Our Lord has a heart for the poor and encourages others to do likewise. (Pixabay/GLady)

The U. S. Census Bureau released its Income and Poverty report for 2016. Median U. S. household income increased for the second consecutive year to a record high $59,039 for 2016 (a 3.2 % annual increase). Married-couple household income increased an average of 1.6 %, and households with no husband present increased 7.2 % (remember it is from a lower base).

Median family incomes increased for non-Hispanic white (2.0 %), black (5.7 %), and Hispanic (4.3 %) households. Asian households saw no significant increase. Median household incomes increased in the South (3.9 %) and West (3.3 %), while the Northeast and Midwest saw no significant changes. Female earnings were 80.5 % of male earnings, which was an increase of 1.1 % from the previous year, and the first time the female/male earnings ratio increased since 2007.

The official poverty rate fell, for the second consecutive year, from 13.5 % in 2015 to 12.7 % in 2016. For children, the poverty rate fell from 19.7 % to 18.0 %. The Census Bureau estimates there were 40.6 million people living in poverty in the United States during 2016 (2.5 million fewer that 2015, and 6.0 million less than in 2014). The poverty rate for most demographic groups fell, with the exception of seniors that were 65 years old and older. Official poverty thresholds range from $12,228 for one person households, to $53,413 for nine or more person households with two minor children.

The Bible has much to say about income and poverty. The word "poor" occurs 160 times in the Old Testament and 38 times in the New Testament. Interestingly, the Old Testament is approximately four times longer than the New Testament — both covenants place almost equal emphasis on the importance of caring for the poor.

Under the old covenant, His people were cautioned to leave part of the harvest for the benefit of the poor and stranger. He instructed Israel to insure the poor receive fair justice. In return, He promised that if they would consider the poor, He would deliver them in time of trouble. If they gave to the poor, they would be honored and would not lack. If they honored God and showed mercy to the poor, they would be happy. He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker.

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap up to the edge of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not glean bare your vineyard, nor shall you gather every fallen grape of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the Lord your God," Leviticus 19:9-10, MEV.

"You shall not turn justice away from your poor in his dispute," Exodus 23:6, MEV.

"Blessed are those who consider the poor; the Lord will deliver them in the day of trouble," Psalms 41:1, MEV.

"He has given away freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn shall be exalted with honor," Psalms 112:9, MEV.

"He who gives to the poor will not lack, but he who hides his eyes will have many a curse," Proverbs 28:27, MEV.

"He who despises his neighbor sins, but he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he,"  Proverbs 14:21, MEV.

"He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who honors Him has mercy on the poor," Proverbs 14:31, MEV.

Our Lord has a heart for the poor and encourages others to do likewise. In announcing that He was the Messiah, Jesus reiterated that one of the reasons He came to earth was to preach the gospel (good news) to the poor. Jesus must have had a habit of giving money to the poor, or some of the disciples would not have assumed that He had told Judas to give money to the poor.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed;" Luke 4:18, MEV.

"Since Judas had the moneybox, some thought that Jesus said to him, "Buy what we need for the feast," or that he should give something to the poor," John 13:29, MEV.

A rich young man came running to the Master and asked, "What shall I do...?"  The young man told Jesus that he had obeyed the commandments since his youth. Jesus loved him. When asked to sell all his possessions, to give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him, the young man left grieving. The man missed his calling because he failed to give to the poor as commanded.

"Then Jesus, looking upon him, loved him and said to him, 'You lack one thing: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come, take up the cross and follow Me.'  He was saddened by that word, and he went away grieving. For he had many possessions," Mark 10:21-22, MEV.

Some disagree as to whether the story of the rich man and Lazarus, told by Jesus, was a parable or historical fact. But regardless, the message of the story is clear; failing to help the poor has eternal implications (Luke 16:19-31).

Under the new covenant, we are expected to do everything in love—including giving to the poor (1 Corinthians 13:3). The Lord loves the poor. God loved us enough to give His only begotten Son (John 3:16). We should love Him by helping the poor, for as we do for one of the least, we do it for Him (Matthew 25:40).

Dr. James Russell is a professor of economics at Oral Roberts University.

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