My friend, Brian, recently returned from a missions trip to Kenya. He led a group of youth as they supported their Kenyan partner church ministry for two weeks. The Kenyan ministry’s focus was HIV positive mothers in its very poor slum community. They provided food, money, prayer and helped their children—demonstrating the love of Christ in word and deed. Brian and the youth group dove in. They spread the news of the church’s ministry into the neighboring communities.
A week into the trip, Brian had a stirring, even haunting, realization. This Kenyan ministry had become “the cocaine of its community.” He shared candidly with me that these mothers were completely dependent upon the charity, and indirectly on Brian’s church which funded it. Instead of working, these capable women would sit every day at the door of the charity, waiting for the free distributions. As a result, their children saw their moms time-and-again not as providers, but as placid receivers.
The more I study, the more I discover how different the biblical prescription of charity is from my own. Consider gleaning. God’s people were not commanded to harvest the fields fully and give a tithe of their grain away, but rather to leave portions of the fields unharvested. Doing so provided the poor, the widows and the foreigners with meaningful work, sustenance and on-the-spot vocational training. And gleaning was a command for all business owners, not just the wheat farmers.
When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. (Deut 24:20-21)
I believe we have misinterpreted God’s commands to help the poor. Jewish scholars state that woven through the Torah is an understanding that “not all charity is created equal.” They cite that “the greatest level [of charity], above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.” Does this prescription align with the majority of our charitable endeavors? Brian had deep respect that this Kenyan ministry served the “least of these.” But, was this charity in alignment with the biblical model of charity? Were they helping these women…
- To no longer need to receive charity?
- Experience the dignity of honest work?
- Enjoy the blessing of providing for their children?
- Know the joy of giving charitably to others?
In fairness, there are times when the only appropriate response is to freely give things away. The Haiti earthquake and support to the disabled are examples of such. But, barring such exceptions, our long-term aim should always be to help in a way which frees recipients of the need for our charity, “so that they might help others in need” (Eph. 4:28). Well-intentioned charity devoid of this goal can lead to unhealthy dependency and even addiction.