Kindness to the Poor

READ : Proverbs 19:17

He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. (Proverbs 19:17, RSV)

WHO ARE THE POOR?

Who are the poor of this world? The Bible uses several terms to describe them, each with a different shade of meaning. First, poor can mean those completely destitute, without even a meager sufficiency for their basic needs. Their plight is truly desperate. They haven’t the wherewithal to keep body and soul together.

Poor can also mean needy for a time. These are people who through bereavement, infirmity, or disaster are for the time unable to secure the necessaries of life. At least temporarily, they are in serious want.

Sometimes to be poor means simply to be weak and without influence. Such people are not necessarily destitute or even in serious want, but they have no clout, no political power, no hope of bringing about change in their situation. They are the little people of the world, easily overlooked and easily exploited. Finally, the word poor sometimes means humble and godly. These are people who live in modest circumstances who must often endure affliction and sadness, but they do so patiently with lowly dependence on God. In this sense, the “poor of the land,” those whom Jesus calls the “poor in spirit” are the faithful. They look to God for security and redemption. They refuse to put their trust in political schemes or material prosperity.

In each case, the poor belong to that large proportion of people who in a worldly and material sense are disadvantaged. They are those for whom it is a lifelong effort to make ends meet, those who have little or no margin of security to fall back on in case of emergency.

GOD’S CONCERN FOR THEM

Now one of the most remarkable things about the revelation we find in the Bible is the clear teaching that God has a special concern for those very persons: the poor. Listen, for example, to these words from Psalm 113:

Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children (Ps. 113:5-9).

Here God, the exalted Lord of all, acts in a notable way on behalf of the poor, the needy, the despised and deprived. This is lifted up as a vital aspect of His greatness as the Lord. For this, He is to be praised.

We find the same theme in Hannah’s jubilant song after God has looked upon her barrenness and given her a child.

“There is none holy like the Lord,” she sings. “there is none besides thee; there is no rock like our God. . . The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who are hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. . . . The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Sam. 2:2-8).

And the Virgin Mary, after learning that she is to bear the Savior, sings to God:

He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations will call me blessed; he has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things. . . (Lk. 1:48-49, 52-53).

Sometimes these poor and humble ones are those in actual, physical want. Always they are those who recognize their need of God and place all their trust in Him. There is more truth than we realize sometimes in the humorous quip: “God must love the common people; He made so many of them.”

The Lord seems always to be on the side of the underdog. Listen:

All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like thee, thou who deliverest the weak from him who is too strong for him, the weak and needy from him who despoils him?” (Ps. 35:10)

God makes that care of the poor one of His chief objectives, apparently, in the governing of the world. The psalmist says in Psalm 140: “I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the afflicted, and executes justice for the needy” (v. 12).

This remarkable commitment of God to the poor is expressed also in the commands He gives to His chosen people. They are to express this same concern in their daily living. Farmers, for example, are to think about the needy when they gather their crops:

When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten the sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow . . . When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless and the widow (Deut. 24:19-21).

(Those are three classes of people who are usually numbered among the poor.)

Again:

You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns (Deut. 24:14).

Whoever he or she is, you are never to take advantage of someone who is poor. This idea is developed further in the book of Leviticus:

And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the Jubilee; then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family, and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God (Lev. 25:39-43).

And if your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or no increase, but fear your God . . . (Lev. 25:35-36).

In the New Testament, we learn that one of the chief Christian duties enjoined upon all the disciples of Jesus is that they should remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). A major aspect of the work of Paul and Barnabas among the churches lay in securing contributions for their poor brothers and sisters in a time of famine. They see this as an integral part of their obedience to God. In this they recognize and give expression to God’s heart of compassion toward the poor.

WHAT’S DONE FOR THEM IS DONE FOR HIM

The proverb we read today teaches us that when we are kind to the poor, we lend to the Lord. That’s not surprising in the light of what we’ve just considered. God so identifies Himself with the cause of the poor and needy, so presents Himself as their help and defender, that what is done for them, He considers as done for Him. This is certainly true on the negative side. Whatever harm, spite, or dishonor is done to needy, afflicted persons, God takes as an affront to His majesty. Listen to these words from the Proverbs: “He who mocks the poor insults his Maker” (Prov. 17:5) Again, “He who oppresses a poor man dishonors his Maker” (Prov. 14:31). And, if we insist on showing disregard for the poor, we will soon or late confront God’s judgment. “Do not remove an ancient landmark,” says the Lord, “or enter the fields of the fatherless; for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you” (Prov. 23:11). Again, “Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause and despoil of life those who despoil them” (Prov. 22:22). Those who go on disregarding or doing harm to the poor will meet at last a formidable adversary. In all the afflictions of His little ones, God Himself is afflicted.

On the other hand, kindness to the poor is one of the most beautiful services people ever render. Someone has called our treatment of needy persons, “the test of civility, the touchstone of friendship.” These will probably not be able to repay us.

In showing concern for the disadvantaged, we are seeing beyond appearances to what is truly significant. We are seeing the essential person beneath the accidents of what they have. We’re heeding the poet’s word,

“A man forget not though in rags he lies,

And know the mortal through the crown’s disguise.”

Mark Akenside

We are glimpsing beneath the cloak of need in this case a person made in the image of God. And, the New Testament teaches us, we are seeing far more, even more. We behold in the poor the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. Did He not say so? “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me” (Mt. 25:40). And the people about whom he is speaking there are the hungry and thirsty, the naked and homeless, the strangers and imprisoned ones. Kindness to them, oh think of that, friends, is always kindness to Him.

HE WILL REPAY

And He says He will repay it. Listen: “He who gives to the poor will not want” (Prov. 28:27). And, in the words of our text today, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

There’s a sense in which showing kindness to those in need brings its own reward. It frees us from the fetters of our selfishness and fills our hearts with gladness. Every time we choose people over things, others over self, sharing over hoarding, our lives are made freer, richer, deeper. How blessed it is to give and to care!

God rewards our kindness not because we deserve it but because He delights to do so. He rejoices to find in us a spirit kindred to His own, a heart that beats with His. And out of pure grace, He chooses to reward the kindness He Himself inspires.

How does He do that? How does He repay the kind and gracious? Not always “in kind” but sometimes just that way. Generous people often discover that they cannot outgive Him. Every time they give to others, they seem to receive more for themselves. My aged uncle recently made a sizable pledge to our church for a new sanctuary. Though he isn’t a member of the congregation, he wanted to help. Within a month of his pledge, he was informed that his pension had been recalculated and raised by over 70 percent! Even after paying his pledge each month, he will still have more income than he had before!

Now that is beautiful when it happens, but it would be crass to count on it in a calculating way. Those who give to the poor in the hope of financial return are not being very kind, are they? Shrewd investors maybe, but not sons and daughters of their heavenly Father. They may be more greedy than generous. And they may be disappointed. God doesn’t always repay kindness with wealth, nor do His rewards always come here and now. It may be a long time before His promise is fulfilled, and the rewards may be quite different from what we expect. But reward there will be. God will be no one’s debtor. What He has pledged, He will give. “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed.”

Maybe it will be at the final reckoning. What will it be worth to hear the King of Glory say to us,

Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it to me (Mt. 25:40).

Well done, good and faithful servant, Enter into the joy of your Lord (Mt. 25:23).

Jesus Himself is the pattern for us — and the pledge. “Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Now risen from the dead, Jesus is rich beyond imagining in the Father’s glory, rejoicing now in a redeemed people whom no one can number. May each of us, trusting in Him fully as our Savior, also follow Him wholeheartedly as our example, ready to become poor that others may be rich. And along that road, whatever other rewards we may receive, fellowship with Him and eventually likeness to Him will be the best of all.

PRAYER: O God of majesty, we praise You today for Your concern for the little people of the world. Lord Jesus Christ, we bless You for becoming poor so that we may be truly rich. Help us to follow You, Lord, along that road. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson is the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson has served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson has written extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and he has authored many books.