Jesus healed the sick everywhere he went. He had the power to feed the poor, as we know from the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000. Other than those two meals, though, there is no sign that he did anything to directly take care of their needs. “The poor you will always have with you,” he said.
Why did he do one but not the other? Would it have been that much harder for him to solve a few thousand poor people’s problem than it was to heal a few thousand? A miracle is a miracle, after all.
Well, no. Some miracles take more time than others. It’s one thing to straighten a limb; it’s another thing to straighten out a heart. I’m no expert on this, but it seems to me that “healing” the poor takes much deeper and broader work than healing the sick. And it’s work that Jesus did not neglect; in fact, it was very close to the heart of what he accomplished on earth.
Poverty is both an individual and a systemic problem. Barring tragedies like flood, blight, drought, or the like, there’s plenty of food and shelter to go around for everyone. Poverty is therefore mostly a matter of distribution. This, I believe, is uncontroversial. Of course where that statement leads is extremely contentious, for there have been a lot of different and contradictory solutions proposed to the distribution problem. State-managed redistribution was a favorite of the Communists, and to varying lesser degrees, also of Socialists, Progressives, liberals, and so on. More conservative types favor keeping that initiative out of government’s hands, and leaving it to the caring intervention of individuals, churches, and other local initiatives that can give life coaching and help beyond just dollars.
The great danger of state-managed redistribution is that it concentrates great economic power in the hands of a few. It can be argued quite credibly that it amounts to stealing from the rich to give to the poor. And it doesn’t do much to break the character- and skill-based aspects of the poverty cycle.
The great danger of individually and locally managed redistribution is that it won’t happen at all—conservatism can be cover for selfishness—or that it will happen haphazardly.
Both approaches have their negatives, and not just the ones I’ve named here, though they are the major ones in my mind.
Into this mix we add the mission and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ first sermon recorded by Luke, possibly his first first sermon in all his public ministry, is found in Luke 4:16-20:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
He was quoting from Isaiah 61 here, and his listeners would have known how this passage fit into Isaiah’s overall message of compassion for the oppressed and needy. See also Isaiah 58, for example.
There is so much to be said about this rich passage! All I want to do with it here, however, is draw from it an answer to the question I posed above: what did Jesus really do for the poor?
And the answer is that he changed hearts. He still is. He had “good news” to the poor, and he announced liberty for the oppressed. All this, he said, was fulfilled in him.
History bears this out. Compassion, it has been said, was a Christian invention (Alvin Schmidt in How Christianity Changed the World); and while Isaiah and other prophets might dispute that, the Greco-Romans hardly could have. Thomas Woods sets up his question, “Who Invented Charity?” by showing how bad things once were:
According to W. E. H. Lecky, who was frequently a harsh critic of the Church, there can be “no question that neither in practice nor in theory, neither in the institutions that were founded nor in the place that was assigned to it in the scale of duties, did charity in antiquity occupy a position at all comparable to that which it has obtained by Christianity. Nearly all relief was a State measure, dictated much more by policy than by benevolence, and the habit of selling young children, the innumerable expositions [abandoning or “exposing” infants to their death], the readiness of the poor to enroll themselves as gladiators, and the frequent famines, show how large was the measure of unrelieved distress.”
Widows, for example, were on their own in much of Greco-Roman culture, and usually with no income; unless they could re-marry, at which point if they had any inheritance they were often required to turn it over to their new husbands. One emperor even fined widows who did not remarry inside of two years. By way of contrast, care for widows was high on the church’s agenda from the very beginning (Acts 6). The church in just one city, Antioch, cared for as many as 1,500 widows at a time.
Ancient Greco-Roman culture was calloused toward the needy in ways we can hardly imagine. You can find examples of it in Plato and Aristotle, and in the actions of historically honored men like Asclepius (possibly mythical, but the attitudes written about him were not) and Galen (certainly historical). We have forgotten whence our care for the poor and oppressed has come. We are a culture shaped by Jesus Christ. Not fully shaped by him, obviously, but to an extent greater than many of us recognize.
Responsible research today shows that religious believers lead in compassion. We give much more of our own money and our own time to the poor than any other group. In my local county, the Food Bank for the poor is run by a church. The Rescue Mission for homeless men is run by Christians from multiple churches. There is a similar Christ-centered service available for women. Not only do they feed these centers needly men and women, they also give them long-term life coaching to equip them to take care of their own needs. The free medical clinic is run by Christians. I could multiply stories like these over and over again, in city upon city.
Jesus knew that solving the problem of poverty would take much more than a year’s supply of food—or even a lifetime’s worth—for a few blessed families. It would take overturning cultures, by overturning hearts. And this is where he did his best and greatest work.
I do not mean to oversimplify the issue. I do not my any means intend to denigrate what an unbeliever like Bill Gates is doing, giving away a huge percentage of his billions; and there are others like him (though with a lot less money to give) This is not a one-dimensional issue. It’s not solved yet by any means: we still have the poor with us.
But we can at least see that Jesus really did bring them good news. It would take some years for his work of changing hearts to percolate through culture, but the more it has done so, the more the poor and oppressed have been set at liberty.