I remember my first time like it was yesterday. I was fifteen years old. It was Christmas morning. As a gift to our entire family, my mother had the brilliant idea to go down to the Annual Red Andrew’s Christmas Dinner and help feed the needy in Oklahoma City.
The Worthy Poor
You can imagine our reactions. All of us had made lists and checked them twice, and I can promise you this: hairnets and homeless people were not what any of us wanted in our stockings. But we couldn’t say no to Mom, so we sucked it up and got in the car.
All the way there, Mom was saying, “It’ll be fun! We’ll meet some new people. We’ll get to serve some food. We’ll probably even get to hand out presents!”
Mom was wrong.
By the time we arrived at the volunteer booth, all of the good jobs were taken. They had plenty of people to hand out gifts and fill trays with mashed potatoes. We even offered to wash dishes, but those jobs had been gobbled up as well.
“So where else can we help?” my dad asked.
The volunteer coordinator said, “We need people to make sure no one cuts in line. You can help us there.”
“Is that really a problem?” Dad asked. “You better believe it.”
So Christmas morning 1988, our family celebrated the birth of Christ by bouncing homeless people to the back of a two-hour line.
There was very little peace on earth and goodwill toward men that day. People would tell lies to move to the front of the line. Others would send their kids as mercenaries. Each time my dad would politely tell them to move to the back. When they wouldn’t comply, we would enlist the help of a security guard who told us, “A lot of the people could probably afford a meal for themselves, but they just want to bum a free ride. It’s ridiculous.”
The outing had the opposite effect of what Mom had intended. She had hoped we would feel nourished with the love of Christ by helping serve our fellow man. Instead, we felt jaded.
Since that time, I’ve had to work hard to shake that feeling. But it creeps up again when I’m serving food at the soup kitchen and someone complains that there aren’t enough dessert choices. Or when I’m approached by a man in the parking lot who says he needs money for gas, but I know it’s just a lie.
Maybe you feel the same way.
I’ve noticed lately how Christians, myself included, feel incredulous when we run across a person who is asking for a handout but doesn’t seem to deserve it. It’s just not fair. There are people who are worthy of our charity, and those who are not. Why would I give to an able-bodied person who could get a job when there are so many others to help? Innocent children. The disabled. The sick. Those are the ones we are called to serve.
So we categorize the poor as either worthy or unworthy. And you know what?
We need to stop it.
There is no such thing as the worthy poor.
Don’t get me wrong. I see how the book of Proverbs is strewn with verses that trumpet the virtue of work and warn of the dangers of sloth. Hard work is indeed a virtue. And we should be leery of scams. But the problem is that too many of us assume that because a person is poor, then that must mean he or she just isn’t working hard enough. Though a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows these attitudes are shifting, there are still far too many of us in this camp.
“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
— George Monbiot, The Self-Attribution Fallacy
The truth is, even if a person works full time at $10 an hour, that still puts them below the poverty line.
And in most US cities, basic needs for a family of four cost over twice that amount. So, when we assume that poverty is the result of a person’s laziness, we run the risk not only of being wrong, but driving an even deeper wedge between ourselves and those we profess to love as children of God.
But wait! What about that other verse? The one we’ve been hearing congressmen and preachers cite when referring to this subject.
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
The words are clear and unwavering. It’s un-biblical if you fail to use your God-given gifts to make a living and support yourself and your family. Right?
Only that’s not what Paul was saying at all.
If we dig deeper, we see that Paul wasn’t necessarily condemning lazy people who were asking for handouts. He was warning people who were lazily waiting for Jesus’ return, and using it as an excuse to avoid putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.
Our job is not to determine who is living by the Bible and dole our rewards accordingly in an effort to win their gratitude. Our job is to be Christ’s hands and heart by following His words. The words that speak of the craziest of crazy love.
“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:30–35).
And this is what Jesus did. Even when exposing the sins of others, He still offered freely. He never withheld the living water. Never held back His healing touch. He gave without condition. And when we do this, we shatter the barrier that prevents us from connecting with the family of God. All of those who are created in His image:
The single mother living on food stamps because her paycheck won’t stretch beyond day care and diapers.
The man begging on the street who lost his family, leading to an avalanche of depression that he could not afford to treat.
The neighborhood gangbanger who joined because he had no family of his own, and now can’t leave for fear he will be killed.
Jesus’ words cut to the bone, exposing how our scorn has nothing at all to do with the “unworthy” among us, and everything to do with the condition of our own hearts. Our hearts that hold expectations of thanks and gratitude. The ones that expect a return for our investment of time and effort. The hearts that judge the worthiness of the need.
So my prayer today is this: That I may see the face of God in the eyes of others. That I may give without condition. And in so doing, that I may finally feel the freedom of a heart that beats with the love of Christ.
For that is what our God expects of us. And that is what our God has given.
Whether we’re worthy or not.