Jesus doesn’t start his discussion of spiritual disciplines by trying to convince people to do them. He treats them as a given: these are things his listeners are already doing.
We can see this clearly in the first discipline:
So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people … But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-3)
In verse 1, Jesus actually calls giving to the poor “practicing your righteousness.” If you don’t over-theologize the word “righteousness,” this seems like a natural connection. There’s a deep understanding in all of us human beings that giving to those who lack is a right thing to do, a good thing, even a duty.
The Biblical History of Giving to the Poor
In the Bible, giving to the poor has a long history. It was commanded and systematized in the law of Moses on many levels. Deuteronomy 15 is one example:
If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the LORD your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has . . . Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11)
The Bible actually draws a straight line between one’s generosity toward the poor and one’s own prosperity. Because God is watching and rewards such “righteousness,” when you give to the poor “you will be blessed in all your work and in everything you do.”
But it is the book of Job that draws the clearest picture of this type of righteousness. Job is considered by many to be the oldest book of the Bible, existent probably as an oral poem before even the book of Genesis was written.
When we first meet Job, he is renowned for two things: his fabulous wealth and his righteousness. God himself extolls Job as a “a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8).
But what does it mean to say that Job was a righteous man? If we dig a little deeper, we find that his righteousness is described in terms of devout commitment to God and of his service to the poor and needy.
Here is Job’s description of his own life in Job 29 and 31. It is worth reading in full:
I rescued the poor man who cried out for help,
and the fatherless child who had no one to support him.
The dying man blessed me,
and I made the widow’s heart rejoice …
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy,
and I examined the case of the stranger [the foreigner or outsider].
I shattered the fangs of the unjust
and snatched the prey from his teeth.
If I have dismissed the case of my male or female servants
when they made a complaint against me,
what could I do when God stands up to judge? …
Did not the One who made me in the womb also make them?
Did not the same God form us both in the womb?
If I have refused the wishes of the poor
or let the widow’s eyes go blind,
if I have eaten my few crumbs alone
without letting the fatherless eat any of it—
for from my youth, I raised him as his father,
and since the day I was born I guided the widow—
if I have seen anyone dying for lack of clothing
or a needy person without a clock,
if he did not bless me while warming himself with the fleece from my sheep,
if I ever cast my vote against a fatherless child,
when I saw that I had support in the city gate,
then let my shoulder blade fall from my back,
and my arm be pulled from its socket.
For disaster from God terrifies me,
and because of His majesty I could not do these things.
(Job 29:12-13, 15-17; Job 31:13-23)
More than a Dollar Figure
I love Job’s description of a righteous life because it highlights that what is going on here is not just about giving money.
Job does not mention a dollar figure or boast of how much he has given up. (By all accounts, he lived pretty comfortably.) The idea isn’t that money is bad and so we should try to get rid of it; God makes it fairly clear is that his will is for his people to prosper financially as well as in other ways.
The Bible speaks of loaning to the poor (without exorbitant interest) as much or more as it does outright giving to them; the idea is to help one another become prosperous.
Rather, Job speaks of fathering orphaned children and inviting them to eat at his own table; of promising dying men that he will look after their wives; of using his position of influence to advocate for the disadvantaged in government.
And he speaks of the worldview that drives this: that the same God who made him in the womb also made those who serve in his household as slaves.
The fact of creation makes us all equals. We did not make ourselves.
Boiled down, then, the act of giving to the poor is simply an expression of the greatest commandment and its natural outgrowth: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Love, Not Money
Put simply, biblical giving to the poor is about extending our lives to others. The call to do this can be demanding and difficult. So, often, we default to doing something else instead—giving money.
These are not the same thing.
In fact, giving money can sometimes end up hurting people, and when it does I would argue that we shouldn’t do it.
(In our modern, increasingly capitalistic, globalized world, this is an issue we need to explore seriously. The book When Helping Hurts is a great starting point. For a thought-provoking discussion in a missions-specific context, try We Are Not the Hero: A Missionary’s Guide to Sharing Christ, Not a Culture of Dependency by my friend Jean Johnson.)
Giving to the poor is not about throwing money at them so they’ll go away and we’ll feel better. It is about entering into the life and needs of another person, sharing the burden, and giving what we can—whether that’s a loan or a gift, practical help, counsel, friendship, a coat, a pair of shoes, a job, or a word of encouragement.
Of course, you can’t really know what someone else needs unless you’re willing to get to know them, to extend yourself personally in some way. It takes humility and the willingness to become very uncomfortable, and vulnerable. It might even mean discovering your own poverty.
(I know I’ve recommended a lot of books in this post, but I can’t help myself: a great book on this particular topic of becoming uncomfortable and entering into the lives of the poor—and letting them into ours—is Junkyard Wisdom by Roy Goble, who guest-posted on this blog here.)
Jesus, we are told, left the riches of heaven to come to earth. He did not write us a celestial check to solve our problems; rather, he identified with us in order to love us well.
We are called to give to the poor in much the same way, which isn’t to say that we are all called to take a vow of poverty—Jesus himself was more middle class than poor, and was fairly free with money—but that we are called to extend ourselves to others.
To the poor, whoever the poor may be.
Out of our riches, whatever our riches may be.
Rejecting the Easy Way Out
Jesus called his contemporaries on the carpet for taking the easy way out: they gave money to the poor, publicly and loudly, so they could reap the rewards of being seen and applauded by everybody else.
Not only does this not create identification with the poor, it actually widens the divide. Rather than Job’s “are we not equals?”, such behavior loudly proclaims to the whole world that we are NOT equal to the poor, we are better.
It hurts us too, because we’re robbed of both relationship with the poor (by identifying with them in their humanness) and of relationship with God (by identifying with him in his giving and voluntary sacrifice).
We get a cheap reward and lose the whole, transformational point.
But we don’t have to do this. We can reject the easy way out and go back to giving the way God intends it.
It will make us uncomfortable, but it might just be worth it.
It might just change our lives.
(This is Part 55 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)