Picture this: In the midst of a busy workday, you use your lunch hour to run errands and check some items off your never-ending list of to-dos. Along the way, you encounter a person holding a sign that says, “Need work. Please help.”
This sort of encounter forces us to grapple with the reality of poverty and hunger. But our internal wrestling too often ends when the light turns green or when we walk past the intersection.
This story illustrates how most of us deal with poverty. We don’t think about it until it’s right in our face. But the best time to formulate a response to difficult situations is not during a tense moment, but before it. That said, let’s examine some common responses to poverty in light of scripture and work toward a constructive and redemptive solution.
In recent months I’ve asked Christ-followers how they respond to such encounters. I’ve observed three trends.
1. No Response.
The majority of us desire to assist people in need, but we don’t know how. We’re simply people who care about others, and we’re looking for a way to help.
2. In Favor of Hand-Outs.
Some people are avid about meeting the impoverished person’s immediate need. This tactic is often called a hand-out. I appreciate the motivations of those who offer handouts. Most people give out of a genuine desire to meet a need (although the affluent may give to soothe a guilty conscience).
Unfortunately, I’m convinced that a long-term poverty alleviation plan that features handouts is shortsighted because it fails to consider the fullness of God’s creative design. A robust Christian worldview includes four principal relationships that each person has, including a relationship:
- With God
- With others
- With one’s self
- With God’s creation.
Material poverty is a symptom of one or more of these relationships being disproportionately strained. A one-size-fits-all solution (like offering handouts) does not account for or restore the complex causes of poverty.
3. Against Hand-Outs.
Those opposed to handouts arrive at their conclusion for different reasons. Some people are against handouts because of an underlying distaste for the poor. They assume that poverty is always caused by bad character or poor decision-making. Yet poverty is not always the result of bad personal choices nor a refusal to work. Like the rich, the poor’s economic status is a confluence of personal, systemic and relational dynamics.
Others, though, are against handouts because they have carefully crafted alternatives. The benefits of these new solutions are superior to (but do not necessarily exclude) hand-outs. I too hope to craft an alternative solution. While I still have much thinking to do, here’s my initial stab at a solution.
Poverty is not always the result of bad personal choices nor a refusal to work.
The Gleaning Model
Let’s take a look at the book of Ruth. A famine plagued the land, leading to a desperate economic climate (1:1). In the midst of these economic trials, Ruth faced additional challenges:
- She had no husband or father-in-law in a patriarchal society (1:3-5).
- She had taken responsibility for her mother-in-law — who did not contribute to their economic wellbeing (1:22).
- She moved to a foreign land where she knew few people (1:22).
In essence, Ruth’s safety net crumbled beneath her feet — not unlike many in our cities who resort to holding signs on street corners.
Notice that Ruth was faithful and proactive in pursuing opportunities to meet her own needs. She studied her surroundings, found an opportunity to work and took the initiative to pursue a promising option (2:1-2). After finding a means of providing for herself and Naomi, Ruth worked hard (2:7) and maintained a good reputation (3:11) to make the most of her opportunity. Thus Ruth’s deliverance from material poverty was due in large part to wise stewardship of what God gave her.
But Ruth’s faithfulness would not have had an opportunity to express itself without someone else — Boaz. Boaz took the concept of gleaning from Leviticus 19:9-10 to heart, embodying God’s instruction to love the sojourner and the poor. He encouraged Ruth to continue gleaning on his property (2:8-9 and 2:15-16), protected Ruth when she was vulnerable (2:8-9), honored her for her integrity (2:10b-11) and self-consciously acted as a conduit of grace by pointing her to God as her provider (2:11b-13).
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This gleaning model is one of a number of potential solutions that actively heal the broken relationships that lead to material poverty. Let’s apply the model to contemporary life.
Think back to impoverished person on the corner with a sign. If you are a homeowner, you probably have a never-ending list of housekeeping tasks to do. Consider a simple, household chore like yard care, and assume that you have money to offer to others in need (in the spirit of Leviticus 19’s gleaning principle). With these two resources, you can confront poverty in a helpful and constructive way.
You can both meet your own need (receiving help with your household chores) and meet someone else’s need (offering him dignity by hiring him to do yard work). In so doing, you can potentially restore each of the broken relationships that cause poverty.
First, you can restore the relationship between humanity and creation. Work, simply stated, is “what creatures do with creation”; if someone does not know how to cultivate creation in a constructive or marketable manner, then he is unable to be gainfully employed.
If the person you invited to do yard work does not know how to cut grass, you can teach him. Practically, you’re giving him a marketable skill, which is vocational discipleship — bringing about someone’s hidden potential. But you’re doing more than training someone for a job; you’re empowering him to cultivate God’s creation (Genesis 1:28-30), thus mending the relationship.
Second, you can restore the relationship with others. If a person has a marketable skill but no relationships with others, then he still has little possibility of gaining employment. Some of the most gifted people with highly refined skills are jobless because of they lack relationships. As a result, you can assist the person you hired improve his interpersonal skills. You may even utilize a relationship on their behalf. For example, you may connect the person with a friend who owns a lawn service, vouching for the person’s skill set that was cultivated in your own yard.
Third, you can restore the relationship with self. Genesis 1:1 introduces God as a worker. Thus when your new friend works, he reflects God’s image. He gains a sense of dignity which is rooted in the ability to reflect the actions of God himself. In essence, working instills a sense of fulfillment and value in a worker that undergirds a healthy view of one’s self.
Lastly, and most foundationally, you can help restore the relationship with God. As you love, care for and sacrifice for someone, you’re able to point him to the One who has ultimately loved him, ultimately cared for him and ultimately sacrificed for him — Jesus Christ. In essence, you can point him to the gospel. Restoring this relationship with God is a prerequisite to becoming a truly fulfilled worker who loves neighbor, has peace with himself and understands God’s world.
Next time you pass someone holding a “Need Work, Please Help” sign, don’t ask what he did to get himself there. Rather, ask how you can utilize what God has given you to love your neighbor.
You may not have Boaz’s land, crops, workers, money and infrastructure. But God can use what you do have to help restore broken relationships.
This post was originally published on December 10, 2015. Walter Strickland delivered a version of this talk at Wisdom Forum 2015. An early version of this post appeared at Canon and Culture.
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