Nicholas Wolterstorff explains why Christians were (at times) known for their attention to the poor.
I think that what has motivated Christians over the years to care about the poor … from the very beginnings of Christianity, we have this witness that what struck the non-Christian, what struck the pagans about the Christians, is their attention to the poor. That was probably for them, the historical testimony indicates, the most striking feature of the Christian community.
Why? Well, because they worshipped a saviour who was himself poor, and was executed as a common criminal as a matter of fact. So it would have been hard to imagine their not having attended to the poor and to those who were unjustly victimised and so forth. It’s the biblical writings themselves which also constantly talk about the poor. But it’s … they’re worshipping a saviour who was impoverished.
Having said that in the Old Testament and the New – but especially the Old, well … I guess especially the Old Testament, this constant emphasis on the poor (and the widows, the orphans would have been poor and voiceless and so forth), constant emphasis on the poor, coupled with the fact that Jesus was poor … so the fact that the early Christians became known for their attention to the poor didn’t mean that this attitude continued throughout history. And so at a certain point … well there were always orphanages, hostels and so forth. But let’s face it, down through the ages lots of Christians have paid no attention to the poor and have accused some of … it’s not uncommon for Christians as well as other people to accuse them of laziness or it’s your own fault, so forth. That happens in my country, the United States, all the time.