There has been a lot of discussion recently about how we should treat and consider “the poor.” A good bit of the discussion has been held at a fairly high decibel level. I’ve read and listened to the different perspectives with a desire to clarify in my own mind what it looks like to bear God’s image and interact with those who have fewer resources and influence than I do. There is so much in scripture that is unequivocal in it’s instruction to care for widows, orphans, strangers, aliens and the poor and disenfranchised. However, when I look at my own actions, my reflection of God’s image seems a bit out of focus.
I was raised with the understanding that the scriptural instruction “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” was foundational to living right before God. The Puritan work ethic was alive and well throughout my family. My grandfather, a farmer who survived the dust bowl of Oklahoma and the depression, was literally disgusted by “panhandlers.” I remember going with him to Fresno, California, where he conducted some business at the county courthouse downtown. As we were walking back to his pickup to drive home, a man approached us. It was obvious from his clothing and demeanour that he lived on the street. He asked if we could spare a quarter for coffee. As a young girl, my heart filled with a mixture of pity and compassion. Left to my own devices, I would have handed over whatever money I had. However, my grandfather’s reaction took me off guard. He didn’t just ignore the man. His face darkened as he spoke harshly to the man and shooed him away. The message was inescapable….asking for money, even if you needed it, was something to be condemned. If you needed money, you should work for it.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I have to consciously think about giving money to someone on the street when they ask rather than instinctively responding with generosity. I want to be that person who is always prepared to give, but my tradition sneaks up on me and I find the question running through my mind of why the person doesn’t get a job.
The odd thing is that as I was growing up in my conservative, fundamentalist environment, we could always give to poor people in other countries. In fact we were encouraged to do so regularly. We expected that anyone receiving our gifts would be so thankful for them that they would enthusiastically embrace our religious beliefs and the American way of life, even if it meant sacrificing their own culture. We were convinced that our way of life was more righteous, more Godly, and the only way to enter heaven. However, by giving to the poor in other countries we excused ourselves from actually interacting with those we were giving to. That seemed to be the job of the missionaries.
As we’re having these ongoing conversations about how best to meet the needs of the poor, neither of these models from my tradition are a true reflection of God’s image. As Jesus followers I believe our actions must include these considerations. We are to care for the poor regardless of country, race or affiliation. Our giving should be just that…..a gift. No strings attached. No expectation that our gift is buying the allegiance of the recipient. No expectation that our gift will cause them to want to be “more like us.” Finally, we’re not instructed to give only when we’ve determined that “the poor” deserve it. We’re to be a reflection of the overwhelming love and care that is the nature of God, and to give generously.