The ancient Israelites had a welfare system which God himself implemented:
“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 23:21)
In Leviticus 25 God also commands a year of Jubilee, where people are to return to their clans of origin, debts are forgiven and the imprisoned are to be set free. One has to wonder why God made those commands. What was His plan, His intention?
Let that simmer for a minute while we talk about something else. In contemporary American churches there is a line of reasoning that goes like this: some poor people are hard pressed and definitely deserving of charity, but other poor people choose to be poor and depend on the government, they “game” the system so that they are able to live quite comfortably without having to make much effort, and they ought to be cut off. The idea is that there are some poor out there who would change their circumstances with the right support, and we need to cut off the undeserving poor so that we can help the poor who are able to be helped. Oh, isn’t that thought tempting? It has an allure, a taste which is so sweet when it leaves one’s lips. But don’t fall for it- God himself made no division between the poor whom did or didn’t deserve to be helped. In fact, God said something which seems to contradict that idea:
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11)
God doesn’t say, “be openhanded with the poor because in that way they will become middle class and productive to our society, but don’t bother with those who don’t show potential.” God says, “there are always going to be poor”, and then commands the Israelites to be generous. That makes me wonder if the generosity is not ever supposed to be about eliminating poverty, but about something else. Perhaps the reason the generosity is commanded is not just for the benefit of the reciever, but for the benefit of the giver as well. There are practical reasons to reduce the burdens of poverty: reduction in crime, better standard of living for everyone, raising the bottom for the betterment of all society. But, there’s something else there too:
Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses. (Proverbs 28:27)
Maybe the reason generosity to the poor is commanded is not just about God’s love for the poor, but also about His love for the rich. The Bible does say some very negative things about laziness, and curses for sluggards. The poor who are poor by nature of their own choices have brought their own curses down on their heads. They live out their punishment every day, there is no reason to bring further condemnation into the arena by judging them ourselves or withholing our aid because we feel they are undeserving. We should give freely and leave their punishment to their own hand, and their judgment to God. You see, by giving we change ourselves. We become more like Jesus, who died for the sins of an undeserving world. The Bible is full of talk of the decietfulness of wealth and cautions against the love of money. We should not love our money more than we love our fellow man. We should be generous for the sake of generosity, but also understanding that through generosity with our money we purchase something that we could never buy through spending on ourselves. Jesus understood this when he told the Parable of the dishonest manager, and cautioned that what is seen as shrewd in the eyes of man is detestable in God’s sight, and said:
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
Often, I hear people decry the government instituting a welfare program because “it’s the job of the Church.” That brings us into another argument about the Church and State and the contradiction of claiming that the government was instuted by God but somehow cannot do the Lord’s work, but that is a distraction. All I really want to say is that we need to decide what matters as a society. Why can’t we pay our taxes and bless them as they go, to honor God, and not begrudge the poor of our society the gleanings of capitalism?