By James Arlandson

The religious left tells us that budgets are moral documents. The religious left also assumes that the federal government should take up the cause of helping the poor. One report says the federal government runs 126 different anti-poverty programs1.

The religious left further tells us that across-the-board budget cuts will hurt the poor. But how do we define the poor, and who gets to define them? Are government programs always the moral high ground? What happens if our national debt has reached $16 trillion because of budget deficits (Obama: nearly $5 trillion in four years, a record), while our national income (GDP) is smaller?

Are those big-government budget deficits moral or immoral? Where's the moral high ground in that?

Despite the 126 programs, does anyone notice that we still have poor people? Maybe we need another way.

What does the Bible say about helping the poor?

From the outset, I admit that I get nervous about applying specific Biblical texts to our modern national policy. The Torah was the law of God, so ancient Israel was a theocracy. We shouldn't bring these old laws forward to today in all their literalness and details.

Instead, we need merely to look for general principles.

So let's get started interpreting the Bible for today, cautiously.

If readers would like to see the verses in various translations, they may go to Biblegateway.com and type in the references.

Participation from the Giver

One of the striking features of charity in the Torah is that people physically participate in it. They hauled their crops and produce to the nearby towns to help out the poor.

In one law, the people are to bring the tithes (one tenth) to the local town, every third year, and store them, so the poor, orphans, widows, and resident aliens could take what they needed. The Levites who had no allotment or inheritance in the land also received from this once-every-three year tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). So this act of charity was done locally and physically.

In still another law, about celebrating the Feast of Weeks, people are to swing the sickle on the crops, harvest them, and then celebrate a feast at the place God chooses. Not only do the well-off celebrate, but the Levites, resident aliens, orphans, and widows do, too, thus breaking down class distinctions (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).

In these passages and others, a big central government, such as it was back then, does not stand over the shoulders of the people and perform charity in their place. People did it with their own hands.

The best charity is local.

Participation from the Receiver

Another feature of the Torah is that the poor had to work for charity.

If, for example, a man became poor and had to sell himself to a wealthier family who would employ him as a hired servant, he could redeem himself out of his servitude once he got his finances in order, or when the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10) or the sabbatical manumission year came around. The sabbatical year means that he had to work six years and was freed in the seventh (Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18, Leviticus 25:39-41).

Finally, the landowners were commanded to leave behind some of the crops and grapes so the poor could go out to get them; in other words, the poor had to work (Leviticus 19:9-10).

The Book of Ruth shows this harvesting law for the poor in action. Boaz, a righteous man, left part of his harvest for Ruth, an impoverished Moabitess, a foreigner. She regularly went out to the field to gather in the leftover grain. Eventually they got married and lived happily ever after.

The dominant picture is the landowner Boaz being generous, while any government, such as it was, does not interfere with him.

Thus, the wealthy who earn a living from their growing, profitable business and hire workers who also earn a living from that same prosperous business must step up and help the poor who are willing to work for it.

The best charity is done locally, and by the hands of both the giver and the receiver.

New Testament Participation

In the New Testament era, Jesus and his church looked beyond the nation of Israel. Their mission was to go global. The same is true in the kingdom of God: participatory charity. But by and large, the New Testament is interested in the giver -- what is his motive and attitude?

To begin with, five thousand men followed Jesus to a mountainside in the country to hear him speak. After a while he saw they were hungry, so he asked what food the disciples could gather from the people. One boy had five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:9). Working a miracle, Jesus multiplied the food and fed the entire crowd, with seven basketsful left over (Mark 6:30-44).

That is, Jesus did not call Peter, James, and John over to him and say, "Hey, you three! Run like the wind to Jerusalem and report that there are a lot of poor people out here! The Jerusalem central planners need to form a committee and set up a bureaucracy to feed them!"

No, Jesus used a private, nongovernmental initiative to feed the poor. First he got the food from the people themselves. They participated. Then, apart from a gigantic central Jerusalem bureaucracy, he multiplied the food that was available.

Further, in one of his discourses, Jesus says he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, and sick, and in prison, and his followers cared for him. They asked him when they had seen him in that condition. He replied, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:35-40).

Jesus was speaking to his followers, not a cadre of government bureaucrats. Performing these acts of charity is the job of his kingdom's people, who should not wait for the government.

The early church also practiced giving food to the poor, privately (Acts 6:1-7, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10). The leaders did not depend on the Jerusalem and Roman governments.

Paul also says widows can be cared for, but only if they meet certain requirements, like living a godly life and not being busybodies (1 Timothy 5:9-16).

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