Before we examine how the Christian and Pagan differently deal with the poor, we should try to figure out what God’s definition of poverty is. The Bible has a lot to say about the poor, almost all of it extremely sympathetic. There seems to be an assumption of victimhood as there is great concern that they are susceptible to being exploited. And in a world without hospitals and government safety nets, we can easily imagine how an injury to the bread-winner could quickly impoverish an entire family.
With a call to help the poor, the Israelite would have to make the determination for himself on what that meant. In his mind would be Proverbs like 10:4 “He who has a slack hand becomes poor, but the hand of the diligent makes rich,” and 19:15, “Laziness casts one into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger,” and 6:9-12, “How long will you slumber, O sluggard? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep—So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man.”
He would probably dismiss the sluggard from his list of those who deserved his help. In a close-knit society, he would also probably know the reputation of the person he chose to help. Will the person use his hard-earned money to help his family or squander it? When it’s your own money, you want to use it wisely and truly make a difference.
These are the criteria we should be using today though there is certainly always room for straight charity—no questions asked.
There seems to be a lot of talk and action from the Pagan on the subject of poverty but since now that Proverbs tells us “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel,” it should probably follow that their “solutions” to the problems of poverty are not to be embraced. How can things go so wrong when they are just trying to help the poor like we are?
One of the big difference is determining who is actually poor. While the Bible leans towards those poor through no fault of their own, the Pagan doesn’t seem to make that distinction. They say that anyone who claims to be poor should be given financial support, not have to contribute to their own situation and the money should be confiscated from others to give to them.
In the biblical world, several things were true; to be poor meant that you had an illness, couldn’t work and your family would be unable to assist you. You truly had no one to take care of you. If you could just move into Dad’s house, no one would dig into their own pockets to help you. They were poor, help wasn’t coming. I’m not sure that any of us, unless we’ve travelled abroad, have actually seen a poor person that fits this definition.
What’s wrong with the Pagan approach to poverty? They ask no questions, set few limits and the money comes from agencies rather than from people. It’s hard enough to help the poor when you have a personal relationship with them as there is an embarrassment at needing help and the recipient can see the impact their situation is having on the giver and his family. This is one of the solutions for poverty. The person overcoming personal obstacles through their own initiative with the knowledge that their poverty isn’t free. But detach the recipient from the giver and there is little incentive. Also, the giver loses the blessing of ministry through giving.
Their approach fails the poor, the giver, and society. God’s way lifts up the poor, blesses the giver and elevates the community.