The “undeserving poor”

When you work in Social Ministry you meet people from all walks of life with a wide variety of needs and differences in social belief of how the world should work.  Some have genuine needs with a willingness to work to make things better, and some seem to be locked in a mindset of being entitled to get all they can no matter what it is. I came across the meditation below in “The Little Black Book”, Six-minute meditations on the Passion according to Luke, based on the writings of Bishop Ken Untener. The message addresses questions on this subject that I am sure has crossed many of our minds and the answers; found in Christ’s teachings of Mercy.

Place a child before me with a hungry face and ragged clothes and I jump at the chance to help.

That’s because children haven’t done anything to make themselves one of the ‘undeserving poor” . They haven’t make the bad choices that landed them in this mess. They can’t be blamed for failing to do what they can to help themselves. They can’t help if they are poor. Poor kids don’t make it hard to help the poor. Poor adults who’ve had bad luck don’t make it hard to help the poor.

The “undeserving poor” make it hard to help the poor. They’re the ones who’ve made the bad choices or failed to make any choice at all.  They’re the ones who’ve been helped before and it didn’t help.  They’re the ones who seem to expect others to bail them out, and who hardly say “thank you” when we do.  They’re the ones who seem to take advantage of the system or other people.

But I need to help them anyway.  If I start distinguishing between the deserving and the undeserving poor, I’m finished – at least as far as the Gospel is concerned. Who is really to decide if they are undeserving?

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to help them help themselves. As the saying goes, “Give me a fish and you feed me for a day. Teach me to fish and you feed me for life.” I should always try to help the poor help themselves.  But I need to be careful about metering out my help too carefully. Jesus was never overly careful about metering out His mercy. He was criticized for his “reckless” mercy toward undeserving sinners.

The undeserving poor remind me that something deeper needs to change – whatever it is that makes them feel hopeless and helpless.  I need to address that.  In the meantime, I need to help them, and not be judgmental or overly careful.,

Mental note: If I’m to err, err on the side of largesse;generosity.