How to balance the needs of your family with the needs of the poor

Jesus is pretty clear. We owe something to the poor in this world.

The percentage owed isn't set in stone - there are Biblical examples of people being called to give anywhere between 50% and 100%. But some of that stuff cluttering up the house definitely belongs to the poor.

"Sell ALL you have and give to the poor." (Luke 18:22)

"Today I'm giving away half of my possessions to the poor." (Luke 19:8)

These were common pronouncements when Jesus knocked gently on the door.

Not so common in our churches now. Unfortunately.

But how do you balance the needs of your family, with the needs of the world? It's a tricky one, because the Bible is also really clear that we need to love and take care of our own families. This classic passage in Isaiah 58 about what True Fasting looks like brings both responsibilities together in one place:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to
provide the poor wanderer with shelter
when you see the naked, to
clothe them,
not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:7)

Oh the tension!

Maybe these tiny 24 carat gold scales will help me weigh my priorities and commitment to the poor.

Maybe these tiny 24 carat gold scales will help me weigh my priorities and commitment to the poor.

Luckily, we have 2000 years of saints and sinners experimenting with this tension. And today I want to share with you one example that has inspired the pants off me (my second pair anyway)...

On June 7, 1916, a young Indian man named Vinoba Bhave, a high-caste scholar with an interest in mathematics, met with Gandhi. It was a meeting that would forever change the course of his life.

Much like Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, Gandhi challenged Vinoba to dedicate his life to something more important than the accumulation of possessions and knowledge.

Over the years, as the bond between Vinoba and Gandhi grew stronger, Vinoba became one of Gandhi’s most trusted leaders—and eventually his successor.

On April 18, 1951, Vinoba met with “untouchable” caste villagers in a small Indian town called Pochampalli, where the people told him they needed eighty acres of land to make a living.

Vinoba begged the wealthy village leaders to help, hardly daring to hope for a positive response. But to everybody’s surprise, a rich landowner named Ramachandra Reddy leapt up and said in a rather excited voice: “I will give you 100 acres for these people!”

Vinoba Bhave - the inventor of hipster glasses and radical generosity to the poor

Vinoba Bhave - the inventor of hipster glasses and radical generosity to the poor

Through one man’s courage and another’s generosity, the Bhoodan (Gift of the Land) movement was launched. From that day on, Vinoba began to walk barefoot from village to village across India with a simple challenge,

“Consider the poor as one of your sons—and give them their inheritance.”

Those with three children were challenged to take responsibility for a "symbolic fourth", and divide their possessions four ways. Those with five children would consider the poor as their sixth child, and so on.

In this way, over the next 20 years, a total of FOUR MILLION ACRES of land was given for the landless poor. As Indian people with wealth and resources opened their hearts to the Kingdom idea that the poor are their sons and daughters, a movement was born, and the world caught a little glimpse of God’s purposes for the things with which he has blessed us.

Now, what if we were to adopt this idea in our own middle class families?

Imagine if every parent decided that they now had another symbolic child in the family - towards whom they would carry some responsibility? 

For example, imagine you decide to buy your two kids a bike each for Christmas. Knowing you have responsibility to a third, you grab an extra one and donate it to the local Kids Club.

Imagine you decide to renovate your home because your children are growing up and need more space. You set aside a percentage of that money to donate to Habitat for Humanity to build homes for the poor.

Imagine you are setting aside money to cover university tuition for your three teenage children. Under this system, the money gets split four ways - with a quarter going to support tutoring programs for poor kids.

Does that make sense? Yes it's a stretch to include the poor in our plans and budgets. But if the call of Jesus to lay down our lives for our neighbours is to be taken seriously, we must grapple with these things and our responsibility to our impoverished sons and daughters.

And the outcome?

It's laid out right there in Isaiah 58:

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:8)


[The story of Vinoba Bhave and how it influenced us is told in my latest book Subversive Jesus. Grab a copy to read more about our family experiments and failures in holding this tension between loving the poor and caring for our own family.]