I just read “What of ‘Social Justice’?” by Don Veinot* and felt an urge to write about Christians’ ideas about the “deserving poor.” On the side Veinot challenges are those advocating “social justice,” characterized by elaborate state-sponsored welfare programs. On the other side are those, generally politically against government welfare, who quote Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-21, 2 Thessalonians 3:10, and 1 Timothy 5:3-16 to justify not liberally sharing what they have. Although politically I agree with the latter’s view on taxpayer-funded handouts, over the years I’ve become more wary about the biblical arguments used.
What’s the “deserving poor”? Are they like deserving sinners, who do all the right things so that God will so graciously bestow salvation upon them? We really need to ask ourselves why our excuse for withholding charity (a biblical obligation) is that people don’t deserve it!
It’s easy to tell people that they have to do X, Y, and Z to eat, but is that reasoning really in line with the Scriptures? Passages like Deuteronomy 24:10-15, Isaiah 58:7, Ezekiel 18, Matthew 18:21-35, Matthew 25:35-36, and James2:15-16 teach that we should be meeting others’ needs and taking pity on them. Even the main point of Leviticus 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19-21 is missed: It’s not about making people work for their food. It’s about giving up the benefits (our own filled bellies or profit from sales) that could be had by gathering every last bit.
We Christians are guilty of refusing to meet people's needs because it's inconvenient. We’d rather argue about whether someone deserves our help or not instead of feeding and clothing them. We’d rather drag our feet with excuses: “They’ll use it for illegal purposes!” “They’ll buy booze!” “They’re lazy!” We need ways to encourage and teach people personal responsibility. We need workable solutions that allow us to fulfill our duty but also clear our consciences of concerns about not being good stewards with what we have. But while those details are being worked out, we shouldn’t delay in getting the real job done.
*I highly recommend his book A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life.