Proverbs 22:16 – “Whoever … gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”
The proverb is talking about giving money and the instruction is not to give it to those who do not need it. More than that, do not give it to the rich in the hopes of currying their favour. You will not win their favour, but you will lose your money. I wonder how many ways there are to say that this text does not say what it appears to say, what it obviously says. I wonder if it would be legitimate to apply this to tax laws? As soon as we say that, many people, perhaps most people in North America start waxing eloquent about those who pan handle, receive welfare on a regular basis, or who come to their churches in nice automobiles asking to get into the food bank, clothing bank or simply asking for money. The fact that the proverb says nothing about such people is irrelevant.
There is room for such conversation. The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked and poverty does not eradicate wickedness and deceitfulness. There are poor people who are dishonest, lazy, scheming and manipulative. Many of them have been in the social service system for a very long time and know how to milk it. (Many of them have been in it so long that they do not believe that there is any other choice for them. Some of them are right.) We love talking about this. Get in a circle of pastors and tell one story about someone who came to the church door looking for help who turned out to be lying or not as needy as he made it appear and the conversation will grow legs of its own and all kinds of stories will be told. The implication is that if there are any deserving poor they are in the minority and they certainly never call upon the church. “My church” so it is implied, “only gets cheaters and liars who are better off than I am”.
We seem to love telling stories about people we caught in a lie. Love does not rejoice in evil, so we add the required shaking of the head to express how sad it is that people try to take advantage. But we love recounting such tales. If I tell stories about those who have returned money to us when they got back on their feet (and some have) or speak of those who call and say they are destroying the voucher we gave them because a neighbour helped them instead (and some have done that too), or speak of those we help who are involved in community groups and helping others in whatever ways the can, the conversation is kind of ruined. Nothing like a story about honest poor people to get in the way of the understanding that most of them are lying cheats. I can tell plenty of stories about lying cheats, and some of them are poor.
Last week I turned a man away who came looking for food because he travels to Buffalo on a regular basis to gamble. “I have a gold card for the casino there”, he bragged to me. “Sell your card and buy food with the money”, I responded. He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and bragged about how much he had spent on it (the figure he gave me was a lie), so I told him to do the same thing with the phone as I told him to do with the gold card. “Churches all over the neighbourhood help me” he told me, in an attempt to make me see that I should have as much sense as they do. It didn’t work. I escorted him to the door, asked him to leave and sent him off with nothing. I think I did the right thing. But I also think that if I judge the next one who comes on the basis that he is no better than this guy, I have crossed the line into the type of thinking that gives birth to hate and bigotry and judgementalism based on social status.
But regardless of the pleasure we get from entertaining our friends with tales of the un-needy needy, the proverb that led me to this point is not about churches doling out money to such people. Whatever we may believe about them, none of them, at least none of them in my experience to this point, are rich. So we needn’t worry about coming to poverty because we give to them – even if they haven’t been completely truthful with why they need help. Cut them off if they lie, but please, don’t generalize to all welfare recipients or working poor people because of the cheaters you know. Such over generalizations are the things of which bigotry is born. But we insist that we are not bigoted against the poor. After all, “some of my best friends are poor”.
Wait a minute – no they’re not. None of our best friends are poor. Having someone as a best friend means knowing him. If we really got to know the people who come to our churches for help, then we would know them and their situations somewhat better and we would know who really needs the help we are being called to give. The trouble with so many evangelical churches is that they are so far removed, either geographically or socially, from the needy, that there is precious little chance of getting to know any needy people anyway. It is easy to criticize a whole class of people when we do not know them. That also, is where bigotry is fueled and made to grow. The needy remain anonymous and the anonymity enables us to pretend to know all about them. A complete stranger comes up to the church in a car that I cannot afford and asks me for money for diapers for her baby. I can feel the resentment and anger and a sermon brewing. I want to say to her that if she sold the car and took the bus she might have a couple of bucks to spend money on the things that really matter. If I knew her, however, I might be a little more patient. I might know that the car belongs to her husband, who is more than willing to drive her to the church to get some help because he has spent all their money on this car, lotteries, booze, drugs, and quite possibly, other women. She has asked him for the diaper money, but he will not give it to her. We are her last resort, because since she really is married to the guy, and their income is over the minimum allowable, she can get no government assistance. Sound far fetched? Get to know some of the people who come to you seeking help and you may find out that it is not far fetched at all. Should this woman’s children be punished because of the godlessness of their father? It is a question I will never need to ask if I keep my distance and remain anonymous to those who come to my door and they to me.
We need churches planted in needy communities. We need churches who live in poor neighbourhoods, and not churches who parachute in three times a year to demonstrate just how loving we are. We need Christians who will live in housing projects because that is where our church is, and we need that more than we need to look for a better location for our church. But sheesh, I am off topic again.
The point of the proverb, quoted at the top of the page, is that if you think that giving to the rich will get you something in return then you are in for a rude awakening. We are to work with our hands so that we can have something to share with the poor (Ephesians 4:28). And to take money that God has given us for the poor and give it to the rich so that the rich will like us or return the favour in far greater measure than we were able to lavish it on them, then we are stealing from the poor and misusing the money that God has given us. It is easy to desire the favour of those who are well off. And it is sinful. And it will not make the rich think that they should benefit you. It will just make you out the money that you gave. So don’t be stupid. If you need the money don’t throw it away on contributing to the non-needs of the wealthy. Give it to the poor or give it to causes that will really help them beyond the little bit of food the money would purchase. You know, help them to fish instead of just buying them a fish. In any case, don’t give it to the rich. That would only contribute to your poverty.
And then you’d need to ask others for help.