As a Christian, and even more so as a pastor, I feel an obligation to assist the poor. Support for this obligation can be found in Matthew 6, Matthew 25, Romans 12, Leviticus 19, and many more.
Each time I am unable to help, I question if I should have just given out of my own pocket. Sometimes, I do. Sometimes I rationalize my inability to give. "Our church is small at 15 or so and just now refocusing our efforts. We can barely pay the bills we have." Then there is my personal excuse, "I have bills of my own and the church isn't really able to pay me very much. Sometimes I need help myself."
I think it is clear that we are to help those who are in need. If it is clear that a person is in need, then lack of resources is not a question. We give trusting that God will supply what is needed to give. I can do that. I have done it and have witnessed God's faithfulness. So really, the excuses of having enough money or food available to help isn't really the question.
The true issue; the big question that causes me so much heartburn is this: "If I help this person, am I helping or hurting?" I mean I have a big heart and I would give until I had nothing to give if it helped a person. I trust that if I am doing God's work then God will continue to provide what I need to do what He desires to accomplish. But what if my giving enables a person to continue to be poor? Am I causing harm by allowing them to rely on help rather than assisting them in becoming self-reliant?
I believe the issue really falls into two categories. Assisting the stranger who is passing through and assisting your neighbor. When a stranger is in need we really have no idea what will become of them and if they will use what we give wisely or not. In our world today the stranger might need gas money, or food, or a place to spend the night as they travel onto their destination. In order to direct our resources towards their specific claim of need we often will pay for the gas directly, buy their meal, or give them food, and pay directly for the motel rather than giving them money which could be spent on items that we find to be less beneficial or are not tied directly to their claim of help. Often, it is easier to give to the stranger. Matthew 25:35 makes specific mention of helping strangers and in doing so helping Jesus. Often the amounts required to help strangers are smaller and once they are gone we are free of obligation for their well being.
The primary category that causes the largest issues and the most struggle is helping our neighbor. What do we do if we help our neighbor and they continue to need help? How many times do we give? Do we give our last bit of food to the neighbor who asks for food repeatedly and never attempts to get a job so they can be self sufficient? Do we have a responsibility to help the poor no longer be poor? What about the poor who are poor because of their actions versus those who are poor due to circumstances outside their control? The problems multiply when they are our neighbors because we know more.
I believe that the answer lies in the fact that we are to love our neighbors. If we give out of obligation then we try and act in such a way that removes us from responsibility for the person in need. We are willing to give to a point or to sacrifice to a point to be worthy of what Christ expects from us. But loving our neighbors removes all limits and all sacrifices. We are required to continuously do whatever is necessary to love them. We are never done. If we love our neighbor then the question no longer lies in what is minimally required. Our quest is to assist the person or family to become whom God created them to be. The question of what resources to provide lies not in the requested need, but rather in what will help them be who God desires them to be.
There might be a situation where a person asks for help and I do not give it. It should not be a quick decision but should be one built upon my knowledge and relationship with the person. Many churches and organizations require people to fill out questionnaires and limit how often they will assist a person. I think this is the wrong approach. I am called to love. If I love this person then I must be interested in them as a person and not just meeting certain criteria in order to give. I need to know what situation this person is in and find out where their need truly lies. Once I know them and I know their difficulties, I may come to know that providing the assistance they request would be more harmful than helpful. But my responsibility does not end there. I must seek permission from the person to help them become who Jesus desires for them to be.
Ultimately any time someone in need requests help, my responsibility is to discover what needs to happen to assist them in obeying Jesus. The poor are important. Through the poor we are able to see God work because the need for God is made clear as man's solutions are revealed to be ineffective. God doesn't ask us to give out of our abundance. That is just masking the issue and gives us a false sense of accomplishment. God asks us to love and take care of the poor. It is in the act of loving that Jesus is revealed.
As we build the Kingdom of God in our communities, may we be willing to love. As we assist the poor, may we do more than provide temporary relief. May we invest in revealing Jesus and assist them to be who God created them to be even if that is a believer who has fewer resources than many. This isn't about giving once a week at the food bank and checking it off your list. This isn't about having a big weekend where your church cleans yards or paints houses. This is about paying attention each day to those who are around you and then trusting that God will give you what you need to stop, pay attention, and love your neighbor in whatever way they need to be loved.