Avoiding Assumptions In Ministering to the Poor

[Photo by Jonathan Kho on Unsplash]

As I shared in a previous article on poverty (click here to read), if you spend any time in the book of Proverbs, you’ll see that one of wisdom’s most persistent concerns is the plight of the poor. I argued that God has a special relationship to the poor and the impoverished, and that the way he relates to the poor should influence and direct how we relate to the poor. What we saw was this: God identifies with the poor, taking on their shame and burdens. Because of this reality, Solomon’s kingly wisdom calls us to protect and provide for the poor and powerless.

In this post I want us to shift gears a little. I want us to look at what the Proverbs say about ministering to the poor. If God so cares for the poor that he identifies with their weakness and abuse, what should we practically do? 

Intelligent, gospel-driven ministry to the poor is going to require nuance and complexity: it won’t be a one-size fits all. This is partly because its simplistic to think we know all the reasons for one’s poverty. On the one hand, the Proverbs recognize the social structures at play in any given society that, in a sense, largely determine one’s outcomes in life:

“The fallow [unseeded/uncultivated] ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”

Proverbs 13:23

Honest, hard-working labour can sometimes amount to nothing. Some people work themselves to the bone only to miss promotions because of favoritism. As this Proverb suggests, wealth is kept from individuals.

Notice that it is the fallow, the unseeded, uncultivated ground that is under discussion. It would yield much food, Solomon says, but because of cultural attitudes or corrupt administration, this potential to produce is swept away. So, partial, wicked, social structures sometimes deny potential avenues for revenue.

However, on the other hand, the Proverbs recognize that folly, laziness, and immorality are also reasons that some experience poverty:

The hand of the diligent will rule,
    while the slothful will be put to forced labor.

(Prov. 12:24)

And in Proverbs 13:18,

Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction,
    but whoever heeds reproof is honoured.

As my parents would say growing up, “money doesn’t grow on trees.” They were partly incorrect, as money is a form of paper, which comes from trees. But the adage gets at what Solomon’s saying here: God has made us as free-agents, typically capable of working, of learning. To neglect work and instruction can result in poverty.

So ministering to those in poverty will take wisdom and complexity, since its causes are diverse and particular. Much like a good doctor will carefully examine the symptoms of his or her patient in order to arrive at the best diagnosis and treatment—so we are to do the same with the poor.  

Avoiding Assumptions

We need to challenge ourselves against the common assumptions surrounding poverty. Not only are its causes diverse, but so is its definition. Pastor Mez McConnell states that poverty is more than just financial need. So thinking that just providing materially for the poor will somehow make them not poor anymore is to some degree mistaken.

Instead, there are various ways to define and describe “disadvantage”:

Material poverty–someone who lacks basic needs;

Physical weakness–those disabled;

Isolation–those alone, single, or widowed;

Vulnerability–the orphan or elderly;

Powerlessness–those without protection, without an advocate;

And spiritual poverty–think of those preyed upon by false teachers.[1]

So, how we view the cause of poverty, and how we define it, will affect how we respond to it.[2] Now, do the Proverbs shed any wisdom on this matter? I believe so.

I want to propose this: if we want to read Proverbs as Christians, as Christian literature, we need to do so through the lens of Jesus, who, as Paul tells us, is the very ‘wisdom’ from God (1 Cor. 1:30).

As much as we want to provide solutions to poverty, I think the Proverbs help us to guard against the above assumptions: we’re either going to fall into one of the two above pits: thinking poverty is purely a personal sin issue, or thinking that poverty is purely a structural issue. So let’s look at a few Proverbs that will help guide us and save us from these two pitfalls:  

Poverty and Personal Moral Failure

Proverbs 29:7

A righteous man knows the rights of the poor;
    a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.

The principle of this Proverb is that our posture toward the poor is not a neutral thing. Our knowledge of their situation is not neutral ground. Your posture and attitude toward the poor, powerless, and disadvantaged, either tends toward righteousness or wickedness. I’m not sure if you’ve thought about it like that before?  

Your posture and attitude toward the poor, powerless, and disadvantaged, either tends toward righteousness or wickedness.

What is the “rights”  here? It’s a broader idea than today’s political “rights”, rights as defined by a constitution. The word includes the idea of “cause”, one’s particular “case”.

This “considering the cause” or the “case” of the poor and destitute is a theme that permeates the Scriptures. As we saw last time, it is a task that Yahweh again and again takes upon himself.

Another principle of application from this Proverb is that Solomon tells us that knowledge produces action. If someone knows of the rights of the poor, knows their cause, knows their situation, acting righteously would mean we respond appropriately.

On the other hand, ignorance breeds contempt, distrust and, ultimately, no empathy and compassion, in the end, zero action. The Hebrew word here for “know” can also be translated as “concerned,” or “skilled”—someone who has mastered the subject; an expert.

Friends, just as we run to doctors for their analysis on bodily ailments, just as you might discuss your retirement plan with your financial advisor, just as you would trust the builder to renovate your houses—so the Christian, the righteous one, is to be known as an expert in the case of the poor and powerless: it is to be our expertise as those united to the one who is wisdom.

Pursuing wisdom in the Proverbs is not merely a pragmatic task: “do this because it is wise.” Pursuing wisdom is our prerogative because we are those who are untied by faith with Jesus, who himself is wisdom from God. When we pursue wisdom, that is, when we are in the pursuit of the cause and the case of the poor and disadvantaged, we are acting out of our union with Jesus. We perform, we put on a display a theological truth to the watching world—we give evidence of the gospel’s power and the new creation at work within us.

The Christian, the righteous one, is to be known as an expert in the case of the poor and powerless: it is to be our expertise as those united to the one who is wisdom.

Such a knowledge inevitably leads to action, beloved. It is the wicked who close their eyes to the needs of those around them, and in so doing, they tuck their hearts and hands away. Their time and their money, their resources and their proximity to influence, run for the hills.

Yes friends, pursuing wisdom as Christians, seeking to reflect this kingly insight, places some weighty terms and conditions that we would do well to not skim over—thankfully they aren’t in ‘fine print’.

Proverbs 21:13

Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor
    will himself call out and not be answered.

Here’s a very similar principle. It mirrors the teaching of Jesus: do to others as you would have them do to you (Matt 7:12). Again, this kind of virtue is explicitly gospel-driven. Was it not Christ who came to give his life up as a sacrifice for the cries of his people in bondage to sin?

The implication is that our senses, given by God, hearing—in this case—are given as a means to minister to others. If we neglect such a posture, we face a frightful conclusion: we ourselves will call out and not be answered. Jesus warned of this when he said that those who shut their ears, hearts and purses, find themselves shut out of God’s kingdom (Matt. 25:41-46).[3]

Friends, who do we identify as here? The problem with assuming that all poverty is a result of moral failure—dismissing the needs of others—brings with it a severe warning—God himself will not answer our requests.

Does our relationship to the poor and destitute still strikingly resemble the path of wickedness, the type of lifestyle of those who are still under the power of Satan, whose eyes have not be opened to the truth of the Gospel?

Or does our relationship to the poor resemble a righteous expertise? A holy affection and skill that drives us to act on their behalf? A lifestyle that resembles the kingdom of the beloved Son? 

Far from heaping guilt onto us, the gospel calls us to receive blows of rebuke and conviction and to count them as a blessing. This is how we grow, this is how we can be sure that the gospel is working its way into our lives.

So, we cannot think of poverty as only a personal sin issue.

Poverty and Structural Reform

But now, what about structural reform? In several articles and essays, Mez McConnell looks at one form of structural reform known as “gentrification.” The idea behind gentrification is when a neighbourhood or district is infused with affluent residents and businesses in an attempt to lift that area higher, economically speaking.

This model used in urban planning is supposed to increase and better resources for those already living there, but often times the new resources and facilities shift the demographics and drive out the existing residents as expenses increase beyond their means.

The hope is that ‘change’ for the disadvantaged will come about ‘spontaneously,’ as what is called a ‘trickle down’ affect. McConnell warns against this wishful thinking. In his own words, Mez writes, would that be the solution, [Jesus]

…would have come down as a Roman governor or the emperor. That would have had a trickle-down effect! But instead he came as a Northern Jew, dirt poor, and insignificant in the eyes of the world. Shepherds and women (not at all the ‘cream’ of society) heralded his coming. His ministry was among the poor and outcast.[4]

So, some policies and structural changes will be better than others, no doubt. As communal creatures occupying spaces—work, recreation, medical, political—our labours and efforts are coated with fallen, selfish, sometimes tribalistic ideas, customs and norms, and usually unconsciously so.

I believe the Proverbs bring something to this discussion. A principle of worldly wisdom that we see is that we are quick to give gifts and extort others in our efforts to move up the corporate food chain, as it were. We comfort ourselves with unbiblical proverbs such as “It’s a dog eat, dog world”. But what does God have to say?

Proverbs 22:16

Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth,
    or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.

We’ve all been there: how are we when it comes to giving to others when we have a stake in the proverbial pie?

Just think about how much ice cream everyone else gets when you’re dishing up. I joke, but we’re awfully stingy when it comes to giving. But when it’s our turn to receive, we want to maximize and leverage all that we can: discounts, sales, that expired student card you still use. These are somewhat harmless examples. But what about the wages we give (if we have that kind of authority)? Contrast that with what we’re willing to give to please our superiors. You know your clients will love the front-row seat at the Lions rugby game.

You see, the world inherently operates on the basis of attempting to extort those with less than, in order to buy over those wealthier than us. We tell ourselves we’re just “networking,” these are “opportunities,” God has provided an “open door”. Solomon tells us that to do so is to run into poverty itself. No doubt, Yahweh sees past our schemes, even if they’re hidden in the ‘business name.’

Friends, ironically, Yahweh ensures us that this is to embrace poverty. Give to him who cannot give in return, Jesus tells us (Lk. 14:14). Why? Because those who are rich in this present world are to be rich in good works, generous with those in need (1 Tim. 6:18). And the promise is that God richly supplies us with all things to enjoy (v. 17).

This may sound trite, simplistic, foolish even, doesn’t it? It certainly didn’t come from the mouth of Bezos or Musk. But I believe this is what it means to embrace the gospel and the cross, to walk cross-shaped lives. If the gospel and the cross does not touch our wallet and income statement, I fear we may be like the rich young ruler, so close to the kingdom but unwilling to part with what we hold more dear than Jesus: our wealth.

Moving Forward: A Stake in the Poverty Pie

So, what are some real ways we can be spent for the disadvantaged? Cycles of poverty impoverish societies for generations, and we can do things to help spread the light of the knowledge of God, and hope in these places. McConnell suggests that Christians can join community committees and boards: schools, neighbourhood watches, community events.

We should have a stake in local discussions and decisions. It’s within these places that we should be living by the justice principles of the Bible in seeking to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, or who find trouble communicating effectively. Mez says that he sits on some local boards and people trust him to speak up for them because he lives in the area. They know that he loves the people and his community.

For many stuck in poverty, there simply are skills and development that they don’t have access to. Maybe you’re good with spreadsheets, budgeting, baking, educating, website developing? We’re all gifted in certain ways. Do you have a particular skill you could pass on? Why not find ways to train and develop others?

When meeting publicly again is no longer risky, lets think of ways to be creative and utilize what has been given to us, what we have earned, realizing it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Will we trust Jesus’ words, or will we be inclined to trust the wisdom of this world?—which seeks to take more from those with less, in order to give to those who already have more? I believe it’s a matter of who we want to please.

The world is riddled with corruption, with gift giving and bribes for our own personal gain. The gospel calls us to a more subversive way: giving to those who cannot give back to us. Who knows what relationships can be formed and developed across lines of class and race and education? What opportunities to present the gospel!

The world is riddled with corruption, with gift giving and bribes for our own personal gain. The gospel calls us to a more subversive way: giving to those who cannot give back to us.

Far from seeing the poverty in our country as something that makes us want to leave, we should see it as an opportunity to magnify Christ in how we reach those on the margins of society in both word and deed.

This is what it means to live out the truth of our union with the One who is himself wisdom from God. The righteous man knows the rights of the poor, and does what he or she can to advocate, to empower, and to point them to the Gospel. Friends, these are just some ways to care for the poor as gospel-citizens. Won’t you join me in thinking hard and intelligently about these things?

[1] Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Orbis, 2011), 115.

[2] Myers, Walking with the Poor, 133.

[3] Eric Lane, Proverbs: Everyday Wisdom for Everyone (Focus Publishers, 2000), 279.

[4] Mez McConnell, “The New Urban Crisis: Jesus Didn’t Start ‘Upstream,’” 20Schemes Equip, April 18, 2020, https://20schemesequip.com/the-new-urban-crisis-jesus-didnt-start-upstream/.


Comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s