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It appears that Jesus promised that the poor would go straight to heaven, whether or not they met any other spiritual requirement. (Luke 6:20)

That has always been a problem for those who attend churches full of people who have hardly ever had contact with the poor (except as workers in their factories); but it is also a problem for us. We have seen a few nasty traits amongst some poor people, as well as a few good traits amongst some rich people.

But the problem may come from us assuming that our measure of poverty is the same one that Jesus used.

Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" states that people have spiritual needs which cannot be met until they have first met some of the more basic physical needs. It is useless to preach Christian doctrine, for example, to someone who is drowning, or even to someone who is starving to death. What they need first is air, or food, and then we can preach to them.

One consolation to the more evangelical amongst us is that if we are the instrument through which they received that air or food, this may make them more receptive to our preaching when they are finally ready for it.

Christian doctrine teaches that babies and very young children are not "accountable" spiritually in the same way that adults are. This is also extended to include people with serious brain defects. Orthodox teaching is that when they die, they go straight to heaven.

So perhaps if we combine these two concepts, we can conclude that Jesus was saying that people suffering from serious physical deprivation (as a result of poverty) also qualify for this grace. If they have spent much of their life going to bed hungry, it is likely that they have had little time to develop at least some aspects of spirituality. It is understandable that they would instinctively grab and grasp when they have the opportunity. They may also take an interest in a superstitious religion that offers hope of meeting their physical needs, while they would have scant regard for teachings about the divinity of Christ or even our understanding of the role of sincerity in God's plan of salvation.

This idea of the "poor" who will automatically inherit the kingdom of heaven may or may not take in welfare recipients and drug addicts who are apparently just too lazy to get a job. Only God knows if they are capable of more. But it could certainly extend to the millions of people suffering from malnutrition through no fault of their own, whether or not these people always live up to the idyllic image of the poor that some of us have.

But there is another side of the story which may make at least some demands on even these desperately poor people who are driven by instincts for survival.

Jesus told a story about several people who were given some money to invest. The one who received the least eventually had it taken away from him because he did not use it wisely. It was given to the one who had originally received the most.

The story is a parable, so its true meaning may have nothing to do with money. It is about what we do with the spiritual blessings that God gives to us. But what about when the rich become the instruments through whom God offers a blessing to the poor?

In many cases people are rich because they have learned to humble themselves, to be patient, to be responsible, etc. These are important spiritual lessons, even if they have been learned for the wrong motive (i.e. to become materially successful).

God, of course, is looking for people who will learn these lessons for the right motive, so that they will be able to use those disciplines to help others.

If we do something to help the poor, we do so with the hope that they will respond favourably to the love of God that is being revealed through us. But if the poor repeatedly abuse the help that they are given, then they may be throwing away (or "burying") the blessing (or "talent") that God has given to them. Because of this, they may become accountable in a way in which they were not accountable before we came along. God may take his blessing away from them and give it to someone who is more deserving.

Obviously, we should continue to help the poor materially, but we should also do what we can to help them grow spiritually.

(See also The Problem with the Poor.)

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