What Jesus Meant When He Talked About 'the Poor'

“She’s serving in the Congo with the poorest of the poor.”

I cringe every time I read a line like that. It’s not that I dislike the people or the work being done to serve them in marginalized places across the world—it’s the epithet “the poorest of the poor.”

The phrase “poorest of the poor” characterizes people living on 54 cents a day or receiving less than 80 percent of minimum caloric intake. That’s about two tablespoons of peanut butter and an apple per day for most women. We have all seen the emaciated faces of children who face this sad and broken reality across the world. We should cringe when we see those numbers and pictures; especially knowing how clear scripture is to care for the needs of the poor.

But I fear we have fallen into a narrow definition of poverty in living out Jesus’ teachings.


In Matthew 5, Jesus tells His disciples, “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” He goes on to describe other ways people who are hurting, persecuted or seeking peace will inherit the Kingdom of heaven.

When I read those words, I think about people living in economic poverty, but I also think about the depressed college students I’ve worked with over the years who believe their only option to end their pain from broken relationships or pressure to succeed is to commit suicide.

I think of the hollow and artificial lives of wealthy women searching for fulfillment in the latest shade of lipstick when they visit my sister at the posh makeup counter where she works. I think of the single mother caring for a special needs child who feels alone, afraid and wonders how she’ll pay her bills when she sits alone at night.

I think of the career-aged guy who comes home from work to microwave another meal, drink some PBR’s and play Xbox or any number of flashy toys that have caused him crushing debt until he crashes in bed for the night wondering “is this all there is to life?”

The phrase “poorest of the poor” invites images of refugee camps, emaciated children in Kenya and people collecting water from a river where human waste floats nearby. The Church needs to be obsessed with these people, and we have been far too apathetic to their plight.

But we have also been apathetic to the plight of the spiritually and emotionally poor. The phrase “poorest of the poor” should also bring to mind the images of the people described above—people like the ones you interact with everyday.

It is essential to care for the needs of those in physical poverty. And it is essential to care for the poor who are spiritually bankrupt.

Let’s admit it—it’s pretty trendy and hip to serve the poor. Justice has become cool. But it’s not considered hip and trendy to share your faith. I’m guessing that when some of you hear the word “evangelism,” you recoil with horror of the thought of being a stereotype of one of “those kind” of Christians (complete with a bad polyester suit and a comb-over).

It’s an amazingly wonderful thing that justice, a core value of Christianity, is now cool and attractive to people far from God—that even non-Christian friends nod with approval when we tell them about our church sponsoring hundreds of children in need through Compassion International. But where do they go from there? How do we connect them to Jesus—the source of life, mercy, justice and love?

Jesus said, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” When people far from God begin to seek Jesus as their only source for life, hope and deliverance, they are blessed. They are blessed because Jesus offers them more than they can hope for through a relationship with Him and His people.

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There are many forms of poverty that exist in the world and around us everyday. It’s even likely that you work, attend classes or drop your kids off at school with people who could be considered to be the “spiritually poorest of the poor” in your community. The question is whether we’ll speak about friendship of Jesus with love, boldness and hope to these people.

Just as we can’t neglect physical poverty in our communities and around the world, we can’t neglect the spiritual poverty we see around us every day. We have a choice to love people far from God. Jesus can give us boldness to tell others about Him and believe that we won’t sound like a cheesy salesperson if we do.

Visit your depressed friend rather than sending her a text message. Offer to pray for a colleague when he tells you how stressed he is about money. Or get crazy radical and invite that friend who’s mentioned they saw you going to church to come with you or to explore the teachings of Jesus with you to see if what He said was legit.


One of the best ways I’ve seen this happen is with InterVarsity students in New England who have been serving communities affected by Hurricane Katrina for the past eight years and inviting their non-Christian friends to do the same thing. Studying the teachings of Jesus as well as hauling garbage out of destroyed homes helps their friends “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

It has demonstrated to their non-Christian friends that not only are they serious about following the teachings of Jesus to love others tangibly, but also they initiate and are willing to talk about the life implications of following Jesus for themselves and others.

To speak the good news of Jesus’ kingdom as well as live it out in tangible ways offers hope for the poorest of the poor whether spiritual or physical. It’s uncomfortable, risky and faith stretching, but it’s worth it. In Matthew 5, Jesus goes on to teach “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” When we share Jesus with others, we too are filled with love and gratitude that when we were poor in spirit He invited us into life with him.

That’s worth sharing.

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