Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors Him. (Proverbs 14:31)
Jesus said there will always be those who are poor (Matthew 26:11). He insisted that we should invite the poor to our feasts, not our friends (Luke 14:12-14), and that whatever kindness we show to a needy person, God views it as being shown to Him (Matthew 25:31ff). The Apostles James and John describe caring for widows and orphans is “true religion” (James 1:27) and remind us that if we (“close our hearts to”) those in need, then the love of God cannot be in us (1 John 3:17).
So why all this fixation on the poor? Why is God honored by our generosity and kindness to the less fortunate and insulted if we oppress him?
We are all poor
This question is all about your point of comparison. We call some people “poor” and others “rich” by comparing ourselves to one another. I’m poor compared to you, we’re both poor compared to Bill Gates (worth almost $80B), etc. But “compared to other people” is a poor (pun intended) standard by which a Christian should assess wealth. Christians strive to view the world as God does. And from God’s perspective, the divide between “the poor” and “the not poor” among men simply doesn’t exist. Only God is rich. By comparison, we are all desperate, filthy, and living under a box down by the river. And remember that when the Bible speaks in financial terms, it is never only talking about money.
So, to oppress “the poor” — to willfully exploit those who have less than me by earthly standards — means for one desperate, needy person to lord what little they have over another desperate, needy person who doesn’t have it. This is exactly the same sinful, blind arrogance that refuses to forgive a minor offense in the wake of having been forgiven a far greater one. See Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), in which a master forgives a servant billions of dollars in debt, but the servant then refused to forgive the $100 another servant owed him. The justice in Jesus’ condemning that servant as “wicked” is obvious and satisfying.
But if we, who are so desperately dependent on God for life and breath and everything else, cannot have pity a woman living on the streets … or share our scraps of bread with a starving man … or love someone who is difficult to love … then how are we any better than the wicked servant in Jesus’ story? God’s mercy toward us and provision on our behalf is SO great, that when we clutch that provision, scream “mine! mine!”, and fail to share it with others, we insult Him! But when we understand that we’re all the same, that we all share in a desperate poverty before God, and are careful and intentional about sharing what we have, then God is honored, and will reward us greatly (Galatians 6:9 and many others).
What is God asking you to do?
God flat out calls some Christians to sell everything they have and give it to the poor (Mark 10:21). That’s certainly not the norm, but have you even considered it before God? Ever? God also makes it clear that giving money to soup kitchens to feed others when you can’t feed your own family is not what He had in mind (1 Timothy 5:8), so there are clearly extremes in the other direction too. Having stuff isn’t inherently evil, but loving it is (1 Timothy 6:10). Is there anything in your house that you would refuse to give away if God asked you to? If so, then consider that it might mean too much to you. You might love that thing more than the One who gave it to you.
It would be missing the point entirely to feel guilty because you have a sweater and you can imagine someone who doesn’t. But if you have 30 sweaters, and you can’t bring to mind a single person who has none, then maybe it’s time to find a couple of them and share. Or if you’re keeping pace with the national average (among Christians) and give less than 1% of your income away (according to a 2008 Christianity Today article), then you may be in danger of insulting God by hoarding what He has so generously provided you.
Get practical about this, and maybe a little ruthless. Give something away tomorrow. Buy a homeless guy a cheeseburger. Adopt a child. Take the time to listen to a difficult person at work. Hold off judgment for once; fast and pray instead. Be especially kind to a person you find it hard to tolerate. Love recklessly. Dare to suffer loss, knowing that this is exactly how God loved you (John 3:16). In all these ways we show God’s love to others, by sharing our “wealth” with them — wealth we only have because God gave it to us. Commit to being generous in a new specific way once per day for the next month. Who knows, you may find that honoring God with all He’s given you becomes habit-forming.
An amplified proverb (see more in series)
“…we are all desperate, filthy, and living under a box down by the river.” Nice word picture.