President Obama recently revealed his plans for new taxes that have been dubbed by conservative commentators as a form of “Robin Hood” tactics: taking from the rich in order to give to the poor.
The plan was met with reactions that ran the typical political gamut, from highly supportive (Democrats) to downright condemning (Republicans).
But what would Scripture tell us about this approach to providing for the poor? Is it the government’s job to make provisions for the poor by taxing the rich? Or is it instead the church that should be providing for the poor while the government focuses on other things? What we will find is that the Bible gives clear direction regarding this issue, but it hits a bit closer to home than many would like.
The Role of Government in the Bible
The Apostle Paul told the church in Rome that authority, namely governmental authority, is instituted by God (Romans 13:1). Why does He institute this authority? Paul tells us that those in authority bear the sword to inflict judgment on those whose conduct is wrong (Rom. 13:4). Peter also affirms this when he says that governing authorities are sent “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). Governments, then, exist to enforce law, punish evil and uphold good. While they may not do the best job of this at times, it is their God-ordained purpose.
Paul continues, telling us why we pay taxes: for government to rule over us in a just way and to maintain order (Rom. 13:6-7). So where does caring for the poor fall in this role of the government? Nowhere. It is not their God-given responsibility.
So why does our government seem to feel that it is their job to take care of the poor? The answer is a painful one: It is because we have neglected our responsibility by saying, “Someone else will do it.” That someone else became the American government, as Christians passively abdicated their responsibility. So, then, whose responsibility should it be?
One might say, “But God commanded Israel to care for the poor. That is proof that government should be caring for the poor.” Yet He did not command the nation to care for the poor; He commanded the individuals in the nation to care for the poor around them.
For example, God commanded His people, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10). This command was a provision for the poor that each individual in Israel was to abide by in order to care for the poor. It was the responsibility of the individual to care for the poor around them, and it manifested itself as the nation caring for the poor when all individuals did their part. But let it be clearly understood: The onus was on the person, not the government.
Fast forward to the church in the first century A.D. Acts 2:45 says, “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
When Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:31), He was talking in the context of the individual believer. Additionally, John wrote, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). Again, this is a statement about the individual. Lastly, James said, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16). Jesus and the authors of the New Testament make clear that each Christian is responsible to care for those in need, not just the corporate church.
Too Close to Home
The church cares for the poor when the individual members of the church care for the poor around them with the resources God has entrusted to them. Jesus made clear that we have been entrusted with resources and will give an account for whether or not we were faithful with what He gave us (Matt. 25:14-30). The biblical precedent for caring for the poor is that the individual believer cannot say, “That isn’t my job. I pay my tithe so the church can care for the poor,” or “I pay taxes so the government can take care of it.” No, the command is clear: Christian, it is your job to care for those around you who are in need.
We are blessed to be a blessing. So the next time you see someone in need, think of how you can be a blessing to them — instead of waiting for the government to do it.
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