To begin with, I have to ask, “Who is providing the aid?” because it makes a difference in how I would answer the question. First let me answer as if the “who” is Christians and Christian organizations.
It has often been said that God’s people should care for the poor and disadvantaged. In the Old Testament, the Children of Israel were instructed to leave some of their crops unharvested so the poor and foreigners could come and take what they needed (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22). They were commanded: “Be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). In the New Testament, Jesus told a rich young man to sell all he had and give to the poor (Mark 10:17-21), and he said that being generous to the poor was more important than ritual washing to make one “clean” on the inside (Luke 11:39-41). Yet he also found it proper that expensive perfume should be used to honor him instead of being sold to feed the poor (Mark 14:1-9).
Jesus never directly instructed his disciples to care for the poor, but he did say that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners were ways we could show our love for him (Matthew 25:31-45). Jesus’ own mission on earth was validated by his acts of caring for others, but note in these verses what gift he gave to the poor: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). (See also Luke 4:14-21.)
Although it isn’t our primary mission, there is ample evidence that Christians and Christian organizations should care for the poor and the disadvantaged. We must remember, though, it is not what we do that matters but why we do it. Paul said, “If I give all I possess to the poor…but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).
If love is to be our motivating our factor—love for God and love for all those made in his image—then just giving money or food or needed items is not enough. We should want the best for the people we are caring for. We should help others in ways which allow them to reach a better place in their lives—and sometimes that calls for the tough love of not giving help to people who will squander that aid on drugs, alcohol, or other forms of self-indulgence or self-destruction.
Paul clearly set conditions for the care of others by the church. His instructions for caring for widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16 provides a good template for caring for anyone in need. First, let them care for themselves if they can. Second, let them be cared for by their family or other individuals in the church. Third, if neither of these is possible, the church should care for them, but only if they are found worthy by their history of good deeds and faithfulness. Setting these conditions ensured that both the financial stability of the church and its reputation in the community would be preserved.
“The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). What we do to care for the poor says much about what we believe as Christians. However we choose to care for the poor, whether as individuals or as a church or denomination, we need to make sure we are being motivated by love for God and real love for others—not just the appearance of caring.