Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Obligation to Help the Poor and Needy--Part I--George's Post

[Note:   For the last several weeks I have been reviewing the obligation each has to help the poor and needy.   This will be the first of a number of blogs on this topic.   Much is required of those who have the means to help.   So it is easy to have one's conscience pricked when reviewing the scriptures about helping the poor and needy.]


I.           Obligation to Help the Poor and Needy

A.   Living in Malawi forces one to think about one’s duty to help others

No person of good conscience can live in Malawi without thinking hard about the obligation of us all, including the wealthy, to help the poor and needy.   But it is not just about helping the needy in Malawi—though there is obviously much that needs to be done here—it is also about what obligation each of us has, wherever we may live, to help the poor and needy in our midst.   Should we help our neighbors, take in children in need, give to beggars on the streets, support local charities, volunteer time to help at local clinics, hospitals or orphanages, or contribute to churches and NGOs?   And, if so, how much should we help and in what ways?  
As one thinks about the needs of the poor, many questions come to mind:  what moral obligation does one have to help?   How much should each do?   Do the rich have a greater obligation to help than those of modest means?   Do the rich have an obligation to dispose of all their excess to help the poor and needy?    What is the best thing that one might do?   How can one remain sensitive to the challenges of the poor, without being overwhelmed or becoming callous or hard hearted?

B.   What is the obligation to help?

1.    “Ye shall impart of your substance to the poor”—Each man’s obligation

Each man has an obligation to care for the poor and needy.[1]   God imposes the obligation upon all—from the poorest of the poor to those whose wealth is like unto Solomon of old.   No one is exempt, not even those who are so poor that they can scarcely fend for themselves—of them, the Lord expects at least a charitable attitude—“if I had, I would gladly give.”[2]    The obligation is not to “think” about giving to the poor, or to amass wealth for the purpose of giving to the “poor” sometime in the future, or to manage assets prudently; the obligation is to “impart” of one’s substance—thereby showing to the Lord that charity is more than lip service, and demonstrating that the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth is more important than any other objective that one might conceivably pursue and for which money might be used.
From a gospel perspective, the obligation of each to help the poor and needy is quite simple and, of the several formulations in the scriptures, this may be the most succinct: “I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as the feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.”[3]    
It is certainly fair to ask as to how seriously each of us takes this obligation.   It is very hard not to take it seriously when one lives in Malawi, for the simple reason that the needs of the poor are so compelling.   Invariably the needs of the poor go to the very basics of life—food, shelter, basic health care, security, and often there is literally no one there to help.   Of course, without help, Malawians can usually find some way to get by, but that does not mean that the circumstances are good—often they do without medical care, live in pitiful conditions, tolerate pain, and go without food, almost to the point of starvation.[4]    In contrast, in the United States, the needs of the poor are generally not as visible or pressing:—no one is going to starve; the country has a broad public safety net to address many of the poor’s most chronic needs; and, the evidences of poverty do not seem to be so pervasive and deep.    

2.    “Every man according to that which he hath”—Giving Out of Each’s Abundance

(a)  Several Different Formulations

One will look in vain in the scriptures for a single comprehensive statement of precisely what portion of one’s possessions or time should be dedicated for the support of the poor and needy.   The scriptures contain several different formulations of the obligation, some more generic than others: men should be free with their substance, that [others] may be rich like unto them;[5] men should impart of their substance, “every man according to that which he hath;”[6] men should “take of the abundance which I have made,” and impart his portion, “according to the law of my gospel.”[7]   The most extreme statement, which many likely consider an “outlier,” is found in the account of the young rich man coming before Jesus, who was asked to “sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”[8]   It is also a great mistake to think of “substance” in strictly material or money terms.   Men are to help others address both their temporal and spiritual needs and to share themselves and their talents in giving aid.

(b)  Keys to Defining Men’s Obligation

While it is not possible to provide a definitive answer to the extent of the obligation, various scriptures do provide several “keys,” which, if parsed together, help one understand what the Lord expects:
(i)                Proportionality”—In Mosiah 4: 16, men should impart of their substance to the poor, “every man according to that which he hath….”   The obligation is not a fixed amount, nor is it a fixed percentage of one’s assets or income.   Nor is it specific percentage of one’s time or other resources.    It is not tied to or dependent upon what others might be asked or expected to give.  Instead, it is calibrated according to the individual’s capacity to help the poor.    Those with the greatest capacity to help are those from whom the Lord expects the most.   Less is expected from others, varying upon their respective capacities to help.[9]  
(ii)                 Out of their Abundance”--- Each man is expected to give “out of the abundance” with which he is blessed by the Lord.   In D&C 104: 18, men are impart their portion out of “the abundance which I [the Lord] have made.”[10]    Before supporting the poor, men are expected to provide for the basic needs of themselves and their families[11] and to obey the financial laws of the Church—fast offering and tithing.    It is not unreasonable to read into the concept of “abundance” a “net” concept—i.e., it is what one has after satisfying basic needs and the requirements of the Lord’s financial laws.
(iii)             Order”-- Order is to be followed in all things, including helping the poor.  Men are expected to be diligent, but are not required to run faster than they have strength.   “And see that all these things [i.e., helping the needy] are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.   And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.”[12]
(iv)             Stewardship” – When speaking of the United Order, practiced only during the early days of the Church, the Lord pronounced that “all thing therein are mine,” and that it was His purpose to use such property to provide for the saints.[13]   To order to do so, the Lord appointed “stewards” of such property, accountable to him, tasked with administering the property prudently for the benefit of themselves and others.[14]   Through this process, the poor “shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.”[15]
You will note that we have not included as basic principles the “equalizing” of wealth among the saints or requiring the sacrifice of all property.   While each may have had a place in the Lord’s kingdom, they are not generally seen as being required of saints in the modern Church.

(c)   Giving Out of One’s Abundance

As noted above, in the modern Church, men are expected to be self-reliant—providing for themselves and their families—and to obey the Lord’s financial laws—paying tithing and giving generous fast offerings.   The balance of what they own is their “net abundance,” and it is out of their net abundance that they are to help the poor and needy.    What makes “net abundance” tricky is that there are three somewhat amorphous categories of expenses, which can balloon, virtually eliminating any “net abundance” for use in helping the poor and needy: first, living expenses—most families experience creeping lifestyle expenses over time; second, savings for retirement—it is prudent to provide for the retirement years, but some families save so aggressively for those retirement years, largely for the purpose of maintaining lifestyles far beyond what one needs for basic necessities; and lastly, savings for future uncertainties.   Unless these expenses are reined in, or careful monitored, they can escalate, effectively eliminating any excess that the families might otherwise have available to help the poor and needy.

(d)  Giving Out of Our Abundance—Common Principles

The tests enumerated above are consistent with several commonly-held beliefs.    First, all that we have comes from God—in that sense, we are all beggars[16]—and we should be prepared to give of our excess or “net abundance” to help others.   Second, where more is given, more is expected.   And last, because we give out of our excess or “net abundance,” it is a commandment that we have the capacity to obey.      As our means change over time, our capacity to give aid is corresponding adjusted, never becoming an oppressive burden weighing us down, sapping us of the incentive to create more wealth or to be more industrious.
The Lord does not say that men must give all of their net abundance “away,”   but rather that they should give out of their net abundance, and in proportion to their capacity to give, thus asking all to share a proportion of the load for charitable care to the poor.   As with many commandments, the Lord leaves it to the good will of men to exercise their agency to be obedient.    Men are commanded to love another, to care for each other, and succor those in need, without quantifying how much love, care or support is enough.   Those most obedient and faithful will receive the richest rewards.[17]

3.    Without “charity it profiteth me nothing”—The Importance of Real Intent

God judges men not just by what they do, but also by the intentions of their heart.   It is not enough to do the right thing; one must do the right thing for the right reason.   “For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.”[18]  Some may find this standard to be too exacting, but it hardly comes as a surprise.   Jesus was ever concerned with the “inside” of the cup as opposed to the outside of the cup and of the platter;[19]  the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law;[20] and, what is in man’s heart rather than outward appearances of genuine piety.[21]   As relates to charity, God gives credit for charitable acts only if motivated by a genuine charitable motive.   Hence the Apostle Paul says:  “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and I give my body to be burned, and have not charity it profiteth me nothing.”[22]  When men help the poor and needy, they must do so out of a genuine love toward their fellowmen—coupled with patience, kindness, and a lack of vanity and self-righteousness.[23]  God will not reward the appearance of charity, but only true charity.   Hence, Jesus says: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.   Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.   Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.   But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”[24]   One cannot buy one’s way into the kingdom of God.[25]   It requires developing the attributes of “charity,” and allowing such charity to take shape through acts of charitable kindness.




[1] Christians are under a general obligation to love one another and the existence of such love is touted as evidence of true discipleship.   What this means is given further color in the statement that men should love their neighbors as themselves—identified as the second greatest commandment.  Even if we might have difficulty figuring out what it means to “love one’s neighbor,” few of us have any difficulty knowing how we wish to be treated by others.   The obligation to care for the poor and needy surely stems from the second great commandment.   Each of us, when in need, takes great comfort when another comes to our aid.   Indeed, it is through such acts of compassion that we ourselves learn compassion for others.  
[2] Even those with nothing are asked to have a charitable spirit—whereby they in their hearts say that they would give if they had anything at all.   “And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain form day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give.”   Mosiah 4: 24.  
[3] Mosiah 4: 26.  See also D&C 104: 18, which reads: “Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall,with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.”
[4] Some may argue that Malawians should be left to their own devices.   As long as they can find some way to “get by,” that is precisely what they should do.   Otherwise, charity breds a sense of “entitlement” and undermines self-reliance.
[5] Jacob 2: 17.
[6] Mosiah 4: 26.
[7] D&C 104: 18. 
[8] Matt. 19: 21.
[9] As noted under “Generosity of the Poor; Stinginess of the Rich,” the Lord recognizes the great irony in that the poor are often the most generous, giving even unto their last two mites, while the rich are both stingy and self-serving, looking to “be seen” in their generosity. 
[10] D&C 104: 18.
[11] See, for example, Mosiah 4: 14: “And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked,; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God….,” and also 1 Tim. 5: 8:  “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”
[12] Mosiah 4: 27.
[13] See, for example,  D&C 104: 14-15.
[14] See, for example, D&C 104: 11-14.
[15] D&C 104: 16.
[16] See, for example, Mosiah 4: 19: “For behold, are we not all beggars?  Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind.”
[17] The parable of the sower reminds us that, depending upon faithfulness, some will be rewarded hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirtyfold.  See Matt: 13: 3-9.
[18] Moroni 7: 6.   See also Moroni 7: 8, 10.
[19] See, for example, Matt. 23: 25-28, and Matt.
[20] Scriptures about doing good on the Sabbath.
[21] See, for example, Matt. 5: 21-47.
[22] 1 Cor. 13: 3.
[23] See 1 Cor. 13: 4-8.
[24] Matt. 6: 1-4.
[25] According to the 30th Chapter of Exodus, when the children of Israel were to be “numbered,” every man was to give “a ransom for his soul unto the Lord.”  Exo. 30: 12.   “Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the Lord.   The rich shallnot give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.”