When I was a 9-year-old Presbyterian girl, I was told that if I matched my birthday with the same verse in Proverbs 31 — the chapter all about a godly woman — I would have a direction for my life.

Proverbs 31:9 was my verse. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, maintain the rights of the poor and needy.” (RSV)

Earnestly I meditated on those words, especially “open your mouth.” About that same time, I wrote my first little book. Rather than “speaking out,” as the NIV version says, over the years, I honed my pen.

The second phrase, “judge righteously,” I skimmed over for decades. Those four syllables carry a wealth of ambiguity. Didn’t Jesus say “judge not, that ye be not judged?” Yet here is Solomon, the wisest man in the Bible, advising just the opposite.

I have often been too judgmental in my life. Did the person, place or thing I was judging want my opinion, anyway? Still, I would dip my pen in poison, and then reap the predictable, negative results. I’ve never received a gift for saying that the emperor has no clothes.

But here we are told to judge those to whom we give. I almost never give to persons, mostly men, who stand on street corners with a sign. I travel a set route most days, and see the same person at the same intersection again and again. Yet, I have given a dollar or two occasionally when I felt that still, small voice prompt me.

As for larger donations to our local charities, I rate them on whether they respect those they wish to help.

A hand up, not a handout? “I’m okay, you’re not okay, just let me fix you” is a formula for disaster. Gravity being what it is, it’s much more likely that the helper will be pulled down than the needy person will be lifted up. In almost 30 years in a recovery program, I’ve never been able to discern who would stay clean and sober and who would not. And what about those who are homeless because of bad luck, disability or a mental illness?

“Jesus was respectful even to those who didn’t deserve it,” my sister said to me recently. “None of us deserves it,” I answered. That’s the whole point of salvation. And grace.

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The most important gift you can give to another human being is respect coming from a fountain of unconditional love.

Which brings us to the third phrase. “Maintain the rights of the poor and needy.” According to my NIV concordance, of 177 references to the poor, only two, in Proverbs, speak of a lazy person or a person illegally claiming to be poor. We are told to take care of the poor 171 times with no qualification as to their worth or even their ability to work. A verse in each Gospel also reminds us that we will always have the poor among us.

Our Bill of Rights, written by that great skeptic, Thomas Jefferson, (legend says that he cut everything out of the New Testament to which he didn’t agree) affirms the right of every one of us to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In order to stay alive, we need food, shelter and basic medical treatment.

What is your opinion of the poor here in Billings? Do you see them as lazy, “on the dole,” while supporting people in countries far away?

Because I have a limited income, I often shop the second-hand store. During one visit, at the beginning of the month, I noticed a well-dressed woman who was about to check out two carts full of clothes that had been marked down to a dollar each. I asked the sales person what she was doing with it all.

“She’s sending it to Africa,” the clerk answered.

I’m sure the woman thought she was doing a wonderful thing. But could she not see the needs of the other shoppers around her? A friend of mine calls this selective blindness “Afghanistanism.”

I will end with a word from St. Paul. “All they asked was that we continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” I hope that you will be eager, as well.

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Sharie Pyke is a poet, novelist, journalist and itinerant Christian.

The Faith & Values column appears Saturdays in The Billings Gazette. Pastors, ethicists, educators or others who would like to write a column about faith, ethics or values for the section, should contact: Susan Olp; The Billings Gazette; 401 N. Broadway; Billings, MT 5910, or call her at 657-1281; fax to her attention at 657-1208; or email to solp@billingsgazette.com.