The Poor: Oppressed or Sluggards

When it comes to aiding the poor, Christians should be on the front lines. All should agree with that. Yet, when we begin to flesh out a definition as to who the poor are, disagreement abounds. Why? Because many who identify with the “poor” are actually not, and everyone seems to have a story to make their case.  As Christians, how do we know truly who, of the poor, to help? 

According to the Bible, there are two categories of poor people. George Grant in his book, In The Shadow of Plenty, states:

“There are the poor who are denied the opportunity to work, and there are the poor who refuse the opportunity to work. The early Elizabethan “Poor Laws,” upon which our social policies in Western Civilization were built until recently, called these the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The Bible calls them the “oppressed” and the “sluggardly” poor. It is critical that we thoroughly comprehend this differentiation if we are to exercise Biblical charity in any measure.”

Lets take a look at who make up these categories and how the Christian is supposed to respond to each (summarized from Grant’s book). 

The Oppressed

The oppressed are the objects of God’s special care (Psalm 146:5-9; 109:30, 31; 140:12; 10:17-18; 103:6; Job 5:11-16)

“When Jesus began His ministry, His attentions were especially devoted to the oppressed. He dwelt among them (Luke 5:1-11); He ate with them (Luke 5:27-32); He comforted them (Luke 12:22-34); He fed them (Luke 9:10-17); He restored them to health (Luke 5:12-16); and He ministered to them (Luke 7:18-23).” When He summarized His life’s work, He quoted Isaiah to include the poor (Luke 4:18-19). 

The Sluggards

“But while the oppressed are the objects of God’s special care, the sluggardly are the objects of His special condemnation.

Sluggards waste opportunities (Proverbs 6:9-10), bring poverty upon themselves (Proverbs 10:4), are victims of self-inflicted bondage (Proverbs 12:24), and are unable to accomplish anything in life (Proverbs 15:19). ‘A sluggard is prideful (Proverbs 13:4), boastful(Proverbs 10:26), lustful (Proverbs 13:4), wasteful (Proverbs 12:27), improvident (Proverbs 20:4), and lazy (Proverbs 24:30-34). He is self-deceived (Proverbs 26:16), neglectful (Ecclesiastes 10:18), unproductive (Matthew 25:26), and impatient (Hebrews 6:12). A sluggard will die for the lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly (Proverbs 5:22-23). Though he continually makes excuses for himself (Proverbs 22:13), his laziness will consume him (Proverbs 24:30-34), paralyze him (Proverbs 26:14), and leave him hungry (Proverbs 19:15).”

The Christian Response to Each

Here is the clear distinction then between·the oppressed and the sluggardly: The oppressed would work, if only they could. The sluggardly could work, if only they would.

This distinction, between those who will work and those who will not, has very important implications for poverty relief. There is the oppressed, or deserving poor, and the sluggardly, or undeserving poor. 

To the oppressed: These are those who are denied the opportunity to work. Charity to the oppressed involves loosening “the bonds of wickedness,” undoing “the bonds of the heavy burden,” and letting “the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6); it involves dividing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into the house, and covering the naked (Isaiah 58:7). It involves transforming poverty into productivity. This involves “education, job training, family counseling, youth rehabilitation, and money management as well as soup kitchens, rescue missions, and public shelters.” Productivity is the only cure for poverty. Labor must be the manner and means of poverty relief. 

To the Sluggards: These are those who refuse the opportunity to work. Charity to the sluggard involves admonition and reproof. There is an obligation to “knock away the props;” it involves “removing crippling entitlements.” “Charity means getting rid of state-run affirmative action programs, subsidies, and give-away schemes, as well as enacting health and hygiene programs. It involves getting rid of all state legislated impediments to labor: minimum wage laws, occupational licensing restrictions, and “closed shop” union regulations. Charity involves honest, tough love. After all, accommodating sin benefits no one.” Handouts are not Biblical. Work is. “Charity to the sluggardly equips and enables him to move beyond dependency, beyond entitlement. 

“According to Scripture, we are to show charity to both the oppressed and the sluggardly, but the charity we show will be different for each: relief to the oppressed, admonition to the sluggardly.”

“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)

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