I don’t know how many times my father said to my brother and me when we were children, “The Lord helps those who help themselves!” In the 40’s and 50’s culture that I grew up in it was a common theme which still survives today as an assumption in our culture, even though I don’t hear it said so much anymore. It’s all about initiative and hard work and the assumption is that helping yourself is the key to success in this life.
Just a few minutes on Google reveals that the same sentiment appeared in Sophocles’ Philoctetes c. 409 B.C. as well as throughout the ages. And a noble sentiment it is—that we are to work hard at providing for ourselves and our families. The trouble with the saying is that today we look down on the poor as not “helping themselves” as we helped ourselves. We judge the needy because they didn’t do the things that would pull them out of poverty. They are lazy or slackers. If only they would work as hard as we do, well then……
But this phrase and the sentiment it expresses is not in the Bible. Instead there is clear instruction in both the Old and New Testaments to help the poor. Jesus certainly in Matthew Chapter 25 makes it clear that we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison, to invite the stranger in and to clothe those who need it. Twice in this chapter he congratulates those who did these deeds(the sheep) and twice he rejects those who didn’t(the goats).
In Ezekiel 16, for example, in the Old Testament, we find this saying, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”[Italics added.] There are a number of references to caring for widows and children throughout the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 68 goes even further, saying that “Father of the fatherless and defender of the widow is God in his holy habitation.”
There is a preferential care in the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament–for the needy, a clear mandate for us to follow this Biblical wisdom. So how do we reconcile the teachings in the Bible with this saying, the Lord helps them who help themselves, which has come from a long lineage of human beings?
We could look at this dichotomy—on the one hand, mankind’s teaching that we need to work hard to meet our needs and not depend on anyone else and, on the other, the helping hand of the Bible to the needy—as both true. Certainly, in my mind, no one is to be dependent on others if they can work and provide for themselves and their families. Or to take the short cut of being a criminal and preying on others. But sometimes, as in pre-modern Europe, the poor never get a chance to work themselves out of poverty, because the system just won’t allow it. And in our country today, there is an economic system that is keeping the poor where they are, low wages, lack of transportation, the high cost of education, the lack of jobs, the lifetime of slogging through life trying to get ahead and its toll on a family. Even the middle class is being squeezed out because of the long transition our economy is in from being manufacturing-based to more service-based.
Along with systemic limitations there are physical and mental ones as well as the damage done to soldiers and how difficult it can be to get your life together when you’ve suffered brain or other physical damage in a war. There is also the reality of homelessness today and how hard it is to make a new life for yourself when you’ve been homeless. So there are situations where our help, our society’s help, is essential to help others “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” another saying akin to the Lord helps them who help themselves.
Two things get in our way of following the Biblical teachings to help the poor. First, our suspicions that people are just lazy and using the welfare system so they don’t have to do anything. And secondly, we are so afraid of becoming a socialist or communist state that we don’t want to help at all. And many of us Christians have adopted this attitude towards the poor in spite of Jesus’ and the Old Testament teachings to the contrary.
It is interesting to me that Europe which didn’t even have a middle class for a long time, just the very rich and the very poor, now has a safety net for all its citizens, not just a type of social security and pension help, but pretty good healthcare for everyone, also. They have institutionalized the Biblical notion to help the poor. Now we threaten to cut our Social Security programs and Medicaid, attack the universal healthcare system, tighten restrictions on who qualifies for food stamps. Rather than require stricter, quicker follow-up on abusers, we would punish all the poor just for being poor.
Our country prefers the more human sentiment of the Lord helps those who help themselves to the Biblical injunctions to help the poor. We lack compassion because of that attitude. We turn our backs on our neighbors and those in need. We expect the churches to make up for our societal indifference. And many churches are maxed out by trying to fulfill what God has asked of them.
What are your assumptions about the poor? Are they just lazy, good-for-nothings? Hard working people trying to make a living and failing? Do you judge them or try to enter into their world and see what it is like? Do you share your own challenges with them or do you not see them as fully human? Have you been poor yourself? Could you get yourself out of that poverty? What did it take? How many people helped you to success? Lent you money? Paid for your education? Gave you privileges beyond your expectations? Do you have a heart for the poor?
How do we want our country to be seen by others? As the richest, most powerful country in the world which ignores the needs of its poor? We have certainly been the most powerful country since World War II. But the way people outside our country look at us is changing, along with our declining dominance on the world scene. We are quicker to fight a war than we are to help our own citizens. We keep immigrants, legal and illegal in limbo for years, using them for our low-paid jobs and not granting them the right to stay even as they contribute mightily to our economy. We are captivated by foreign affairs, right now the Middle East, and ignore our own problems. Is this how we want to be?
We need to keep a balance between the two propositions: the Lord helps those who help themselves and the Biblical injunction to help the poor and needy. Both are right and true. Both need to be honored.
Blessing for the week: May we follow the Biblical injunctions to serve the poor. May we see them as worthy as we are of God’s love. May we not feel separate from anyone because of race, religion, wealth or anything else.
Questions to ponder for the week: What is my attitude towards the poor and needy? Do I look down on them? Or do I see them as my equals? De I reach out a hand to those in need? Why or why not?
If you’d like to see more of By the Waters, check these out:
–There’s a new video up on YouTube: “Why be a Contemplative” ”youtube.com/user/patsadams
–Check out my twitter feed at twitter.com/BTWwithPatAdams
–Check out the “Offerings” at bythewaters.net which links to a CD of guided meditations and a series of booklets on the Life of the Spirit.