The word “poverty” means “the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support.” It implies a state of privation and lack of the necessities of life. “Absolute poverty,” “extreme poverty” or “abject poverty” refer to the lack of basic human needs including: food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, clothing, shelter, health care, education and information. Relative poverty is a contextual term referring to economic inequality in the locations where people live. Robert McNamara of the World Bank describes “absolute poverty” as this: “…a condition so limited by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.”
In 2008, the World Bank estimated 1.29 billion people world-wide lived in absolute poverty. 400 million of these 1.29 billion people lived in India and 173 million lived in China. 47% of the entire Sub-Shaharan African region lived in absolute poverty. Obviously, statistics change minute-by-minute as new babies are born and people die. However, what remains is this fact: a great portion of our world suffers from the curse of abject poverty and it’s a godly mission to do something about it.
The Bible, particularly the New Testament, has a lot to say to about poverty and money in general. What, then, ought our perspective on poverty and money be? First, Jesus in Matthew 26:6-13 said we will always have the poor among us. Keep in mind the context of Jesus’ words was to his disciples who had complained when a woman poured on Jesus’ head a very expensive jar of alabaster perfume equivalent to a year’s salary…rather than selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor. Huh? Why did Jesus disagree? And, why would Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”? Could it be that Jesus’ interest in the heart of the woman in that moment of beautiful abandon of all her earthly possessions, was of higher value to him than the cost of the perfume?
Or, do you remember the story of Cornelius in Acts 10:1-7? Here is an excerpt:
“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, ‘Cornelius!’ Cornelius stared at him in fear. ‘What is it, Lord?’ he asked. The angel answered, ‘Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.'”
Cornelius, according to the story, valued God above earthly possessions and with abandon shared what he had with the poor. The Lord received these gifts as an offering (as if Cornelius had given them to God himself), and responded by sending Peter to convey the full Gospel message to a man whom the Jews considered “unclean.” According to God, however, Cornelius had nothing in him which held him back from receiving the miracle of salvation.
This story of Cornelius stands in contrast to the rich young man seeking salvation in Matthew 19:21-24:
“Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Money and resources have the power to bring situational change. However, they also have power to hold captive those who possess them, like the case of the rich young ruler. Greed, selfish motivation, control, manipulation, inability to properly manage one’s affairs, etc. all have the potential to raise their ugly heads when one fails to approach his/her possessions with a heart of “giving it all to the Lord.” Money, regardless of having it in abundance or in lack, is often a pathway the Lord uses to reach our hearts. There is a work he is ready to do in the heart of every person, rich or poor, who calls on his name. To the rich, it is a work of freedom from those sins and life experiences that cause him/her to hold fast to all he possesses. And, to the poor, a work of freedom from those things which hold him/her in a cycle of poverty. Both the rich and the poor need the work of Christ’s redeeming grace in their lives.
When the heart is healed and money held in its proper place, we begin to see miracles happen. For Cornelius, it was the miracle of salvation. For the widow in 2 Kings 4:1-7 who was deep in debt and facing the enslavement of her two sons, it was the miracle of unceasing multiplication to completely meet her needs. Or, how about the little boy in John 6:9-14 who offered his small lunch of five barley loaves and two fish? Jesus used this small offering to feed a crowd of 5,000 men (not including an equal number of women and children) and sent those people home with a firsthand account of his message. These 10,000+ eye witnesses of Jesus Christ, carried this miracle story home in their bellies and the message of salvation spread like wildfire.
With all these thoughts in mind, the proper perspective on money, resources and even time is complete abandonment to Jesus Christ. He is the creator of all things, the one who feeds the sparrows and who calls kings to account. When our trust and hope is in him, provisions flow and his work multiplies. This is how we approach poverty. Money alone will be consumed. Money in combination with the heart work of Christ is freedom and salvation. We do what we do to end suffering outwardly and look to Christ for the inward heart-healing to end the deep rooted cycle of poverty. We cannot separate the two.
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