Jesus and the Poor

Jesus had a big, fat soft spot in his heart for the poor. He himself was raised in a poor family, as evidenced by the fact that his parents could only afford the poor people’s offering at his temple dedication.1 In his ministry, which was supported by donations, even though funds were sometimes so tight that he had to perform a small miracle to pay temple taxes,2 Jesus still made it a priority to give to the poor as often as possible.3

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Jesus, Luke 6:20b, NIV

Yes, in the more famous version of the Beatitudes in Matthew,4 it says “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and evangelicals5 tend to stick with that version, which emphasizes a humility of heart, rather than actual, material poverty. But both versions are in the Bible, and we can’t ignore Luke’s version6, especially when it is followed up in the following “flip side” passage a few verses later:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.”

Jesus, Luke 6:24, NIV

Ouch. That’s pretty blunt. And just in case anyone still doubts his meaning (as some do, especially among those espousing the “prosperity gospel”), it’s also front and center in what I would call Jesus’ mission statement. A couple of chapters back, in Luke 4,8 Jesus, fresh from his baptism and 40-day fast in the desert, publicly declares his purpose. He is attending the synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth. He is handed the scroll of the book of Isaiah, and he finds and reads aloud this passage from Isaiah 61: 9

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus, Luke 4:18-19

I’ll return to the rest of that passage as we continue through the Beatitudes in the coming weeks, but for now just notice what group of people are again first on the list! The poor! And who needs the good news more than they? In countries around the world, as prices rise but wages do not, as economies in some places are crumbling, as jobs are not available, as people are trapped in generational poverty, substandard or nonexistent education, and systemic exclusion from real opportunities, Jesus’ heart breaks for the poor.

Over and over, the Bible instructs us to show kindness and care for the poor, treating them with dignity as those who bear the image of God.

“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
    but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

Proverbs 14:31

We see this in Jesus when he notices a poor widow who comes to donate just a couple of very small coins,10 an offering worth about one US dollar in today’s money. Jesus is impressed, and praises her as being more generous than all the rich people, whose giving, while surely larger in total value, represents a far smaller percentage of their means and no real sacrifice to their lifestyle or security.

Contrast this with how modern white evangelicals tend to blame the underprivileged for their own plight, quoting verses like Proverbs 10:4 linking poverty with laziness,11 while conveniently overlooking all the factors that make their own privilege of birth NOT equivalent with many others’. May I ask, was your family forcibly enslaved for hundreds of years, then denied equal opportunities to build generational wealth, property and business ownership? When your son or husband has a run-in with the law on a traffic violation or other minor infraction, is he more likely to get a ticket, fine or warning — or jail time? Have you had to flee your native country to save yourself and your children from imminent violence and even starvation? In Jesus’ time, it was mostly widows, orphans, and the disabled who faced the worst poverty, not because they were lazy, but because their society did not provide opportunities for them to escape poverty. So they were cared for through the religiously mandated generosity of ordinary citizens. In the following passage, note that those who are to be provided for include foreigners. Jesus was not interested in building walls, but in caring for refugees.

“When you reap the harvest of your land,
do not reap to the very edges of your field
or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 
Leave them for the poor
and for the foreigner residing among you. 
I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 23:22

The Jesus I love had a heart for the poor. If you would like to read a couple more Jesus stories on this topic, check out the story he told about a beggar named Lazarus and a rich man12 and also this story of his interaction with a rich, well-connected prospective convert13 — just the kind of donor and board member that most of us would like to attract to our churches or ministries — and yet Jesus, who looked at him and loved him, knew that his money was his biggest spiritual obstacle, and he watched him go away sad. Now that’s integrity.

May we all aspire to be more like Jesus in being free from the love of money, and in compassionate generosity towards the needy in our own countries and around the world.

Next post: Jesus and the Brokenhearted

1 See Luke 2:22-24 and Leviticus 12:8
2 Matthew 17:24-27
3 John 13:29
4 Matthew 5:3
5 I probably should be speaking specifically for white, American evangelicals, per my own experience. Please assume that’s what I mean when I refer to “evangelicals” from now on.
6 Luke 6:20
7 Luke 6:24
8 Luke 4:16-20
9 Isaiah 61:1-2a
10 Luke 21:1-4
11 Proverbs 10:4
12 Luke 16:19-31
13 Mark 10:17-24

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