Option for the Poor

Option for the Poor
Photo Source: Free Images/ Jon Ng

In 1983, a young man by the name of Paul Farmer finished his college degree and applied to medical school. While waiting to see if he would be accepted, he traveled to Haiti to help with relief work. Haiti was then (as it is now) one of the poorest countries in the world, and Farmer soon found himself amongst the sickest and most destitute on the island.

When word came that he had been accepted into the combined MD/PhD program at Harvard University, he didn’t want to leave. He made an unprecedented decision to commute to school. He would study and work in Haiti, then travel to Boston whenever he needed to take a test or participate in laboratory exercises. Despite the grueling schedule, he maintained top grades and finished his dual doctorate in a mere six years.

Farmer went on to specialize in the treatment of infectious diseases, such as HIV and tuberculosis, both of which were rampant in Haiti. His studies and work intertwined in such a way that he soon became a recognized authority on the treatment of those two particular diseases, and his expertise became increasingly called upon in various regions of the world whenever there was an outbreak of either or both.

But his influence was not limited to academics. He talked drug companies into lowering their prices for life-saving drugs by 95%. He found donors to help build schools and provide safe drinking water. He consulted with governments and influenced public policy.

A founding member of the charity, Partners in Health, Paul Farmer was relentless and indefatigable in his efforts to help those most in need. He essentially revolutionized the way health care for the poor is delivered. On BookBrowse.com, his biographer, Tracy Kidder, describes him thus:

I was drawn to the man himself. He worked extraordinary hours. In fact, I don’t think he sleeps more than an hour or two most nights. Here was a person who seemed to be practicing more than he preached, who seemed to be living, as nearly as any human being can, without hypocrisy. A challenging person, the kind of person whose example can irritate you by making you feel you’ve never done anything as important, and yet, in his presence, those kinds of feelings tended to vanish. In the past, when I’d imagined a person with credentials like his, I’d imagined someone dour and self-righteous, but he was very friendly and irreverent, and quite funny. He seemed like someone I’d like to know, and I thought that if I did my job well, a reader would feel that way, too.

The thing that has spurred Paul Farmer on is a concept he calls the “Preferential Option for the Poor.” It is the idea that the poor have a special place in God’s heart.

The poor have a special place in God’s heart.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God is constantly intervening on the behalf of the poor, giving instructions on how the poor should be treated, and promising rewards to those who act with benevolence towards them.

In Kidder’s biography of Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, there is a Haitian proverb: “God gives, but He doesn’t share.” God leaves the sharing to be done by those to whom He has given much.

He expects those He blesses to act as channels of blessing to the less fortunate.

Paul Farmer is one of those extraordinarily rare individuals who have learned to share, both generously and sacrificially. As you ponder his amazing example:

  • Can you think of other individuals who share with the needy in special ways?
  • Do we always agree with the politics or theology of those individuals?
  • Does our agreeing or disagreeing negate the good being done?
  • Can a person with imperfect theology still reflect the image of God when they help others?
  • Who will have a greater influence on the needy, a person with imperfect theology who helps lend a hand or a person with perfect theology who doesn’t?
  • Should people wait until they have their theology completely figured out before they help others?
  • Ideally, we should deal with both the physical and spiritual needs of those we are trying to help. What does the Bible say about addressing spiritual needs without first taking care of physical ones? (See, for example, James 2:15-16) What does Scripture say about focusing on physical needs without giving thought to spiritual ones? (See, for instance, Luke 12:23 and Matthew 4:4)

In John 12:7-8, Jesus points out that there will always be poor people. It is almost like saying that there will always be old people. By definition, someone will always be the oldest or the poorest.

  • Why is poverty always with us? Is it simply a mathematical truism or is it a function of our fallen nature? Is it a natural outgrowth of our free will?
  • Are there things that we can do to alleviate poverty? Can we defeat it completely? Should we continue to try anyway?
  • What are some examples of how we can fight it?
  • Are there things that can be learned from being poor that cannot be learned from being rich?
  • Are there character qualities that can only be developed by helping the poor?
  • Does God seem to have a special concern for the poor? Does the church as whole share that concern? Do we as individuals share that concern?

In these verses, Jesus is discussing the poor with Judas and points out that helping the poor is not the only goal.

  • What are some other goals?
  • Is it possible to get so caught up in serving the poor that one loses sight of other important things?
  • How does one find balance? Is the idea of a tithe useful as a guideline?
  • For most people the tithe is something they have to build towards and strain to achieve. Is it possible that for some, the principle of tithing acts as a restraint to keep them from doing too much? Is it possible to do “too much?”
  • If someone audited you checkbook and your calendar, would they say that you tend to give too little or too much of your money and time to helping others? Is it time to re-examine where you stand?

The poor have a place and purpose in God’s kingdom and a special place in God’s heart. Relative to God, all of us are poor, whether we realize it or not.

Relative to God, all of us are poor, whether we realize it or not.

Whatever our condition, God is at work in our lives and has unique lessons He is trying to teach us through our circumstances. The goal is to discover those lessons, learn them well, and share with others along the way.

If you are interested in knowing more about the above mentioned ministry, please visit the Partners in Health website.

You can also visit the website for Compassion International, which has had a wonderful and distinctly Christian ministry to the poor since 1952.

NOTE: Life's Big Questions: Colossians Study Guide. Great for families!Life's Big Questions - The Gospel of John (Vol. 1) This post is adapted from my Life’s Big Questions Series, which encourages readers to examine all of life’s questions in the light of Scripture. Whether used for personal devotions, as family discussion guides, or in a study group, this series provides an invaluable resource for enhancing your spiritual walk.