Normally when someone asks me a question like that they are trying to figure out the bare minimum they have to do to be biblical and yet still keep as much of their own wealth as possible, but that wasn’t the case here. Sarah and her husband Mark had already given up much in order to come to Belize and serve the poor—more than most would be willing to give up. Rather, I sensed two things.
First, she has seen first-hand how just giving money to the poor can actually do them harm. The help has to be strategic, it has to be respectful of the dignity of the poor, and it cannot foster dependency. Second, there was a recognition of the magnitude of the task. Sarah and Mark had already given up so much, and yet the village of Gales Point was still beset with a deep poverty. (At least in terms of material wealth; they are rich in some significant ways, but that’s the topic for another article.) If she and Mark gave up much more they would be as poor as the rest of the village and would require the very help that they came to render.
I told her that part of the problem was how we think and talk about the poor—specifically, how we keep calling them “the poor.” By doing so we define them as “not-us.” They are the “other” and we are the “us”, they are “the poor” and we are the “not-poor”. However you define those people who are part of your “us,” we always take care of “us”. My wife Pam is part of my “us”, as is my daughter Angela and my son Austin. I can’t imagine putting a limit on how much I am willing to come to the aid of any of them. If they need me, I'm there.
Not so for anyone who is not a part of my “us”. I’ve always felt it was my obligation to provide for my children’s education to the best of my ability, but I don’t feel the same obligation to someone else’s children. While most of us are willing to help someone who is not part of our “us”, there is a limit. There is a limit to how much we feel obligated to help someone who is “other” that does not exist when it comes to our “us”.
In other words, it comes down to community—who is part of our community and who is not. The poor referred to in the Old Testament were almost all Israelites, and the prophetic condemnation we read is toward rich and/or powerful Israelites. They were condemned for not taking care of some of their own community, for treating their fellow Israelites as “others”. Israelites were supposed to take care of each other, yet these were exploiting other Israelites.
Then Jesus takes the concept of community up a notch. In Jesus’ view, there are no “others”, only “us’s”. So he tells the story of two Israelites to treat their fellow Israelite, robbed and lying unconscious on the side of the road, as an “other” toward whom there are limits to their willingness to give aid, and the ultimate “other”, a Samaritan, who treats the beaten Israelite as an “us”. And he asked, “Who is my mother and my brothers” i.e. who is my “us”, and he said that everyone who does the will of God is part of his “us”. In another parable Jesus said that when you’ve helped “the poor”, “the sick”, “the imprisoned”—all terms of “otherness”, you’ve helped Jesus himself. And since we all want Jesus to be part of our “us”, he’s declared that all these are part of our community of “us’s” as well.
In the Kingdom of God, there are no “others” only “us’s”—and we all know enough to take care of everyone who is an “us”.