Beggar in Tehran, Antoine-Khan Sevruguin, 1880
It is healthy for all of us that the Evangelical left has provoked the rest of us into a more careful and conscientious consideration of our moral obligations to the poor among us. But while they tend to think that what those moral obligations demand of us is obvious (perhaps just the most vocal among them), it strikes me as considerably more complex, like the human relationships and human souls that the question involves.
I briefly address this question in "The Least of These," Worldmag.com, October 6, 2010.
They are people for whom it is a challenge each day simply to feed themselves and their families. The Bible typically presents them as the widow, the orphan, and sometimes the sojourner. These are people who have lost their natural protectors and have little or no means of providing for themselves. They are exposed to the wolves of society, powerful and unscrupulous people of means who would devour them for selfish gain.
How people are to help such people depends on one's relationship to them, and position of authority. I don't have the same moral responsibility for people across town, much less across the world, as I do more people in my own community, or even my next door neighbor. This is not to say I have no responsibility, which of course increases with the development of technology that makes the world a smaller place.
I have heightened responsibility for brothers and sisters in Christ, and yet again for for own family.
There is also a giving that is inappropriate. If I were struggling to keep my family fed and clothed, and a wealthy person in my church took pleasure in decking out my children and wife in nice clothes, I would resent this. I would return the gifts, because he is supplanting me as provider. It's not his place to give these things, or at least not in that way.
Government welfare supplants in the same way. When it steps in and gives what private charity and family are supposed to give, while providing for real material needs it destroys or at least slackens important relationships in the process. This should come as no surprise because it is not government's place to provide this good. God appointed government to praise what is good, not do the good itself (Romans 3:1-7; 2 Peter 2:14).
Christians have no disagreement over the moral necessity of kindness to the poor. Our point of debate is what the legitimate and most beneficial means are for accomplishing this. But it is sheer political fantasy that in Matthew 25 Jesus was mandating a government engineered transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor in the form of direct payments and a broad array of social services and economic subsidies.
I don't mean to suggest that the Evangelical left discovered the poor and the moral obligation of mercy. Marvin Olasky has been encouraging the compassionate dimension of the Christian life at least since he published The Tragedy of American Compassion in 1992. But the history of Christian charity is a long one, and no generation has been without its chapter.