Summary: Scriptures teaching one's responsibility to the poor.
In recent decades, a number of benevolent organizations and non-religious efforts, have made extensive appeals for contributions from the public. Undoubtedly, we will see more presentations of this kind as world population increases and as the gap widens between rich and poor nations. Every Christian must now ask this question, “What does God expect of me in view of the millions who are starving right now?”
Good News for the Poor
To answer this question, we will begin with a Messianic passage found in Isaiah 11, verse 4: “With righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” One of the primary ministries of the Messiah was to bless the poor. The place of rich and poor in relation to the Messianic kingdom is introduced by Mary’s magnification of God and by the first preaching of John the Baptist and of the Christ himself.
Mary affirms that God has “scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” and that he has brought down the powerful and “sent the rich away empty.” Moreover, she declares, God has “lifted up the humble” and has “filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:51-54).
When John the Baptist appears, he refers to Isaiah 40:3-5 as his program of ministry. John understands that his purpose is to prepare the way of the Lord by a type of landscaping that brings down mountains and hills while the valleys are exalted or filled in. This is reminiscent of Mary’s statement, for when the multitude inquire about the proper fruit of repentance, mountains and hills are lowered and valleys are exalted as John instructs the people to distribute their abundance to the poor. Even specific groups among the crowd are divested of their lucrative incomes as John exhorts soldiers and tax collectors to cease extortion, to collect only the tax due, and to be content with meager wages (Luke 3:4-14). The powerful and rich are brought down and sent empty away while the poor and humble are filled with good things and lifted up, even as Mary had declared concerning the justice of God.
When Jesus appears, he refers to Isaiah 61:1,2 as his program of ministry. Jesus understands that he is “anointed to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18ff). Since the term “Messiah” actually means “anointed one,” Jesus is announcing that good news for the poor is at the very heart of his teaching and preaching ministry. Jesus corroborates the statement of Isaiah 11:4 that he will make “decisions for the poor of the earth.” In fact, the proof for the imprisoned John that Jesus was indeed the expected Messiah was that Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 61: 1,2, for he was blessing the afflicted and preaching the Gospel to the poor (Luke 7:21, 22).
The Gospel message of Jesus to the poor themselves is this: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). These are not the spiritually poor but the literally poor, for in the same address Jesus pronounces a woe upon the literally rich (v. 24). That the poor filled the kingdom is verified by James 2:5: “Listen, my dear brothers: has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes to world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?” It is not surprising that James again echoes Jesus in pronouncing the strongest condemnation on the rich: “Come now, you rich, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you” (James 5:1).
A Costly Response Demanded
The message of the New Testament to the rich demands a costly response, for the rich enter the kingdom and benefit from the Gospel only as servants of the poor. This is clear from the very beginning of the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom, for those who have must distribute to those who have not, in order to receive John’s baptism (Luke 3:10-11).
To all his disciples Jesus says, “Lay not up treasure on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matt. 6:19f). To the little flock Jesus explains how treasure is laid up in heaven: “Sell what you have and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33). The rich young ruler was given the same instruction: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21). To the Pharisees, Jesus declared, “Give what you have to the poor, and all will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41). The mandate of Jesus’ earthly ministry is clear: in order to be assured of eternal life, heavenly treasure, spiritual cleanness, the rich must distribute their abundance to the poor.
Zaccheus, the rich tax collector, received salvation - treasure in heaven - by responding to this new ethic of the Messianic kingdom. He made a commitment to distribute his wealth to the poor and to those whom he had oppressed. Surely, by the time he had kept his promise to restore four-fold to those he had wronged, Zaccheus would find himself among those to whom the kingdom belongs (Luke 19:8,9). Because of the radical response of Zaccheus, we can infer that he had heard Jesus preaching a radical commitment in terms of distributing one’s wealth to the poor.