Why Your Church Is Called to Help the Materially Poor

Reprinted from the Chalmers Center.

Adapted from When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, 37-44

Is your church called to help the materially poor in your community and around the world? Most Christians would answer “yes,” but not nearly as many would also root that call in the very mission of the church, seeing it rather as something downstream from the core work of proclaiming the Gospel message – a ministry activity or outreach program that would be good to be involved in, but not central to the church’s identity. In that light, though, we should perhaps ask, “What would Jesus do?” But the church needs a Christ-centered, fully orbed, kingdom perspective to correctly answer that question.

What Is the Task of the Church?

The task of God’s people is rooted in Christ’s mission. Simply stated, Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom in word and in deed, so the church must do the same. And Jesus particularly delighted in spreading the good news among the hurting, the weak, and the poor. Hence, it is not surprising that throughout history God’s people have been commanded to follow their king’s footsteps into places of brokenness.

In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, were to point forward to the coming king by foreshadowing what He would be like (Matthew 5:17; John 5:37-39, 45-46; Colossians 2:16-17). Israel was to be a sneak preview of the coming attraction: King Jesus. Like any sneak preview, Israel was to give viewers an idea of what the main event would be like and to make viewers want to see the main event. When people looked at Israel, they were supposed to say to themselves, “Wow! These people are really different. I can’t wait to meet their King. He must really be something special.” Since King Jesus would bring good news for the poor, it is not surprising that God wanted Israel to care for the poor as well.

In fact, God gave Moses numerous commands instructing Israel to care for the poor. The Sabbath guaranteed a day of rest for the slave and alien (Exodus 23:10-12). The Sabbath year canceled debts for Israelites, allowed the poor to glean from the fields, and set slaves free as well as equipping the slaves to be productive (Deuteronomy 15:1-18). The Jubilee year emphasized liberty; it released slaves and returned land to its original owners (Leviticus 25:8-55). Other laws about debt, tithing, and gleaning ensured that the poor would be cared for each day of the year (Leviticus 25:35-38; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Leviticus 19:9-10). The commands were so extensive that they were designed to achieve the ultimate goal of eradicating poverty among God’s people: “There should be no poor among you,” God declared (Deuteronomy 15:4).

Unfortunately, Israel did not fulfill its task. The people disobeyed, the nation became a lousy sneak preview of the coming attraction, and God sent his chosen people into exile as a result.

For what specific sins was Israel sent into captivity? Many of us have a picture in our minds of the Israelites getting out of bed every morning and running off to the nearest shrine to worship idols. Indeed, numerous passages in the Old Testament indicate that idolatry was a problem in Israel. But several passages in Isaiah (1:10-17; 58:1-10; and more) give a broader picture. Here Israel appears to be characterized by personal piety and the outward expressions of formal religion: worshiping, offering sacrifices, celebrating religious holidays, fasting and praying. Translate this into the modern era, and we might say these folks were faithfully going to church each Sunday, attending midweek prayer meetings, going on the annual church retreat, and singing contemporary praise music. But God was disgusted with them, going so far as to call them “Sodom and Gomorrah”!

Why was God so displeased? Both passages emphasize that God was furious over Israel’s failure to care for the poor and the oppressed. He wanted His people to “loose the chains of injustice,” and not just go to church on Sunday. He wanted his people to “clothe the naked,” and not just attend midweek prayer meeting. He wanted His people to “spend themselves on behalf of the hungry,” and not just sing praise music. Personal piety and formal worship are essential to the Christian life, but they must lead to lives that “act justly and love mercy” (Micah 6:8).

In the New Testament, God’s people, the church, are more than just a sneak preview of King Jesus. The church is the body, bride and very fullness of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:18-23; 4:7-13; 5:32). When people look at the church, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus! When people look at the church, they should see the one who declared – in word and in deed to the leper, the lame, and the poor – that his kingdom is bringing healing to every speck of the universe.

In fact, we see this from the very start of the church’s ministry. When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples for the first time, we read, “He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). Later, Jesus sent out seventy-two others, commanding them, “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you’” (Luke 10:9). The message was the kingdom of God, and it was to be communicated in both word and deed. And in the very first passage concerning the gathering of the church, we read, “There were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). Theologian Dennis Johnson explains that Luke, the author of Acts, is intentionally repeating the language we saw earlier in Deuteronomy 15:4 in which God told Israel: “There should be no poor among you.”1 Luke is indicating that while Israel had failed to care for the poor and was sent into captivity, God’s people have been restored and are now embodying King Jesus and His kingdom, a kingdom in which there is no poverty (Revelation 21:1-4).

Indeed, throughout the New Testament, care of the poor is a vital concern of the church (Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 6:1-7; Gal. 2:1-10; 6:10; James 1:27). Perhaps no passage states it more succinctly than I John 3:16-18: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Applying the Call Today

The Bible’s teachings should cut to the heart of North American Christians. By any measure, we are the richest people ever to walk on planet Earth. Furthermore, at no time in history has there ever been greater economic disparity in the world than at present. Economic historians have found that for most of human history there was little economic growth and relatively low economic inequality. As a result, by the year 1820, after thousands of years of human development, the average income per person in the richest countries was only about four times higher than the average income per person in the poorest countries.2

Then the Industrial Revolution hit, causing unprecedented economic growth in a handful of countries but leaving the rest of the world behind. As a result, while the average American lives on more than ninety dollars per day,3 approximately one billion people live on less than one dollar per day and 2.6 billion – 40 percent of the world’s population – live on less than two dollars per day.4 If God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments were to have a concern for the poor during eras of relative economic equality, what are we to conclude about God’s desire for the North American church today? “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”

What is the task of the church? We are to embody Jesus Christ by doing what He did and what He continues to do through us: declare – using both words and deeds – that Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords who is bringing in a kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace. And the church needs to do this where Jesus did it, among the blind, the lame, the sick and outcast, and the poor.

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