Who are the poor?
Because all of us come from different backgrounds, cultures, and expectations, what we define as poor, may not actually be poor to others or even in God’s eyes. Determining who the poor really are can become a very subjective exercise. To prevent that we must first establish a common understanding of whom the poor are as presented in the Scriptures.
The two primary Greek words used in the New Testament for the word poor are penichros and ptōchos. Penichros is defined as needy while ptōchos has more severe implications meaning reduced to beggary, destitute of wealth, influence, position, honor, lowly, afflicted, helpless, powerless to accomplish an end, lacking in anything.
John MacArthur writes, “The word commonly used for ordinary poverty was penichros, and is used of the widow Jesus saw giving an offering in the Temple. She had very little, but she did have two small copper coins (see Luke 21:2). She was poor but not a beggar. One who is penichros poor has at least some meager resources. One who is ptōchos poor, however, is completely dependent on others for sustenance. He has absolutely no means of self-support.”
For the purpose of this article, I’ve chosen to focus on the ptōchos poor, those that are helpless and lack everything.
Two Kinds of Poverty
The New Testament describes two kinds of ptōchos poverty:
1. Materially Poor – But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, . . . . (Matthew 6:3 NIV).
This verse clearly points out the existence of the materially poor. This is not a command to give from Jesus but a description of how we are to give (quietly). This verse primarily strikes at our motive for giving to the poor as it comes in the context of a warning from Jesus to not practice acts of righteousness so that others will notice.
2. Spiritually Poor – Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3 NIV)
This verse speaks of those who are spiritually poor and how they are blessed because of their poverty. Matthew Henry’s concise commentary shares this insight, “The poor in spirit are happy. These bring their minds to their condition, when it is a low condition. They are humble and lowly in their own eyes. They see their want, bewail their guilt, and thirst after a Redeemer. The kingdom of grace is of such; the kingdom of glory is for them.”
Obviously, no one desires material poverty, but this verse makes it clear that all of us should desire a spiritual poverty that recognizes the need for forgiveness, a savior and God’s continued presence in our lives.
To keep this article focused and brief, we will focus on the materially poor.
What the Scriptures Reveal about God and Poverty
There are many Scriptures that address the God’s heart for and perspective of the poor but I have selected just a few to help us draw a conclusion to the subject question:
- Giving and helping the poor is core to God’s character: As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” (2 Corinthians 9:9 NIV) Also, 1 Samuel 2:8 NIV shares, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor. “For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; on them he has set the world.”
- Jesus assumes we will be giving to the poor (notice not “if” but “when”): “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2 NIV)
- True followers of Christ gave to the poor: “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8 NIV) Paul was eager to give as well: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10 NIV)
- When we give to the poor, we are giving to God: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” (Proverbs 19:17 NIV)
- When we give to the poor, it honors God: “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31 NIV)
- The Israelites were commanded to provide for the poor and were blessed for their generosity: “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 NIV)
- Not helping the poor was reason for judgment in the past: “ ‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49 NIV)
- It will be a topic at the future judgment: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:34-46 NIV)
Specific Commands from Jesus and His Word
Here are three specific commands from Jesus and His Word. One to the rich young ruler wondering what his life lacked and the others to more general audiences of followers:
- “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:20-22 NIV)
- Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14 NIV)
- If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18 NIV)
While the first is a specific command to an individual, the principles apply to all of Christ’s followers, which is that we must give generously to the poor, and that when we do, it’s an eternal investment. Luke 14:12-14 clearly shares Jesus’ heart toward the poor and needy and is a specific command to His followers to be intentional about reaching out and providing for them. The passage in 1 John is a clear warning to those who say they are Christ’s followers but the actions don’t align with their proclaimed faith. In this verse, we are compelled to provide for those in need.
How can we help the materially poor?
After just a brief review of Scripture it becomes very clear that we are commanded to help the poor. God demonstrates His heart for the poor and needy by His own example, through His promises for those who do, and through His perfect judgments for those who don’t. But how does one give to the poor effectively? Here are four suggestions:
1. Give strategically through a trusted ministry or foundation.
You can effectively give your time and talents to the poor by supporting a local rescue mission or community organization that is trusted and has a proven track record helping the poor and needy. Knowing how to choose the best charities is important. If your church has a direct ministry to the poor and needy, this is a great starting place!
2. Give strategically by giving more than money.
Effective long-term support of the poor and needy typically requires more than money. For the poor and needy who are mentally and physically able to recover, I encourage readers to plug in with respected and trusted ministries and community organizations to give by sharing practical skills, such as job/vocational skills, budgeting, and basic life skills that will effectively empower those in need for long-term recovery.
3. Give spontaneously and cheerfully.
I’m often asked, “Should I give to the beggar on the street corner?” Many are rightfully skeptical due to recent scandals of pan handlers who are not truly in need. My advice is to listen to the Holy Spirit. If you sense a burden or call to give, then give cheerfully and obediently. If you don’t, then don’t give. If your motive is pure, you will never regret a decision to give. Now this advice can only be successful if you are asking God and listening to Him.
4. Get equipped.
I recommend two books that will equip you with how to effectively help the poor. The first is When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. A second resource is titled, Giving Wisely by Jonathan Martin.
How about you? Have you found an effective way to help the poor that would equip other readers? Share any lessons you learned as well!