Caring for the poor is a central theme of the entire Bible. In the Old Testament there are gleaning laws that provide for the poor (Leviticus 19:10; Ruth 2:3). In legal disputes neither the rich or the poor are to be treated with favoritism (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15), but the poor must not be denied justice (Exodus 23:5). Jesus came to “preach Good News to the poor” (Luke 4:18). He called the poor “blessed,” and said that His Kingdom belongs to them (Luke 6:20). Jesus himself was homeless (Matthew 8:20). He was originally rich, but Jesus willingly became poor so that through His poverty we might become rich (II Corinthians 8:9). According to James, those who are poor according to the standards of this world are rich in faith (James 2:5), and the Apostle Paul directed that on the first day of the week believers give an offering for the relief of those in need based on their income (I Corinthians 16:2-3).

Some Christians have suggested that care for the poor is the responsibility of the church and not the government. Those who make this claim are almost always quite well off, and object to being taxed to provide social services for those in need. Many of them point to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which they judge to be a complete failure. So let me ask: how has the church done in caring for the poor since the 1960s when Johnson was President of the United States? Has the church fulfilled its responsibility to care for the poor?

There are many excellent examples of Christian care for the poor. Catholic Social Services does a great job providing for those less fortunate. Most Protestant churches can point to benevolent ministries in which they are actively involved, from stocking food pantries to partnering with less fortunate congregations. Denominational agencies such as Lutheran Social Services, the Mennonite Central Committee, or World Renew and para-church agencies like World Vision International have extended Christian charity to the most remote and impoverished places in the world. Thousands of American Christians have sacrificed their own comfort and moved to undeveloped countries to offer medical care, distribute food, or build the infrastructure necessary to provide clean water. Between now and the end of the year, Christians will contribute millions of dollars to benevolent agencies as part of their Thanksgiving Day observance (November 25 in the US) or in gratitude for the gift of a Savior we celebrate on Christmas.

Have we done enough? Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). We (Christians) need to admit the problem of poverty is bigger than we can fix. But have we made care for the poor the priority that the Bible seems to indicate it should be?

Since the 1960s, Evangelicals have largely abandoned the communities where the poor live—the cities. We have built thousands of multi-million-dollar buildings in the suburbs, while leaving beautiful buildings in the central cities (where the poor live), with gorgeous stained-glass windows, virtually empty. I can’t help but wonder, if we really believed that it is the church’s task to meet the needs of the poor, given the extent of the problem, how could we have afforded these fancy new sanctuaries that are used only a few hours a week?

The central teaching of Jesus was love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 27:37-38). Too often blogs like this one, promoting compassion and care for the poor, use guilt to motivate. I confess I have done far too much of that in my own ministry. The Christian faith is not about guilt, but grace. The question is not, “have I done enough?” That is a legalistic question, resulting in either guilt or self-righteousness. The important question is, “Do I love the poor?” If we really love the poor, providing for them will come naturally.

Let’s be honest. The poor are not all that lovable. Homeless people smell. Poverty breeds crime. Those who lack adequate resources suffer undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Many turn to alcohol and drugs to cope. Do I love the poor?

Those who love the poorest of the poor have the heart of Jesus. Churches who love the poor are following the Lord of the Church. When we really love the poor, how their needs are met becomes an irrelevant question. The only thing that is important is that their needs are indeed met.