Theology 101

Does the Category of the ‘Unrighteous Poor’ Even Exist?

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When we talk about poverty these days, there is usually an unspoken understanding that the poor have come to their state through no fault of their own, by and large.

This is undoubtedly true for many people, but we cannot forget that there are also people who are poor because of their own personal shortcomings or unwise choices. The Bible talks about such people on many occasions, and we would do well to take note and not pretend the category of unrighteous poor does not exist.

In one example, Proverbs 1:8-19, a young man is tempted to get rich through theft with other gang members. The consequences of going down that road may be irrevocable, as Proverbs 1:24-28 make clear:

Because I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; and you neglected all my counsel, and did not want my reproof; I will even laugh your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes, when your dread comes like a storm, and your calamity comes on like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come on you. Then they will call on me, but I will not answer.

This is a sobering warning to those who wish to get rich through gang violence and theft.

There is a series of other verses that discuss the unrighteous poor – the sometimes humorous portrayal of the sluggard in Proverbs.

  • The lazy person is always saying “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,” but then “poverty will come in like a vagabond” (Proverbs 6:10-11). A failure to work (like the ant) will lead to a lack of provision when there is need.
  • When the sluggard does overcome habitual inertia, the task is not completed. Having used effort to catch some food, it is not prepared and will inevitably go bad: “A slothful man does not roast his prey” (Proverbs 12:27).
  • The sluggard is so lazy that he “buries his hand in the dish; he is weary of bringing it to his mouth again” (Proverbs 26:15; see also Proverbs 19:24).
  • The sluggard concocts the most outlandish excuses for not venturing out of the house: “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside; I shall be slain in the streets'” (Proverbs 22:13).
  • As a result of this failure to begin a job and complete it, and for avoiding it with frivolous excuses, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing” (Proverbs 13:4).

Paul must have had someone like this in mind when he told the Thessalonians,

For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: If anyone will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread (II Thessalonians 3:10-12).

Just being poor does not thereby make you righteous. There are those who are poor as a result of their own choices or failure to make choices. The unrighteous poor need help, but they especially need to be encouraged to change their way of life.

Read more about poverty and righteousness by discovering what the Bible says about the righteous poor.

Read more about riches and righteousness by diving into the “righteous rich.”

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Further readings on Theology 101

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