There’s No Such Thing As The Worthy Poor

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* The Homeless Jesus statue in Toronto

I remember my first time like it was yesterday. I was fifteen years old. It was Christmas morning. As a gift to our entire family, my mother had the brilliant idea to go down to the Annual Red Andrew’s Christmas Dinner and help feed the needy in Oklahoma City.

You can imagine our reactions. All of us had made lists and checked them twice, and I can promise you this: hairnets and homeless people were not what any of us wanted in our stockings. But we couldn’t say no to Mom, so we sucked it up and got in the car.

All the way there, mom was saying, “It’ll be fun! We’ll meet some new people. We’ll get to serve some food. We’ll probably even get to hand out presents!”

Mom was wrong.

By the time we arrived to the volunteer booth, all of the good jobs were taken. They had plenty of people to hand out gifts and fill trays with mashed potatoes. We even offered to wash dishes, but those jobs had been gobbled up as well.

“So where else can we help?” my dad asked.

The volunteer coordinator said, “We need people to make sure no one cuts in line. You can help us there.”

“Is that really a problem?” dad asked.

“You better believe it.”

So Christmas morning 1988, our family celebrated the birth of Christ by bouncing homeless people to the back of a two-hour line. There was very little peace on Earth and goodwill toward men that day. People would tell lies to move to the front of the line. Others would send their kids as mercenaries. Each time my dad would politely tell them to move to the back. When they wouldn’t comply, we would enlist the help of a security guard who told us,

“A lot of the people could probably afford a meal for themselves, but they just want to bum a free ride. It’s ridiculous.”

The outing had the opposite effect of what Mom had intended. She had hoped we would feel nourished with the love of Christ by helping serve our fellow man. Instead, we felt jaded.

Since that time, I’ve had to work hard to shake that feeling. But it creeps up again when I’m serving food at the soup kitchen and someone complains that there aren’t enough dessert choices. Or when I’m approached by a man in the parking lot who says he needs money for gas, but I know it’s just a lie.

Maybe you feel the same way.

I’ve noticed lately how Christians, myself included, feel incredulous when we run across a person who is asking for a handout but doesn’t seem to deserve it. It’s just not fair. There are people who are worthy of our charity, and those who are not. Why would I give to an able-bodied person who could get a job when there are so many others to help? Innocent children. The disabled. The sick.  Those are the ones we are called to serve.

So we categorize the poor as either worthy or unworthy. And you know what?

We need to stop it.

There is no such thing as the worthy poor.

Don’t get me wrong. I see how the book of Proverbs is strewn with verses that trumpet the virtue of work and warn of the dangers of sloth. Hard work is indeed a virtue. And we should be leery of scams.  But the problem is that too many of us assume that because a person is poor, then that must mean he or she just isn’t working hard enough.  Though a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows these attitudes are shifting, there are still far too many of us in this camp.

The truth is, even if a person works full time at $10 an hour, that still puts them below the poverty line. And in most US cities, basic needs for a family of four costs over twice that amount. So, when we assume that poverty is the result of a person’s laziness, we run the risk not only of being wrong, but driving an even deeper wedge between ourselves and those we profess to love as children of God.

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But wait! What about that other verse?  The one we’ve been hearing congressmen and preachers cite when referring to this subject.

“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”    2 Thessalonians 3:10

The words are clear and unwavering. It’s un-Biblical if you fail to use your God-given gifts to make a living and support yourself and your family. Right?

Only that’s not what Paul was saying at all.

If we dig deeper, we see that Paul wasn’t necessarily condemning lazy people who were asking for handouts. He was warning people who were lazily waiting for Jesus return, and using it as an excuse to avoid putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.

Our job is not to determine who is living by the Bible and dole our rewards accordingly in an effort to win their gratitude. Our job is to be Christ’s hands and heart by following his words. The words that speak of the craziest of crazy love.

30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.   Luke 6:30-35

And this is what Jesus did. Even when exposing the sins of others, he still offered freely. He never withheld the living water. Never held back his healing touch. He gave without condition. And when we do this, we shatter the barrier that prevents us from connecting with the family of God. All of those who are created in His image:

  • The single mother living on food stamps because her paycheck won’t stretch beyond day care and diapers.
  • The man begging on the street who lost his family, leading to an avalanche of depression that he could not afford to treat.
  • The neighborhood gangbanger who joined because he had no family of his own, and now can’t leave for fear he will be killed.

Jesus’ words cut to the bone, exposing how our scorn has nothing at all to do with the “unworthy” among us, and everything to do with the condition of our own hearts. Our hearts that hold expectations of thanks and gratitude. The ones that expect a return for our investment of time and effort.  The hearts that judge the worthiness of the need.

So my prayer today is this. That I may see the face of God in the eyes of others. That I may give without condition. And in so doing, that I may finally feel the freedom of a heart that beats with the love of Christ.

For that is what our God expects of us. And that is what our God has given.

Unconditional love.

Whether we’re worthy or not.

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31 Comments

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31 responses to “There’s No Such Thing As The Worthy Poor

  1. martin hens

    You always make it so difficult to respond. I have had physically challanging year, I have learned one thing: I listen to God, and talk less and I am starting understand……slowly.

  2. Thanksgiving and Christmas the soup kitchens have more volunteers than guests. Take your kids or friends on February 3rd, June 6th, or September 14th. Make it about the least of these.

  3. Very well said and good reminders !

  4. I love this post. Thank you for writing it.

  5. I totally agree in theory, although in practice it’s REALLY tough to give ten dollars to the parking lot scam artist when I know so many people and organizations who’d put that money to good use. I try to just listen to that hard-to-explain inner voice that calls me to give, often without explanation, and to not overthink it.

    Also, if you will bring 30 copies of this post to Sunday School, I’d be happy to bring popcorn. I’m envisioning the discussion ending in an awesome Jerry Springer-style free-for-all.

    • I’m totally bringing copies! And a wad of $1 bills to hand out on street corners. And, as for the scam artist, my dad did say to a guy, “if you need gas, I’m happy to take you to the gas station and buy you some. Gas can included!” When they refused, he understood. He offered exactly what they asked for, and all was right with the world.

  6. Ashley Spears

    Thank you! Excellent post. I needed to hear this.

    Ashley Spears

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  7. Kristi Shay Moore

    Another great post to ponder, and I love the story of your father’s wise response in your comment. I read the Pauline passage differently in that I think Paul was very much speaking to the early church that held everything in common. They were to take care of each other, and it was a serious thing when some were not pulling their weight. Just as in a family, even children are expected to contribute something as they are able. But too often, in the body of Christ, there are those who “don’t work” for the support of the community, but expect to be “fed” by the community. Paul takes that very seriously, as I believe we should within the community of the church. I agree it’s a total misreading to apply this as a reason not to help the poor outside of the church. The poor in the early church were cared for, and they were expected to give in whatever way they could to help their brothers and sisters, too.

  8. Melissa Howes

    I truly enjoy your posts! I always look forward to reading when I see a new one in my inbox! Thank you for opening my eyes to so many things!

  9. Marybeth Pettitt

    This is a very timely post for me to read. Just yesterday I was complaining to my husband about people I know who are getting state medical assistance who I “know” don’t qualify. I am humbled by your post and ask God’s forgiveness for my judgement toward them. Thank you for sharing this!

  10. As someone who grew up in OKC and still live there I was immediately drawn to your reference to the Red Andrew’s Christmas Dinner. I have never been but it continues today, though every year there is concern the funding will vanish as Red Andrew’s passed away years ago as did his money which supported the endeavor. Thank you for your gift of getting this in the right perspective. So often it is easy to confuse prosperity with blessing, even though it is not biblical or Christ-like. I like what you said in your earlier post we are all “Accidental Missionaries” in our daily lives.

  11. I cannot agree completely with this post. I feel that discernment is required as to who to help. We cannot help everyone. Our resources, our energies are limited, and when we squander those resources on the wolves we are unable to feed the lambs. “be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”

    • Hey Marvin. Thanks for the comment. I always appreciate what you have to say. And you are right on the money with this one (pun intended). We certainly don’t want to squander resources. At the same time, when we encounter those who are dishonest, we can’t let the experience affect us to the point that we start to make false assumptions which lead us to hesitate to help others. I always go back to the story of Julio Diaz. This guy is my hero. If you haven’t heard his story, it’s well worth a listen. I’m not where Julio is, but hope to be there someday. http://www.npr.org/2008/03/28/89164759/a-victim-treats-his-mugger-right

  12. Lily Fields

    May i suggest the book Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. While we do need to be loving and understanding, we also need to be discerning and realize the problems we create by constantly giving handouts. He tells of a story in the book about watching a father accept Christmas gifts from a charity in front of his kids and the effect that had on this dad’s self worth. So maybe instead of us thriving on the good feelings we get from giving we need to begin to develop methods of letting the poor feel worthwhile in what they can contribute. Jesus always asked those he helped to do something- whether it be “stand up” or “go and sin no more” or “go and tell”.

  13. cannot express how much i love this post. you are quickly becomin one of my all time fav. blog writers and i think you and your wife should come to Little Rock and meet my husband and i for coffee or something at “The Shack” sometime when yall are free. . . that is. Thank you for living like Jesus and sharing your heart & humor with us people out here in the land of the living.

  14. Hi Scott, I’m the coordinator of the Dallas Area Christian Progressive Alliance and I follow your blog. I really like this one because it speaks to one of my main recent frustrations with my Christian brothers and sisters who want to happily lump and sort people into these two camps. It is definitely an issue for discussion. DACPA puts out a monthly newsletter and I’d like to run this as a featured reflection, if you’re willing, and add it to our blog for comment. Our address is Matthew-25@earthlink.net.

    And, coincidentally, my spouse and I have spent a lot of time in Guatemala, too, where we have a house. That’s a topic of discussion for another time.

    Thanks, Kim

  15. Reblogged this on Twitters anonymous and commented:
    This is worth reading! Have a blessed Saturday.

  16. Karen

    My family has concerns about giving money to people on the side of the road. While we realize that the money is theirs once we give it, and it is none of our business how they spend it, we worry that we might be contributing to a drug or alcohol problem. I’ve decided that it’s better to turn that over to God and to give anyway. What would you say? I would love a more eloquent answer to give to my children. Thank you.

  17. Nice post! I can resonate with becoming jaded while serving the needy, and also with getting over it and realizing I have to be more unconditional than cynical. Its a fine line sometimes.

  18. Susan raye

    “Love gives, certainly, but giving that does not observe the limits of behavior acceptable to God and that does not, however indirectly, give encouragement and help toward self control, emotional maturity, courage, humility, patience, truthfulness and trustworthiness, purity and holiness, and christlikeness generally, is not christian love in action. Christian love is unconditional in the sense of accepting, respecting, and showing goodwill to people as they are, but it is not unconcerned or undiscerning about being beneficent as distinct from merely indulgent.”- JI Packer

  19. Thought provoking! Having had to give up my good job because of increasing disability and now having to live on government handouts i am grateful for those handouts and for living in the UK where those handouts are more readily available. Yes there are lazy people out there that should go to work but there are many that work hard and still do not have enough. Your post brings to mind a recent experience i witnessed and was shocked by and which changed my thinking on the those who appear to be homeless. We have a number of young men sitting around the city begging who do not look homeless (judgmental ?) but one day i saw a young man come out of Macdonalds with 2 bags of food, one he gave to one of these young men. The look on his face said it all and i think if he could have got up and put it in the bin he would of done. I often give out small amounts of money but maybe the Spirit was telling me otherwise in this case?

  20. Pingback: The Worthy Poor? | So, I Was Thinking....

  21. SaltedEarth

    This is my favorite post that you’ve done and one that I can fully get behind. I also like the insert and quote about hard work and African women.

    It just blows my mind that Christians are the loudest voices against the government taking their “hard-earned money” and giving it to people who are “lazy and just want handouts”.

  22. Beth Muir

    Heard someone speak about a man in our town coming up to him three times and saying the exact same thing to him when he asked him for money. His comment was “What did he think I was stupid” that he could keep using the same line on me. My thought was (and I wasn’t brave enough to say it to him) – 3 times – maybe the Lord was trying to get something across to you and you weren’t listening hard enough but even more so, why was this guy on the street – what had led him to this point that this was all he felt he could do with his life?

    I have been at his point. I haven’t begged on the street but I have in my own way and as I’ve struggled with so many things it’s impossible to begin to explain, all that I have felt from my fellow believers is judgment. Those that have “helped” me have always looked for something in return – mainly an “Attaboy, I can’t believe how wonderful I am for stooping to help this person in need. It is so outrageous that they don’t appreciate the fact that I am doing these wonderful things for them.” I am continually reminded of Matt 6:3 and wondering when we as Christians will practice this, not constantly looking for the worldly praise but just helping people because we might one day have a point in our lives when we can’t help ourselves and hopefully someone will be there with the words, advice or even financial help that we need at that moment.

    I’m crying as I write this because your words are very true and powerful but ultimately that’s all they are, it’s the practical that most of us are looking for – help for the victims of abuse, PTSD, unthinkable violence….

    • Hi Beth,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective on the issue. I think it helps all of us to hear how these messages are received. And I too pray that I am moved to do something beyond words the next time I am confronted with this same situation. Peace to you. -Scott

  23. Tajuana

    Thank you for writing this beautiful message. It hurts my heart to hear the anger and fear and hatred expressed by Christians about the “illegal aliens” crossing the US border, as if they aren’t people. I post on my Facebook page that I am not a republican, democrat, socialist or any of those titles. I am a follower of Christ and not bound by borders in giving. Thank you so much for this. There is so much anger and fear in America and it’s just sad.

  24. Jill

    Thank you for this post. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear these words. From a nursing perspective, it has become increasingly more difficult to care for our patients in 2014 due to all of the changes in healthcare. Trust and integrity, along with coping skills seem to be lost along the wayside. Again, thank you for helping me to remember “what would Jesus do?”.

  25. Pingback: Are you talkin’ to ME? | rhondaisgrateful

  26. Pingback: links: this went thru my mind | preachersmith

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