Will Work for Food
Can we really do anything to help the people on
A stubble-faced, leather-skinned vagrant approaches me and asks, "Can you spare
some change?" It's nothing new, but in the last few years the faces have been
getting younger, the requests more frequent, and my responses less certain. A
popular sign reads, "Will work for food." Sometimes it's true. Sometimes it
isn't. (Unless I can offer the person a job, how can I know?) As a pastor for fourteen years, I was often called on to deal with requests for
money. Knowing that churches have benevolence funds, needy people dropped by
asking for gas money, food money, or bus money. Some of them slept in their
cars. Some even had children. It was my job to try to discern if the need was
legitimate, and if so, the best way to help. As director of a parachurch
ministry committed to assisting those who feed the poor, I have to exercise the
same kind of discernment.
Who Are the Poor?
Definitions of the homeless and estimates of their number vary widely from
source to source. It appears that between 300,000 and 500,000 Americans may be
homeless on any given night. Most of these end up in shelters, and a good
portion of those who don't are on the streets by choice. Most of these homeless
are adult men, but the numbers of women and children, and even whole families,
Demographic breakdowns of the homeless also vary. The following statistics are
an average of those found in several different sources. It appears that about 15
percent of homelessness is due to job loss and lack of low-income housing. About
35 percent is due to mental illness, which is usually accompanied by marginal
job skills. About 50 percent of the homeless are physically and mentally able,
with job skills ranging from minimal to optimal, but they simply choose not to
work and not to look for work.
Many in the latter group are alcoholics or drug addicts. They take advantage of
public shelters and soup kitchens to save money for their addictions. Frequently
they are the most cunning and aggressive panhandlers, while the willing-to-work
are often too ashamed to ask for money, and not "good at it" when they do. The
15 percent whose adverse circumstances have put them on the streets are the
subject of most of the media stories on "street people." The sentiment this
generates prompts further indiscriminate social services that often end up going
to the wrong people. This, in turn, fuels the growing public cynicism about the
poor and results in "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" (failing to help
the truly poor because of resentment toward those who abuse the system).
When it comes to the poor and homeless, we need to look at three primary
questions. The morality question—"What is our responsibility to the poor?"
wisdom question—"How do we discern who the poor are and what they really need?"
The practicality question—"What exactly should we do to help the poor?"
What Is Our Responsibility to the Poor?
"I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the
poor and needy in your land" (Dt.
15:11). He promises special reward for helping the poor (Prov.
28:27). The Old Testament prophets boldly spoke forth God's commands to
care for the poor (Is.
58:7–11). Jesus came to preach the good news to the poor and needy (Lk.
4:18–19). Though He himself had little, Christ made a regular practice of
giving to the poor (Jn.
13:29). He also repeatedly commanded care for the poor, promising eternal
reward for those who do so (Lk.
14:12–14). Special offerings to help the poor were commonplace in the
early church (Acts
24:17; Gal. 2:10).
Caring for the poor is a litmus test of whether our faith is biblical and
genuine (Jas. 1:27,
1 Jn. 3:16–19). Our Lord takes personally how we treat the poor—"For I
was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . . Whatever you did for one of
the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Mt.
25:35, Mt. 25:40).
Even if I am not to blame for the poor being poor, Scripture tells me
I am still
responsible to help them. The Good Samaritan was not responsible for the plight
of the man lying beside the road. After all, he had not robbed and brutalized
him. Nonetheless, he was responsible to love his neighbor as himself. He did
this not simply by refraining from hurting him, but by actively helping him. He
generously used his time, energy, and money to care for him. Jesus instructed us
to do the same (Lk.
So how can we help the poor and homeless? What Do the Poor Really Need?
it is a fundamental error to lump together all of "the poor," as if they
were a monolithic group. Both Scripture and experience teach us that not all
people are poor for the same reasons, and therefore not all can ultimately be
helped by the same means.
I can think of at least fifteen reasons people may be poor: insufficient natural
resources, adverse climate, lack of knowledge or skill, lack of needed
technology or equipment, natural disaster (earthquake or flood), personal
catastrophe (destruction of home or fields), poor health or physical handicap,
mental handicap, exploitation and oppression by others, inability to find work,
substance addiction, personal laziness, wasteful self-indulgence, personal
choice to identify with and serve the poor (Mother Teresa, for example), and
religion or world view. (An example of the latter is the Hindu concept of karma,
which discourages improving one's circumstances and results in people starving
while one of their major God-given food sources, cattle, consumes another,
Cures must be tailor-made to the cause of an illness. If a person is poor
because earthquake or flood has destroyed his home, the solution may be to give
him the money, materials, and assistance to help him rebuild his home and
reestablish his business. If he's poor due to exploitation or oppression or
injustice, we can offer immediate help while laboring for long-term legal,
social, and economic reforms. When poverty is due to adverse climate, the poor
need not only short-term relief, but long-term development that will give them
the resources to prevent future poverty and hunger. Some relief organizations
are short-sighted, responding to present emergencies—as they should—but doing
little to prevent future emergencies.
If a person is homeless due to a mental handicap, we should seek to provide
love, friendship, and housing, and find him proper treatment and training in job
skills. Becoming a contributing member of society is often the best treatment
for mental illness.
We can link addicts who want help with rehabilitation and recovery groups.
Again, giving short-term help without offering long-term solutions is
A person may also be poor because of waste and self-indulgence—"He who loves
pleasure will become poor" (Prov.
21:17). A man may make a decent income but waste it on drugs, alcohol,
cigarettes, expensive convenience foods, costly recreation, or gambling
(including lotteries). Many people manage to meet their family's needs on very
low incomes. Others make several times as much money, but are always "poor,"
always in a financial crisis. This is not because their means are too little,
but because they are living above their means. Trying to solve such a situation
by throwing money at it is like trying to put out a fire by dousing it with
When I was a pastor, we called a government agency to get the names of needy
people. We drove to their homes with sacks of food, only to find people
surrounded by conveniences that some of us contributing the food couldn't
afford. I've seen people who perpetually "have no money" to buy groceries for
their family, but have a boat, car, or recreational vehicle worth $20,000 parked
in their driveway! Such people need to be held accountable to liquidate their
assets and feed their families, then learn to reorder their priorities and live
within their means.
Some people are poor due to laziness. God's Word says that the result of
laziness will be poverty (Prov.
24:30–34). "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth"
(Prov. 10:4; cf.
Every act of provision to a lazy person legitimizes and reinforces his laziness.
It removes his incentives to be responsible for himself, and makes him more
dependent on others. Paul commanded the Thessalonian church to stop taking care
of the lazy and reminded them of this strict rule—"If a man will not work, he
shall not eat" (2
Thess. 3:10). If we take this verse literally, and I do, it means it's a
sin to feed the lazy. The point is not to let people starve—the point is that
faced with hunger, they will be motivated to work and support themselves as God
intends. "A worker's appetite works for him; his hunger urges him on" (Prov.
I know a man who chose not to work, yet received unemployment benefits twice as
high as the salary of a friend who worked forty hours a week. I saw the light go
on in his head—"Why work when you don't have to?" I watched that man change over
a one-year period as he grew accustomed to not having to work to live. That was
ten years ago, and he hasn't had a job since. He still lives off the misguided
"help" of society. Meanwhile he has lost both his self-respect and his family. A
nation, church, or family that subsidizes the lazy spawns laziness. Since
laziness leads to poverty, supporting the lazy breeds poverty.
By all means we must care for those whose circumstances and disabilities leave
them poor. But any system—whether secular or religious—that feeds the
able-bodied lazy is a counterproductive system. It does them and the rest of
society a disservice.
What Is Biblical Compassion?
I know from experience that many Christians will be uncomfortable, or even
offended, by what I've just said. They will think, "This doesn't sound
compassionate." But what sounds compassionate and what is compassionate are not
always the same. Compassion must not be rooted simply in our feelings, or
measured by our own subjective satisfaction in saying, "I helped the poor." True
compassion sees and deals with the root of the problem.
Compassionate parents don't let their children watch whatever they want on TV,
eat junk food all day, or play on the freeway—even though doing so may make the
children happier (today), and make life easier for the parents (today). They
don't automatically give their child the new bicycle he wants—they tell him he
can only have a new bicycle if he earns it. Then they take the time and effort
to show him how to earn it.
Many of us want to "help the poor" because of the good feeling it gives us. We
are concerned about salving our consciences, not with whether our "help" has
actually met their real, long-term needs. But true compassion gives people what
they need, not just what they want. Our primary calling is not to help others
(or ourselves) feel good, but to help them be good. Shoveling money and goods at
poor people may help us—and them—feel good for the short run. It takes more
thought, time, and commitment on our part—and theirs—to help them do what is
best in the long run. It is terribly unfair to attribute all poverty to
laziness. It is terribly unwise to try to help the lazy in the same way we help
the truly needy.
This concept is a challenge to ministries that open their soup kitchens daily
and distribute free food and materials to anyone and everyone. Some inner city
missions are exemplary, but others fall into the same unhealthy pattern of
fostering irresponsibility that has marred most government programs. Some truly
needy will be helped—but others will be reinforced in their laziness and
subsidized in their pursuit of harmful addictions.
Of course, sometimes it will be impractical or impossible to screen out the
irresponsible. Better to feed some who are irresponsible in the process of
helping the truly needy, than let the truly needy (including the children of the
irresponsible) suffer in the screening attempt. But better still to try to do
both, for Scripture tells us to do both. To exercise such discernment requires
taking time to get to know individuals and their unique situations, just as a
doctor must diagnose each patient rather than prescribe one general cure for
everyone. Tempting as it is, we must refuse to equate biblical compassion with
every impersonal or indiscriminate distribution program conducted by the
government or religious groups.
What Exactly Should We Do to Help the
Obviously, a person can be unemployed without being lazy. We need to help the
unemployed with their immediate needs, but above all we need to help them find
work. Sending an unemployed person to classes, teaching him a skill, helping him
write a résumé, coaching him for a job interview—all these may be much more
helpful than ongoing financial gifts. When work isn't to be found, we need to
provide it however we can.
On a few occasions we've given unemployed people work on our church grounds.
I've come up with a variety of odd jobs around our house that are worthy and
constructive. It's important for the sake of a person's self-respect and
initiative to maintain the God-ordained connection between work and income.
The Old Testament pattern of gleaning is a model of how to help the poor in the
most positive way (Lev.
19:9–10). God said to leave the corners of the fields uncut so the poor
could have food. But notice the grain was not cut, bundled, processed, ground,
bagged, transported, and delivered to the poor. Provided they were able, the
poor were to go to the fields and do the work themselves. This way their needs
were met, but they weren't robbed of their dignity nor made irresponsible by a
workless welfare system.
We need to develop a screening process that isn't impersonal or dehumanizing,
but accurately determines whether a person is in need, and if so, why. Christ's
words "Give to him who asks of you" must be seen in the context of the whole
Scriptures. Paul commands the church to care for "those widows who are really in
need" (1 Tim. 5:3),
but says that even in the body of Christ
not every widow qualifies for church
support. We must be generous, but also be discerning so that our generosity
hits the mark.
I have the phone numbers of a few friends who own nurseries. I've told
able-bodied street people if they want some honest work to earn money for food
and other needs, there's a good chance they can get a job in the fields. If
they're not interested, they've screened themselves out, and I know I shouldn't
give them money. If they are, I can go the next step and see what else I can do
for them. (This includes taking every opportunity to share the gospel.)
The church is not to take over responsibilities that properly belong to family
Tim. 5:3–5). In light of this principle, our church leaders approached an
elderly woman's brother to encourage him to meet her material needs that he had
neglected. He was embarrassed, but he got involved in his sister's life
precisely because we called on him. Had we continued helping her, he never would
have. It is the church's role to encourage the family to fulfill its
responsibilities, not to take over those responsibilities. Of course, if family
members refuse to help, the church must.
Churches need to help the poor not just by giving money or food, but personal
attention—our time, our skills, and our personal interest. An elderly widow
doesn't just need a check, she needs someone to take her shopping, to sit and
talk with her, to pray with her. She may need someone to mow her lawn, fix her
fence, drive her to church.
When we see the homeless, God may not just want us to open our pocketbooks, but
our homes (Ro. 12:13).
When we opened our home to a needy woman for a year, we had the privilege of
seeing her come to Christ. No evangelistic efforts are more credible than those
authenticated by hospitality. Even when we open our homes, however, biblical
compassion means expecting them to contribute to the household in some
Sometimes what people need is not more money, but personal help in handling the
money they have. Good financial counseling, including how to make and stick to a
reasonable budget, is a far more valuable gift than $500 to bail someone out of
a situation he should never have gotten into in the first place. Direction in
how to find and keep a job is much more helpful than putting groceries on a
shelf while someone sits home and watches television all day. When a middle-aged
career person is laid off, he not only needs to find a new job, but may need
support to avoid depression.
Making a Difference in the Lives of the Poor
Our family gives regularly to
World Relief, a
ministry that brings immediate help, long-term development, and the gospel of
Christ to the needy throughout the world. The fact is that the poorest of the
poor live far away from most of us. We must not forget the desperate needs in
parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. Furthermore, the class called the
"poor" in Scripture includes the weak, defenseless, and exploited. Efforts on
behalf of unborn children, exploited women, the elderly, handicapped, and
underprivileged immigrants and minorities are close to the heart of God, who
calls Himself the rescuer of the poor (Job
29:12; Ps. 35:10;
However, I cannot relate meaningfully to the poor when I am isolated from them.
For some of us it's a question of walking down the block and getting to know the
poor. For others it's driving twenty miles to find a homeless person. Perhaps I
must take regular trips away from the cozy suburbs to the inner city. Whole
churches have become involved in projects to help the poor. Some youth groups
take regular trips to Mexico. Others put on camps and evangelistic Bible clubs
for inner-city children. Churches can go to the ghettos, the jails, the
hospitals, and rest homes.
More radically, instead of following the evangelical pattern of abandoning the
city for the suburbs, perhaps its time for more of us to go as missionaries to
the poor and live in their midst. Clearly our social programs are not working—if
we as Christians will not be the incarnation of Christ's love and wisdom in the
inner city, who will?
We must resist the unbiblical rationalization that we cannot make a difference.
"But I'm just one person. And we're just a small church. How can we eliminate
poverty?" The answer is that you can't. Jesus said the poor would always be with
us (Mk. 14:7).
But that shouldn't inhibit our action. A poster asked, "How can you help a
billion hungry people?" The answer below was right on target:
"One at a time."
Caring for the poor is a sobering responsibility for which we will all be held
accountable—"If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out
and not be answered" (Prov.
21:13). It's true we must seek to help the poor in the right way, but
above all, we must help them in some way. God links our efforts for the poor
directly to our relationship with Him. May He one day say of us what he said of
King Josiah: "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?" (Jer.
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