For the next few posts, I would like to survey ways in which God’s people have made caring for the poor a priority throughout the ages.
In the last several years, ministry towards the needy has become a popular subject in evangelical circles. Topics like social justice, missions among the poor, benevolence, and servant evangelism are everywhere in books, articles, church literature, and conferences. A recent study by The Barna Group claims that three out of four evangelical Christians in the United States claim to have some involvement in meeting the needs of the poor in their community. While some give only their money, nearly half maintain they are actually donating personal time.
But I have a tough question to ask: Are we seeing a renewal in the biblical concept of investing in the poor or is this just the vogue thing to care about right now?
Hopefully, this rejuvenation of sorts is the result of authentic followers of Christ who are growing tired of the consumer mentality that has dominated the Church for the last several decades. The Church, at least in the Western world, has turned largely inward as a result of its wealth, political clout, and success in society. Many of us are longing for the Church to replace the emphasis on buildings with an emphasis on community . . . longing for the Church to treat orthodoxy and orthopraxy as equals . . . longing for the Church to stop caring about seating capacity and focus more on sending capacity – because we have GOOD NEWS.
If caring for the poor is nothing more than a capricious “new thing” to sell books or gather crowds, we are wasting the poor’s time – and God’s time too. As one social worker has said, “The poor are not primarily a class; the poor are people.” I would add to that: THE POOR ARE NOT A TOPIC, PROGRAM, OR EMPHASIS; THE POOR ARE PEOPLE.
Bringing good news to the poor has been a primary facet of biblical teaching from the first records of the Law. Stipulations were developed in the earliest days of Israel’s formalization as a nation which included automatic provisions for the poor, Levites, widows, orphans, and foreigners (see Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 15).
THIS WEEK WE START WITH JESUS
Jesus, right at at the beginning of His public ministry, quoted the prophet Isaiah (61):
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19, ESV)
Wasn’t the purpose of Jesus teaching and preaching that people would get “saved”? Well…yes. As a colleague of mine pointed out, Jesus stated this clearly in Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
But saved from what? According to Jesus, he came to bring good news to those who suffered from poverty, escape for those in bondage, open eyes for the blinded, freedom from oppression, and a New Testament form of “The Year of Jubilee.” Certainly those listed by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19 meet the conditions for the category of lost.
THE YEAR OF JUBILEE
In the Old Testament, The Year of Jubilee came ever 49 years – during the 7th Sabbath year – when the people of Israel were given forgiveness of their debts, restoration of any land they had been forced to sell because of a previous economic need, and a fresh start in their lives.
Jesus came to give a fresh start to those who were poor – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For that reason, Jesus chose to go where the needs could be found. He was intentional about spending time with the poor, the sick, the despised, and the despicable.
So how are we to interpret Jesus use of Isaiah 61 and the idea that His mission, above anything else, was geared towards those who are in need? Usually it is best to answer questions about Scripture with Scripture. Perhaps the answer is found in another statement by Jesus:
30And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
(Luke 5:30-32, ESV)
SEEING, ENGAGING, and GIVING ALMS
In the next four posts, I will describe some scenarios from Judeo-Christian history where people of God took a healthy approach to doing real ministry among the needy according to biblical principles.
First, we will look at Hebrew Scriptures, both Old Testament and Rabinnical, and their instructions regarding God’s blessing and its outward flow from His people to the nations. We will look at the Mishnah (c. AD 70-220) in particular.
Second, we will look at the perfect starting place that was modeled by Jesus WE MUST SEE THE POOR. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) will be our teacher.
Third, we will look at the next level of involvement among the needy – IDENTIFICATION and ENGAGEMENT. St. Francis of Assisi (AD 1181-1226) will guide us through this step.
Finally, we will look into the practice of ALMSGIVING, as a foundational tenet of the Church for centuries that has been all but forgotten in contemporary evangelicals. The churches of John Calvin (AD 1509-1564) will provide a model.