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In Theory: What is our obligation to help the poor?

Several Republican congressmen have come under fire for quoting the Bible as justification for cutting nutritional assistance to America’s poor.

Congress has moved to slash more than $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — better known as food stamps. In the face of criticism, Representatives Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) quoted a verse from 2 Thessalonians: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”


Several religion bloggers have pointed out that the quote is completely out of context; its author was referring to “ancient Christians who had stopped working in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming.” They have also pointed to the irony of using a biblical quote when, as Rev. Jennifer Butler puts it, “From cover to cover, the Bible is 100 percent clear that God requires us to care for our brothers and sisters in poverty.”

Q: What’s your take on this?



Quotes from the Bible can be used to prove just about anything. As I am always very quick to point out, the book of Leviticus, which many use to support their prejudice against the GBLT community, also supports killing disobedient children. The same sentiment is found in Deuteronomy.

In 19th-century America, slaves read from the same Bible as did their enslavers. Indeed, Ephesians 6:5 says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters....” Yet as a country and a larger society, we moved, and are moving, to abolish slavery all around the world.

In our 21st-century society that still reveres the biblical canon, thinking people study the great book and work ethically to uplift its great themes over isolated texts. The Bible’s greatest theme is culminated in Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew 22:37-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


Throughout the Bible this specific Jesus theme is demonstrated with compassionate groups of people taking care of those less fortunate. In her book, “There Shall Be No Needy,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs asks if Americans, and indeed all civilized society, measure compassion by being servants to other servants, or servants to God. Americans are tender, fierce, patriotic and also compassionate. People cannot continue to die on the streets. Insisting that all children be born, but not that all children be adequately nurtured and nourished, is an incomplete thought process. We must use our resources to take care of the poor.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


I’d agree that Christians have responsibility to aid the destitute, but I wonder why the world thinks they have any responsibility. I mean, if there’s no God, and it’s all just survival of the fittest, then why not applaud Scrooge in his solution that the poor should just die and “decrease the surplus population”?


Now the Bible isn’t silent. Jesus said no less than four times that the impoverished will always be. There’ll never be a time that this world will be absent those in need. Jesus also said that whenever we provide them comfort, he takes it personally, and that’s highly motivating to me. But I wonder about the world, which strives to remove Christ from every public forum, and here we’re talking about making government get all almsy with their tax dollars. 

The world doesn’t wish to support the unproductive. Me neither, as I’m personally aware of many people who won’t work because it’ll ruin their government hand-out qualification; they live on charity and freebies at the working person’s expense. This, everyone despises; but this isn’t every case, and those people who really can’t muster a meal, and can neither do so under a roof, give us Christians, at least, cause for action.

The Bible does say that if you’re unwilling to work, you shouldn’t expect to eat, and there’s no limited interpretation of that. It means that when someone sits idly by, waiting for whatever, with full capacity to meet the immediate need, then it’s really on them. Proverbs 19:15 says “an idle person will suffer hunger.” That’s true, and that’s the abusive state that makes us cringe. However, if we can aid those desiring to contribute, then let’s, as “one nation under God,” teach them to fish, rather than merely give them one, and let’s make the bottom line for America black, rather than red.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


The immediate context of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 was indeed a rebuke of professing Christians who used the imminent return of Jesus Christ as an excuse not to work. Nevertheless, it is an appropriate, timeless application of the underlying truth it teaches to require work from those who are able, instead of giving them a free ride.

God set the pattern for Adam and all of his descendants after his fall: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). Proverbs 14:23 contrasts the God-ordained consequences of work versus sloth: “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Every day God freely produced manna for the Israelites to eat in the wilderness, but notably he caused it to fall “around the camp” for them to rise and retrieve. He didn’t produce it in the pots in their tents. “Seek and you will find” seems to be the working principle here.

By all means, we should regularly help people living in poverty, especially those in helpless situations. “Let our people also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs,” says Titus 3:14. So what are the pressing needs of work-capable people who are unemployed? They certainly need immediate financial help to pay their rent. But they also need marketable skills that help others, and they need jobs. They need the godly dignity of the reward that comes from serving others.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


I have been thinking about this issue of the poor and government’s responsibility for a long time. First, let me say that there is nothing wrong with the idea of fiscal responsibility. However, I must say that there is a certain meanness in some members of the Republican Party, and you see that meanness in the two congressmen quoting Scripture to justify their prejudice against the poor.

Now I am not at all claiming that all virtue rests in the Democratic Party — but I will say that certain Republican officials have an amazing concern for balancing budgets on the backs of those who can least afford it. Are there welfare cheaters? Absolutely. Shouldn’t each citizen, believer or not, show some personal responsibility? Absolutely. But again, there are those Republicans in Washington who want to dismantle Social Security. And the only reason I can think of is that those who would destroy Franklin Roosevelt’s crowning achievement just don’t give a damn about their fellow citizens who happen to be at the bottom of the economic ladder.

As long as I’m putting it to some Republican elected officials, let me also suggest that the meanness that I have mentioned is little more than covered-up racism. You doubt that? Look at what some Southern states, controlled by Republican legislatures, have done: required picture identifications for people of color who have been voting for years. If there had been election shenanigans, I wouldn’t complain; but there haven’t been any, or too few to make a difference. There’s a meanness in some Republican elected officials, friends, and how interesting that that meanness/racism comes from some states that were once in the Confederacy supporting slavery. And then to justify cutting off the poor at the knees by quoting Scripture — ouch! The prophet Isaiah would be spinning in his grave — and so would Jesus, had he remained in the grave.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


Father God is so concerned with the welfare of the poor that the Bible contains more than 2,000 verses about caring for them. God takes our treatment of the poor very personally. “Whoever oppresses the poor insults his maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:31). Jesus went so far as to suggest that caring for the poor, or neglecting to do so, was caring for, or neglecting, him.

Throughout the Old Testament, God gives instructions on how the poor are to be treated. He recognizes that calamity and disaster can befall anyone and so he tells Israel, “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you” (Leviticus 25:35).

God makes it clear that government officials are to deliver justice and assistance to the poor. “May they judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice! May they defend the cause of the poor and give deliverance to the children of the needy....” (Psalms 72:2, 4).

Congress would do well to take note: God has left an indelible example of what can happen when officials do not consider the legitimate needs of the poor. “Now this is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned. They did not help the poor and needy. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16:49, 50b).

I could say more, but I think God has spoken for himself quite eloquently.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


While we’ve pondered this week’s question, Congressional Republicans moved on from denying food to the poorest poor to holding the entire federal government hostage in their 42nd unsuccessful attempt to repeal, defund or cripple the Affordable Care Act.

Not that I would put it past them, but so far I haven’t heard any Bible quotes to justify this hatred of a modest, market-based health insurance reform, a plan which was originally conceived by Republicans.

Back to food stamps, I remind (and I hope some of my believing colleagues do also) that religious texts are not the law of our land.

Nevertheless, I am confident that we could find more biblical support for assisting the poor than for cutting an already minimal program providing a hungry person a few dollars a day for food, and in which almost a third of those eligible aren’t even enrolled because of restrictions imposed by Republicans.

I also challenge the assertion that food stamp recipients are “unwilling to work.” More than 30% of households receiving food stamps have at least one member employed — significant, given that half of those on SNAP are children, another 10% are elderly, and many are disabled.

Representatives Fincher and Craven et al know as well as I do that not everyone desiring work has a job, and that many jobs do not pay a living wage. It is morally bankrupt to use this quote to justify SNAP cuts.

Roberta Medford


Assisting the poor is a central tenet of the Bible and a principle revered by all major religions. We are commanded to help those who cannot afford the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing. The responsibility to help one another is placed squarely upon the shoulders of every single human being. Individuals who are able to give aid to the less fortunate should consider themselves blessed to be among those giving, rather than asking.

On behalf of taxpayers, the United States government assists its destitute citizens by creating programs such as food stamps. Like many government programs, this one is not as efficient as it should be, and many people fall between the cracks of bureaucracy and go hungry. And of course there are some who abuse the system and take advantage of the inefficiency inherent in large programs of this kind.

When it comes to poverty, we must recognize that the government is not the solution to all of society’s troubles. The ultimate responsibility rests upon every single one of us to ensure that those who are truly needy are not left hungry or cold.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the greatest form of charity is to assist a person in getting back on his or her feet so that they can provide for themselves and no longer be dependent on charitable giving or government aid. As the familiar idiom says: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Cente


I can think of some pragmatic reasons for cutting funds dedicated to feeding people, but it takes an amazing display of narrow-minded thinking to use a single quote in the Bible to justify taking food out of the mouths of the poor. That kind of biblical proof-texting is the worst form of hypocrisy that I can imagine, considering the myriad references in the Bible to the obligation of the faithful to provide for those who do not have the means to feed themselves.

The book of Isaiah urges us “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them.”

And in the book of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

I believe providing food, clothing and shelter as the least we can do for those in need. We must go beyond providing the basics and beneath the effects of poverty to the causes of poverty. If we do not do that, we will continue to do only half the job. It is a huge task, but I believe that we can do no less.

As Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale said in the mid-1800s, “I am only one. But still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta