What does the Bible say about giving to the poor?

Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, God calls for His people to treat the poor with mutual respect and radical generosity. Proverbs 22:2 reminds readers, "The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all." Those with less financial resources bear the image of their Creator and are loved by Him to the same extent as those with more financial means. In fact, Psalm 72:12–13 declares about God, "For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy." God has compassion for those in need and expects His followers to share in that concern.

When instructing His people about how they should live in the Promised Land, God commanded, "If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother… You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 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'" (Deuteronomy 15:7, 10, 11). God commanded not just generous giving, but a generous and loving attitude toward those in need.

He also took the time to remind the people that everything they had was a direct result of God's generosity to them. The verse emphasizes that the land was being given to them by God and that His blessing upon their work was for the purpose of them having enough to share with those in need. Ephesians 4:28 encourages, "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." Our financial resources are not intended for us only, but for us to steward and to share with others. Being reminded that the source of every good thing is not one's own intelligence, ingenuity, or hard work, but is rather the gracious gift of our good and loving God humbles a person enough to engender the ability to give away some resources (James 1:17). Having been a recipient of generosity influences a person to feel generous in return (Exodus 22:21; Matthew 10:8; Luke 7:47; Acts 2:42–47; 1 Peter 4:10; 1 Corinthians 15:3).

Besides reminding the people of their own state of dependence, God also identifies Himself with the poor. Proverbs 14:31 says, "Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him." Proverbs 19:17 reads, "Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his deed." When referring to feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty a drink, and clothing the naked, Jesus confirmed, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). Thus, God views generosity to those in need as if it were generosity to God Himself.

Furthermore, withholding resources or justice from the poor are both identified as sins. God stated to His people through the prophet Ezekiel, "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49). Again through the prophet Amos, God said, "For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate" (Amos 5:12). Thus turning aside the needy and refusing aid to the poor are great offenses in God's economy (see also Exodus 22:21–27; James 5:4–5). In the New Testament, James explained, "If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:15–17). True faith will lead to actual giving when needs arise.

In fact, God declared, "Is not this the fast that I choose… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?… if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday" (Isaiah 58:6, 7, 10). In the Mosaic covenant, God made provision for poor and sojourners to be able to get food by commanding the Israelites not to reap their harvests to the very edge of the field but to leave some for the poor (Leviticus 23:22; Ruth). The sabbatical year fulfilled a similar purpose (Exodus 23:10–11). Obviously, God views caring for the poor as a necessary and desirable part of living a life committed to Him.

Because we live in a world with sin where people make unwise choices of their own or can become the victims of others' unrighteous choices, poverty will always be a reality. Jesus affirmed, "For you always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11). We are called to love people with God's love, including helping to care for their tangible needs as we are able. Given the intricate realities of poverty, the specifics of that care call for wisdom and discernment.

While generosity of attitude and resources are commanded, there is also wisdom in not enabling others to continue making unwise decisions. Under the Mosaic covenant, when certain sins were committed, God declared that "because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him" (Numbers 15:31). Generosity for the poor should in no way become resources that condone or support a continued sinful lifestyle. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12 Paul wrote, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living." When instructing the church in how to support widows in need, Paul commanded that any widow who received financial support be one who "is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God… having a reputation for good works" (1 Timothy 5:5, 10). Thus, it may require discernment in determining exactly how to best give to those in need.

The Bible's main requirements about giving to the poor are to give in a way that engenders mutual respect and humble acknowledgment that any generosity in which we participate is only a reflection of the generosity we have been shown by God. Seeing oneself as dependent on God and recognizing God's image in someone else in need can lead to the open-handed generosity of heart and resources that God commands throughout the Scriptures.

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