Our neighbor George recently pointed out that in this national presidential election year there have been some interesting and disturbing comments regarding the poor. Some have offered compassion, while others have been critical, saying the poor are lazy and all they want is another government handout.

Some politicians who claim to be Christ followers want to cut off food aid for those who are unemployed and cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps); deny there is value in increasing the minimum wage; fail to recognize that we need a national health care system for all, including the poor; have a negative attitude toward things like long-acting contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancies; and generally believe that poverty is shaped and fueled mostly by cultural forces or by bad personal choices. The poor are almost seen as inferior or even as the enemy.

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Why don't the poor just get a job, the critics ask. There are plenty of jobs if they only wanted to work. Actually, many of the poor do hold minimum-wage jobs. You can't live on one entrance-level job, so it takes more than one. What, then, do you do for child care, and what kind of home life is created when no parent is home and children simply care for themselves? The question and the answer is not simple.

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, God values the poor and wants those in need to be helped by us. For example, we are told when you harvest your crops leave some for the poor and the alien (Leviticus 9.9-10). Or "speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy" (NRSV Proverbs, 31.7-8).

Jesus identified with the poor, the hungry and those who were needy. Actually, he put himself in their place. That is a revolutionary act! In Matthew 25.31-46, he made it very clear that how we treat the poor is how we treat him. If we don't see Jesus in the poor, is it possible that we don't see Jesus at all? Christian Scriptures capture the same theme: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 John 2:17). We have not only a moral obligation to help those who are poor, but a biblical one as well.

We are blessed in our community to have good resources to help those in need. At the same time, we are called to donate our finances or volunteer our time. (By the way, if you are donating money it is important to know where your money is going by raising the question of what percentage actually reaches the poor.)

There are serious issues that have to be dealt with that relate to poverty and the poor. Often, those in poverty are there because of bad choices they have made, such as choosing self-destructive behavior rather than recovery. There are those who are caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty or, worse, generational poverty. How does someone move from being dependent on a safety net to becoming self-reliant? How does a high-quality education fit into the poverty dilemma?

At the same time, there are myths about the poor that are not true, such as the poor are lazy and don't want to work, or the poor are thieves who just want to milk the system, or their moral character is so bad that no number of programs will ever help.

The truth is that most people who are poor struggle to make ends meet. Most poor families or individuals have either limited or no resources, a lack of connections or a strong educational training, and often work harder and financially earn less. Getting stuck in poverty is often not because of a lack of effort, but rather because of a lack of opportunity. In a nation where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, moving from being poor to being prosperous is almost impossible — and yet we call it the "land of opportunity."

Where do we go from here? Holy Scripture teaches us that the poor are loved by God and we have a biblical command to follow suit. Jesus was highly criticized by the "good people" because he had fellowship with the outcasts, the poor and the marginalized. The poor are just like you and me. They and we are not homogeneous. We, like they, come in different shapes and sizes and backgrounds. They, like we, cannot simply be lumped into one pigeonhole. Is it possible that "they" and "we" are one?

Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis "Lou" Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.

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