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The Poor: Who, Why and How to Help, Part 1

I was recently having conversation over coffee with my second oldest when we came to the subject of helping the poor.  As with many young Jesus’ followers, she and her husband have a real heart to help others.  Yet as our conversation continued, the honorable notion of helping gave way to the practical questions of who, why and how. 

Who do we help?  Who is poor?  Is it the Vietnam Veteran at Walmart? Is it the person who approaches you at the gas station asking for money to fill their car? 

And why?  I know the Bible verses, but it seems people use verses as calls to actions without understanding what the Bible says about why we should be helping.

And how?  What form should our help take?  A meal? A job?  A car?  A place to live?  

In all the fervor for social justice these days, my concern is that our actions are more kneejerk reactions to the tragedy of poverty than truly helping the truly poor for a biblical reason. 

So, let’s try to understand what the Bible says.

I.  Who Is Poor?

The common biblical words for “poor,” is the Hebrew rosh[i] and the Greek ptochos[ii].  These mean “someone who is destitute, in need because they lack power or ability to provide for themselves.”  Often, the words “widow” and “orphan” personify the word “poor” because these were utterly without ability to care for themselves in the ancient world (James 1:27 & 2:2; Deut. 10:18; 24:12 (notice the inclusion here of alien)).  In the New Testament, Jesus helped the blind and lame (Acts 20:35). 

Another group identified in the Bible as poor are those who became so by laziness or wickedness (Prov. 20:13; 21:17).  This being said, we should realize that poverty in itself is not sinful (1 Sam. 2:7).  Neither should it be a social stigma.  The poor are not a different class of people. Poor and the rich are equal before the Lord (Prov. 22:2).

Another group seems to be those who have become poor because of integrity (Prov. 28:16).  Perhaps there was a shady financial scheme of which they wanted no part. So, they lost their money and kept their integrity, while others lost their integrity but became rich. 

Yet, when it comes to helping, the Bible doesn’t seem to distinguish between those who became poor because of circumstances and those who became poor because of sin.  All the poor who are truly poor need of help. 

Who are the truly poor? 

Truly Poor: Those who have little or no capacity to provide for themselves regardless of how they became that way. 

This definition rules out poverty as a lesser lifestyle than those around you. It also rules out the government’s poverty line as an indicator.  I’ve lived below that line at times, but never considered myself poor.  The Bible says that if one has basic provisions, he should be content (1 Timothy 6:8).  There is a term in Greek for those who are relatively less well off.[iii] These we are not commanded to help.  Biblical poverty is the reality that if “I don’t get basic provision (food, clothing, water, and shelter), I will die (1 Kings 17:8-16) or I will be sold into slavery (2 Kings 4:1-7).” 

For good or for ill, the United States government tends to basic provision.  Where they fail, local community programs step in.  Where they fail, we have homeless shelters and missions.  I’m sure we’ve all heard the statistic “1 in 5 (or 6) children are starving in America.”  Citing USDA statistics, economist Paul Roderick Gregory suggests the number is closer to 1 in 100 than 1 in 5 due to the many safety nets in place to provide basic needs.[iv]  

This being the case, I daresay the truly poor are not the poor who are most easily seen or obviously in need. 

Who are the truly poor in your sphere of influence?  You can judge for yourself, but let me offer some suggestions.  I can imagine certain foreign refugees are biblically poor. A foster child or a child in need of adoption might qualify.  Some of the most helpless people in the world are trafficked children. And yes, we should keep our eyes open for those 1 in 100 who reportedly aren’t fed on a regular basis, who slip through the cracks.

Let’s do some good for the truly poor!


[i] “rosh,” Domeris, W. R. in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology, Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), vol. 3, p 1085.

[ii] “poor,” Brown, C. in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Edited by Colin Brown (Grand Rapids Mich,: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), vol. 2, p 821ff.

[iii] “poor,” Coenen, L. in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Edited by Colin Brown (Grand Rapids Mich,: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), vol. 2, p 820, 21.

[iv] https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2011/11/20/are-one-in-five-american-children-hungry/#7ebc20a9eb26, September 2018.