local churches. I would love to see local churches regain the role they abdicated years ago; that of helping the poor in their communities. I would also like to see the government out of providing welfare and local churches reengaged in helping the poor.

  28. Mark, I would too… but even if Christians and churches were more engaged, the need both locally and internationally would far outstrip the resources.

    The chance to put our money where our mouths are at will soon be tested as Welfare in WA is being cut.

    See the impact here: http://washingtoncan.org/wordpress/3473/facing-race-report-findings/

    These folks will be looking to you and I for help. We will see if people really want to own the work and role. I bet people will simply suffer.

  29. John VanDerWalker

    I don’t buy the “get a job” approach either. I hope I didn’t come off that way.

    Christianity taking over the role of providing for the massive need is unrealistic thinking at best.

    When I saw the debate over health care reform I saw the kingdom breaking in to government. I saw the values that I hold about caring for every person being embraced by more than just the ones who sit in pews on Sunday. I think the same way about welfare programs. These programs are born out of an ethic that is what Christianity is about, treating others as we would be treated. However the system is broken, as can be expected. I do not think it would take many years with the church in charge before the new system would be broken as well. Participation from diverse groups is the answer to having systems that work.

    I think everyone needs to have a proper respect for and understanding of sin. The lack of that understanding has led us into the financial mess, the inequity of wealth distribution, and the broken welfare system, as well as the divisive environment that is American politics. Power can not manage itself, it must be regulated or it will consume everything. Doing nothing about poverty is not an option, in this discussion the poor are being consumed, as is the case most of the time.

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