There is much discussion these days about the obligations of the rich and the plights of the poor. The debate generally revolves around issues such as taxation, welfare, etc. The criticism by those who cry injustice is that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Their solution to this injustice is a simple one (at least on the surface): Make the rich poorer and the poor richer. Sadly, the church, who always seems to be two steps behind the culture in thinking through these issues, has simply stood upon worldly presuppositions and started looking for “biblical” solutions.
One of the main issues in dealing with the poor that I have not heard dealt with sufficiently from either side is a true definition of wealth and poverty. The parameters seem to be constantly changing depending on who’s talking and what they’re really after in the end. Currently, it appears our wise government has defined the wealthy as those households who make over $250,000. The current poverty guideline for a family of four is $22,050, although poverty level figures are not thrown around very often. The point is this: It seems people want to define rich and poor by broad categories rather than by specific needs, because if we started looking at circumstances honestly and biblically, most of us would start feeling more rich than poor.
The government (in my humble opinion) wants more people to see themselves in the poor category rather than the rich one. The church (again, in my humble opinion) has not done an adequate job of defining those terms biblically for believers so they are protected from false assumptions and equipped to enter the debate with real truth.
Briefly, here is my understanding of how Scripture would define the poor among us. Paul teaches us in 1 Timothy 6:6-9 “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Notice that there are three categories defined here. Only the rich are explicitly mentioned, but the other two are implied as well.
The first category is the one who is adequately provided for and is content. The government would call this the “middle class”. What are the criteria to measure this by? Paul gives us two: food and clothing. They are the same criteria Jesus gave in Matthew chapter 6: “…Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Traditionally we have described our basic needs as food, clothing and shelter. I am not opposed to adding the third category of shelter as long as there is no attempt to define what that shelter must look like. Like clothing, it is simply the necessity of a covering. We need inner strength and outer coverings. If we have these things, they are good gifts from God and we should be content. Notice what’s not on the list: education, ongoing health care (as opposed to emergency medical needs like the beaten traveler in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan), houses, cars, phones, televisions, cable, etc.
The second category is the one who lacks adequate food and covering and is physically or mentally unable to obtain it through honest labor. There are many other passages in Scripture that work into this definition, but I will refrain from dealing with them individually for the sake of time and space. These are the poor who need the compassion and attention of the church. These are the poor who must not be neglected or ignored. In relation to the church, we should remember that there is nothing noble or inherently spiritual about this kind of poverty. We should not admire them but rescue them! In relation to the government, it should not insult them and marginalize them by pretending that they are only one kind of poor. Yes, they get some help, but its like giving one cookie to everyone in the room when 99% of them already have a pocket full of them. Not to mention the fact that the government pretends that it owns the cookie jar in the first place.
The third category is the one who has been blessed with more than is sufficient to provide for food and coverings in his household. There is nothing evil about this type of blessed life so long as the pursuit of wealth is not at the expense of the poor nor as a means of gratifying the lusts of the flesh. One of the reasons the rich should get richer is so the poor might be saved from starvation and nakedness. There are other reasons as well, but that is for another time.
If you are poor, learn to trust your heavenly Father to provide for you far more faithfully than He does birds and flowers. If you are fed and clothed with a roof over your head, learn to be thankful for such undeserved riches. If you are rich, love God through your abundance, enjoy the fruits of your labor in a way that glorifies God, and bless others as you have been blessed.