The first will be last and the last will be first
God has a history of reversing our expectations and priorities. We often get caught up in our own wisdom and our own narrow thinking, so when confronted by God’s nature we’re shaken up and challenged profoundly. One of the most powerful ways God challenges us is with his concern for those in need. This can be observed as early as the Law of Moses. The Israelites were commanded to be ‘open-handed’ to their poor and needy neighbours (Deuteronomy 15:11). They were also to leave parts of their fields unharvested so that the poor could feed themselves (Leviticus 19:9). Many other laws protected the poor and the foreigner (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 15:1-4). God’s call for the Israelites to be generous and merciful was based on the mercy they had received from God in his delivering them from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 24:17-22). The way they lived their lives was to be a testimony to God and his character.
Unfortunately, Israel too frequently fell short of this mark. Time and time again, God had to remind them through the prophets that their treatment of the vulnerable was one of his chief concerns. The rich and powerful gave little thought to those below them. Yet, contrary to their understanding, their treatment of the vulnerable was more important to God than their sacrifices and worship (Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).
When Jesus came, he too confounded the elite’s perceptions by focusing his attention on the humble and lowly (Matthew 9:12-13). He encouraged his followers to give to anyone in need (Matthew 5:40-42) and to give without expecting anything in return (Luke 6:32-36). Jesus’ very coming was to bring good news to the poor, release captives, give sight to the blind and let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18-21). The good news is that God is not a god making selfish or idle demands, but one interested in meeting people’s needs. It is this message that the church is here to continue proclaiming.
Despite God’s concern, Jesus said that ‘the poor you will always have with you’ (Mark 14:7). This is because poverty goes hand-in-hand with mismanagement, our own sins (such as unhealthy addictions or gambling) or the sins of others. Poverty is usually a consequence of our selfish desire to advance ourselves at the expense of others, breeding oppression and neglect. As long as sin is present in the world there will be poverty, until God redeems the world upon Christ’s return (Romans 8:19-23). For this reason, we cannot seriously address the material poverty in this world without also addressing its spiritual poverty. Helping the poor is a good thing and worth doing for its own sake. However we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it is enough.
If we hope to be able to meet people’s needs, we must meet their most pressing need. This is to know God and his forgiveness. Yet, historically, this goal has caused considerable discomfort and misgiving within the church. We fear developing ‘rice Christians’ whose conversion is a charade for the sake of food. We also fear that mentioning God might turn people away and limit our effectiveness at meeting their other needs. These concerns are real, but such problems have their origins in our faulty perception of evangelism and benevolence as projects that we undertake—something separate from our lives. In fact, good works shouldn’t be a strategy for evangelism, as if people could be manipulated into faith. Rather, if we want to reach the whole person who is in need, we must meet them holistically. This involves drawing people into our lives: into our families and our churches; in this way we demonstrate lives soaked in the love of God (1 Thessalonians 2:5-8). The way we live, our love, acts as a pointer to God and the love that he has for them. This gives credibility to our declaration of the Gospel. To do this takes time and patience, an investment we are typically uncomfortable making. It requires our generosity to be a product of who we are and the love God has given us. It’s not something we do just because we’re expected to serve. Too often we compartmentalise our lives into time devoted to work, family, church, good works and the like. Instead we need to see our whole lives—everything we do—as a generous gift to God. This is shown by helping others who are made in his image. We help others by the work we do, the way we act as a family and the things we do together as a church. Our lives are living sacrifices devoted to God and service to others (Romans 12:1-2).
It’s easy to come up with excuses to avoid helping the poor. Too often we see good stewardship as being careful with our money rather than being generous, a passive avoidance of risk rather than faith. No doubt we need to be wise with our money, but giving is a spiritual gift that we can use to God’s glory (Romans 12:8).
It’s a big world and there’s a lot of suffering. How can we hope to embrace it all? All we can do is plant as many seeds as possible and allow God to grow them (1 Corinthians 3:6). We can help those we find along the way (Luke 10:29-37). We can make it our purpose to go out and find those who need help (Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 14:16-24). Granted, our efforts and our message may fall on deaf ears or hard hearts. But Jesus faced that too yet was not deterred (Luke 18:18-23; 17:12-19).
We ought to take seriously the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom as revealed in his concern for the poor. Just like the Israelites, we’re prone to blithely view the world from our position of comfort—deaf to the cries of the needy. We listen to the world around us and convince ourselves that it is we who are needy. Just like the brother of the prodigal son, we are often too self-absorbed to see the plight of others, smug in our comfort and self-righteousness (Luke 15:25-32). Instead, we should be like the Father. He rejoices when sinners are reconciled, when the hungry are fed, when the naked are clothed. Do we?
This article first appeared in InterSections, February 2012.