On giving to the poor

In Matthew 5:42, Jesus says, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Does this mean we should give to everyone? What about people are poor because they are lazy?

Whenever we talk about the poor, we have to distinguish between those who are deserving of help and those who are not. This is not a very politically correct way to frame the discussion, but it is biblically correct.

When Jesus, “Give to the one who begs from you,” he’s assuming the begging is coming from the deserving poor. Not everyone who is poor is deserving of help. Those who are deserving of help are those who are poor through no fault of their own. It’s not that they have been lazy or irresponsible. It’s that they have suffered a set back that has either temporarily or perhaps even permanently made them incapable of adequately providing for themselves—widows and their minor children, for instance; also those who suffer from a mental or physical disability. These are entitled to our compassion, and God commands us to care for them according to our ability.

But there are also those whom we may call the undeserving poor, that is, those who are too lazy or irresponsible to provide for themselves. For these, the injunction of the apostle Paul still applies. As he said in 2 Thessalonians:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living (3:10-12).

Whenever we shield people from the consequences of their irresponsibility—and this is what we are doing when we assist those who are poor because of their own irresponsibility—then we are only encouraging further irresponsible behavior. Let them suffer the consequences of their foolish behavior. Let them miss a meal or two. Hunger serves as a powerful motive to work. "A worker's appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on" (Prov. 16:26). Let him go without electricity for a few days. Let him feel the discomfort of it until he’s motivated to work. Too often we rush in and rescue people from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior and so the motives to work hard, to save, to learn life skills, and so on, are all taken away.

The undeserving poor who accept charity (whether from private individuals or from relief agencies or even from the state or federal government), are liars and thieves. They are liars because they pretend to be something they are not. They pretend to be people with legitimate needs entitled to our compassion, when in reality they’re irresponsible moochers.

In the second place they’re thieves. They prey upon those who are compassionate and take advantage of them by asking for and receiving what they have no claim to. In fact, they’re thieves twice over. They’re not only preying upon the compassionate, they’re also depriving those who really need the assistance from receiving it. And they’re doing this in two ways. First, they are receiving what could have, and should have, gone to someone who really needs it. And second, these pretenders make those who are in a position to give cynical and suspicious and therefore less likely to give even to those who really do need it.

Complicating all this is the fact that government-run social welfare programs, though often well-intentioned, usually do far more harm than good because they don’t take into account how the policies of a government affect the way people think about themselves and their responsibilities. A relative absence of government interference tends to make people “energetic, enterprising, and thoughtful in pursuit of [their] own economic interests.” The more fully they see themselves as being responsible for their own prosperity and happiness the more effort they will put in to it and the less dependent they will be upon others. This is the tragedy of American welfare. When we loosen the tie between labor and reward so that people receive the rewards of labor without actually working for them, even though they are capable of doing so, then we take away the need for personal initiative and of for personal responsibility. And we destroy all incentive to work. We end up creating a mentality of dependence and entitlement. They don’t know how to take initiative. They’ve never had a need to show any initiative, because there’s always been someone there to provide things for them and do things for them. They’ve convinced themselves that they are incapable of doing things for themselves.

Our help should not be given in such a way as to create a sense of either dependency or entitlement.

Now none of this should be used as an excuse not to aid the poor; but rather to use wisdom in determining when and when not to give.


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