God must have loved the impoverished: He made so many of them.
Today an estimated 700 million people are living (existing?) on less than U.S. $2 per day, a number representing 9.6% of the world’s population. Further, the working poor—those who work and live on less than that $2 per day—account for 10% of workers worldwide (World Bank).
We stagger at these facts: Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 43% of the global poor. There is a population of extreme poor (defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, such as food, safe drinking water, health, shelter and education”) comprising 1.4 billion people, and 60% of the these extreme poor live in just five countries—Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Nigeria. Eighty percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas.
The U.S. Census reports a poverty rate in America for 2016 of 12.6% (about 40.6 million people), although there was a decline from the previous year’s report of 13.5%. Adults 65 and older were the only group to reflect an increase in the number of persons in poverty, where poverty is defined as an annual income of approximately $12,000 for one person and $24,500 for a family of four.
Writer Eli Khamarov says “poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” Musician Bono remarks “where you live should not determine whether you live, or whether you die.”
Evangelical leader Ron Sider suggested that Christians are called to be “completely pro-life,” i.e., a biblical world-view based on the belief that all people are made in the image of God, and are to be treated and considered accordingly. While “pro-life” finds its expression most often in conversations about the beginning of life, Sider contends that all of life is to be thought of that way. “Precisely because human life is created in the image of God, we care about the fullness of human life from womb to tomb—and therefore we care about peace and justice and freedom and a wholesome environment.”
Even those in poverty are entitled to a quality-full life, because they too are created in the image of their Maker. Or perhaps, “especially” those in poverty.
Who are the poor? They are people bearing God’s image. If they bear His image, they are important to Him. The biblical record reflects that. In fact, it is reasonable to understand God as being on the side of the poor, those who are deprived, those who are without this world’s goods, the oppressed. God has a special interest in those who have little, or nothing.
In Exodus 3, God tells His servant Moses that He has “seen how cruelly my people are being treated… I know all about their sufferings and so I have come down to rescue them.” He not only sees and hears the plight of His people, but is prepared and ready to do something about it.
The book of Proverbs is replete with, well, proverbs speaking to the plight of the poor and what is to be done about their situation. “It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy” (14:21). “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life” (22:22-23). “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses” (28:27). “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (31.8-9).
Those who mistreat the poor do so at their own peril.
But perhaps the words of our Lord, in the Gospel of Matthew (25.31ff) are the clearest of all. Jesus is describing the final judgement and life in the new Kingdom, and says one of the “tests” will be how the poor and needy were cared for. “I was hungry and you fed Me, thirsty and you gave Me a drink; I was a stranger and you received Me in your homes, naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me, in prison and you visited Me.”
When the questioned confess confusion over these experiences, Jesus announces that whenever those in such need were cared for like this, they were, in fact, caring for the Lord Himself. It can be argued, then, that when one cares for the poor, in fact any in need, one is caring for the Lord. And the Lord is pleased when that happens.
How, then, do we respond to the plight of the impoverished, the poor? We treat them as we treat anyone who is made in the image of God; we treat them as though we are in the presence of Christ.
Often the reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25ff) is accompanied by Amos 6.7ff, which records Amos’s vision of a plumb line, referring to a standard by which the people of Israel were to be judged. Perhaps how we care for the poor and those in need is also a plumb line, the standard by which we will be measured. That, and how justly we have cared for those who have no one to advocate for them, to plead their cause.
We see those in need and we remember that we are all created by the same God, Whose image we bear, created equally but not the same. Perhaps we are more alike than we sometimes realize and understand: we all are needy, we are all fallen, and we are all offered redemption. We are all impoverished to some degree.
So, where do we start? What do we do? Perhaps by considering that what we do with our beliefs is as important as what we believe. And we believe there is a special place in the heart of God for the poor, the needy, those without, the disadvantaged.
Could it be the promise made to the Israelites—the people of God—some 3,500 years ago and recorded in Deuteronomy 15.10-11, has meaning and relevance today?:
“Give to [the poor] freely and unselfishly, and the Lord will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some…who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them.”
I suspect it does. Please, God, help us to see the poor in our land, in our world, as You see them.
— Commissioner William Roberts served as USA National Commander, then as Chief of the Staff at International Headquarters before entering retirement in 2015.