What Is a Christian’s Responsibility to the Needy and the Sick?
GENEROSITY toward needy persons is a fine expression of the godly quality of love. It was such generosity that John the Baptist urged when he said: “Let the man that has two undergarments share with the man that has none, and let him that has things to eat do the same.” (Luke 3:11) This unselfish action would be one way to demonstrate love for neighbor as God commanded the Israelites: “You must love your fellow as yourself.”—Lev. 19:18.
In the law that God gave to the nation of Israel he made it clear that the poor among them were not to be callously neglected or treated unkindly. He told his people: “In case some one of your brothers becomes poor among you in one of your cities, in your land that Jehovah your God is giving you, you must not harden your heart or be closefisted toward your poor brother. For you should generously open your hand to him and by all means lend him on pledge as much as he needs, which he is in want of.”—Deut. 15:7, 8.
Love is thus revealed in God’s viewpoint of needy persons. As he has generously opened his hand in providing for the needs of mankind, so his people were to open their hands generously to help needy persons among them. This provision was to help a fellow Israelite that suffered some adversity or that had a temporary setback.
Unfair advantage was not to be taken of a needy person by requiring him to pay interest on what was given him as aid, for that would not be opening their hands generously. In this regard God’s instructions were: “In case your brother grows poor and so he is financially weak alongside you, you must also sustain him. As an alien resident and a settler, he must keep alive with you. You must not give him your money on interest, and you must not give your food out on usury.” (Lev. 25:35, 37) To charge interest under such circumstances would not help him but would be selfishly taking advantage of his situation.
Although Jehovah’s instructions to the Israelites pertained to fellow Israelites in need, what he inspired to be written in the Proverbs reveals that the quality of neighbor love was not meant to be narrow but was to extend even to a person that might hate them. “If the one hating you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” (Prov. 25:21) Jesus Christ enlarged on this admonition when he said: “Give to the one asking you, and do not turn away from one that wants to borrow from you without interest. You heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.”—Matt. 5:42-44.
When asked, “Who really is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by relating the illustration of the good Samaritan who saw a wounded man by the side of the road and gave him aid, whereas two others passed him by. He then asked his inquirer, “Who of these three seems to you to have made himself neighbor to the man that fell among the robbers?” After the inquirer acknowledged that it was the one who acted mercifully, Jesus said: “Go your way and be doing the same yourself.” (Luke 10:29-37) Thus Jesus’ followers had brought to their attention their obligation to manifest neighborly goodness even to those who are not fellow believers. This also was pointed out by Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ: “Really, then, as long as we have time favorable for it, let us work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.”—Gal. 6:10.
FAITH SHOWN BY WORKS
The Christian Bible writer James closely associates generosity toward needy persons with evidence of one’s faith by pointing out that faith in divine instruction necessarily reveals itself in what a Christian does. He said: “Of what benefit is it, my brothers, if a certain one says he has faith but he does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it? If a brother or a sister is in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day, yet a certain one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ but you do not give them the necessities for their body, of what benefit is it? Thus, too, faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself.”—Jas. 2:14-17.
So it is an expression of faith for a person to give material aid to a fellow Christian who has need of clothing, food and shelter because of some unforeseen thing, such as a disastrous storm, earthquake, fire or severe financial reverse. To be aware of his neediness and yet merely say to him, “Keep warm and well fed,” without giving him the necessities for his body would not be demonstrating either faith or love. Would not such failure to show love for a Christian brother by aiding him in his time of need be evidence that a person’s faith is dead? John, an apostle of Jesus Christ, wrote: “Whoever has this world’s means for supporting life and beholds his brother having need and yet shuts the door of his tender compassions upon him, in what way does the love of God remain in him? Little children, let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.”—1 John 3:17, 18.
Generosity toward needy Christians is motivated by love and by human compassion. Both qualities have been manifested toward mankind by God, and he encourages us to manifest them toward one another. Out of love a Christian is willing to share his material things with a needy spiritual brother during his emergency, expecting nothing in return. This is urged by God’s Word at Romans 12:13: “Share with the holy ones according to their needs. Follow the course of hospitality.” Such assistance is a temporary measure to help him recover from an unforeseen economic blow.
But when giving such aid, whether to fellow Christians or to unbelievers, he is under no Scriptural obligation to give to a lazy person who seeks to take selfish advantage of his Christian generosity.
There are hordes of professional paupers who are known to use every art of deception so as to appear needy and to stimulate sympathy for themselves. On this point Harlam Gilmore in his book The Beggar writes: “Through a skillful combination of old clothes, facial expressions and real or faked physical defect the beggar presents a picture of distress.” This picture is intended by him to cause human compassion to move people into giving him material support without his having to work. Does the Scriptural principle of generosity obligate a Christian to give anything to such people? A guide for Christian generosity is given at 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.”
In most countries today public assistance through taxation is provided for needy persons. In these lands, persons who beg are often doing so, not because they could not get a job if they really wanted one and not because the government has made no provision to care for those who cannot get employment, but because they have learned that they can get more money in this way.
THOSE GENUINELY IN NEED
Within the Christian congregation of the first century, provision was made to care for the needy widows in its midst who had no means of support and no relatives to help them. Regarding this the apostle Paul said: “If any believing woman has widows, let her relieve them, and let the congregation not be under the burden. Then it can relieve those who are actually widows.” (1 Tim. 5:16) These widows would be such widowed relatives as mothers and grandmothers. Children and grandchildren have a responsibility to help such relatives, as the scripture says: “If any widow has children or grandchildren, let these learn first to practice godly devotion in their own household and to keep paying a due compensation to their parents and grandparents, for this is acceptable in God’s sight. Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” (1 Tim. 5:4, 8) A Christian will fulfill his responsibility to provide for needy relatives, whether by doing so personally or in cooperation with other relatives or by aiding them to make use of governmental assistance available to them.
In most countries today provisions have been made by which taxes are used to give needy people welfare assistance, and a taxpayer has a right to make use of this provision when he is in need of help. Social security and pensions are still other ways that aid is given to persons who are no longer able to earn a living because of age. These and any assistance program provided by tax money can be used by needy persons, but there is still ample opportunity for individuals to do acts of human kindness toward such persons.
VISITING THE SICK
Expressing ‘love for one another,’ as Jesus Christ commanded at John 15:12, also involves visiting the sick. A sick person that is confined to a bed or to his house needs encouraging visits and letters from his Christian brothers and sisters. Visits at such a time show they are interested in his welfare and afford opportunity to give him whatever help they can.
When Jesus gave a prophecy regarding the time of his second presence, he indicated that looking after Christians who become sick is a work of faith. He said: “I was a stranger and you received me hospitably; naked, and you clothed me. I fell sick and you looked after me.” Christians, of course, have not done that directly to Jesus, and so he went on to say: “To the extent that you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:35, 36, 40) This treatment of Christ’s spiritual brothers sets a principle that is a worthy guide for the treatment of fellow Christians.
Loving aid and concern shown to needy and sick persons within the Christian congregation strengthen the bond of Christian fellowship. Kindness shown to persons outside the Christian congregation serves as a recommendation for the truth to which Jehovah’s people bear witness. Following the apostle John’s counsel, then, “let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.”—1 John 3:18; 2 Cor. 6:4-6.
“If I used to hold back the lowly ones from their delight, and the eyes of the widow I would cause to fail, and I used to eat my morsel by myself, while the fatherless boy did not eat from it . . . if I used to see anyone perishing from having no garment, or that the poor one had no covering; . . . if I waved my hand to and fro against the fatherless boy, when I would see need of my assistance in the gate, let my own shoulder blade fall from its shoulder.”—Job 31:16-22.