The poor you will always have with you
A lot of the motivation for helping the poor comes from two stories Jesus told, one being the Good Samaritan and the other being the story about the sheep and the goats. In context neither of these stories are actually about helping the non-believing poor.
Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in order to answer an “expert in the law” who only wanted to defend his own behaviour (Luke 10:29). This “expert” thought he was a good bloke and had done everything necessary to inherit eternal life (v.25) but through this story Jesus effectively tells him, he is in the ditch unable to save himself and in need of mercy (Mark Buchanan in his book, “The Holy Wild” explains this a whole lot better). Nevertheless I am sure if the expert in the law had asked me, “who is my neighbour?” I would have told the story of the Good Samaritan the other way around. I would have the despised Samaritan attacked by robbers and in the ditch and the man bandaging the Samaritan’s wounds and taking him to the inn. Then it would make sense to use the story as an example of helping the poor and despised of this world. You see, Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He was the despised One. He was the One who showed mercy and compassion. I am the one in the ditch and in need of help. I’m to love Jesus, the One who shows mercy to me.
In the story of the sheep and the goats there is one word in this story that is consistently overlooked and that is the word “brethren” (Matthew 25:40). “Brethren” it is not a word Jesus uses with unbelievers (see also Mark 3:35). Therefore the story is about supporting other Christians and our responsibilities towards those who know the Lord (see also Galatians 6:10), not necessarily about the poor and needy who don’t the Lord.
So I have been looking into the Bible to places where it really does tell us to be concerned about the poor. In the Old Testament history books, God tells His people not to harvest their crops right to the edges so that the poor would have the means of providing food for themselves. This is how Ruth and Naomi survived (Ruth 2:2). In the prophet’s writings in the Old Testament, they condemn the oppression and mistreatment of the poor very strongly. Jesus in the Gospels talks about preaching the good news to the poor. Paul is eager that “we should continue to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). I found in Psalms and Proverbs lots of general instruction about being generous and kind to the poor, e.g Proverbs 31:20 the virtuous woman who “opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy”.
Still I can’t help but wonder, do we emphasis helping the poor too much, and at the expense of the other things Jesus told us to do?