For the poor will never cease in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.”
This statement stirs up a fair bit of controversy in Christian circles. The idea that there will always be poor people does not sit well with some folks and those people chafe at the fact that Jesus echoes this statement in the NT, leaving us no way around the truth: There will always be poor people while we live on this fallen Earth.
God’s solution to the problem of poverty was to command His people to lend to their brethren. This command comes in the context of speaking about the Sabbatical Year, the seventh year that would erase all debts. God says, in essence, “Don’t worry about how near or far off the debt erasure is, I will repay you.” There’s an issue of trust involved in that God tells Israel to wipe the slate clean every seven years and not to worry if the seventh year starts in a month, but to lend to the poor anyway. That God adds the statement that He blesses Israel; gives them an abundance for that very reason emphasizes the trust component. Do I really believe that God is going to meet all of my needs and the needs of my family? If so, then I will lend without worry.
One thing that bears note — to me, at least — is that God commands Israel to take care of their brothers; other Israelites. Recently, there has been a push of what I’ve heard called the “social gospel”; the gospel of feeding the hungry and helping the poor and all those good things. The “social gospel” ignores, however, the fact that God’s command to Israel and, in context, Jesus’ command to His disciples, is to take care of their own. The disciples were all Jewish (at the beginning, non-Jews joined later) and would have been giving alms as part of this command right here. Their giving to the poor would have included: other Jews. Paul would later speak with the various churches about their desire to lend aid to the church in Jerusalem when they were going through a rough patch, financially. This was not giving to any and all poor, but to those who were within the church and needed assistance.
I am totally open to the notion that I am simply missing it, but I cannot, at the moment, recall the verse where Jesus tells me to give to the non-believer. I remember being commanded to go and make disciples, at which point I would be commanded to help them. I can recall very clearly Jesus echoing the statement made in this verse that there will always be poor people. I do not want to imply that the church should not give food or help to those in need, regardless of their belief or lack thereof. I do, however, think that the emphasis is placed on taking care of believers first and non-believers after.
Before my daughter was born, my wife and I lived with rather an abundance. We were able to store away money for a nice vacation and pay down our debts and begin saving for a house. We were given a financial abundance. During that time, there were folks in our fellowship who came on hard times and we became aware of it. By the blessing of God, we had more than enough to lend and provide help for our brethren and still, somehow, had an abundance afterward. This is not to boast in the greatness of my wife or myself (I’m not great. My wife is better, but still not great), but to boast in the greatness of God in making good His promise that He will repay what is loaned to our brethren.
So I suggest the following application. I suggest that my alms; my giving to support and help the poor should be to believers first. If I still have an abundance and am still moved to give when all the needs of my brethren are met, then I should look outside the family to see where I might help. But help, I think, starts at home; with the family; with my fellow believers.