Is Priority the Right Question? Part III: Conclusion

“What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest.” – C. S. Lewis.

In the above quote, I think C. S. Lewis is getting at much the same point I have been making throughout these last three blog posts: namely, that we are mistaken when we unnaturally separate that which God has put together. Life is holistic and God calls us to a fully integrated life that incarnates all that He himself embodied during His earthly ministry.

There is much more evidence than what I have presented in support of this point. I could have, for instance, shown that in Scripture the words in both the OT and NT that are used for ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are often used to mean the whole person, as are the words for ‘flesh’ and body.’  There are nuances and the two are not the same, to be sure. But we have to be careful that we don’t read into these words ideas that never existed in the mind of the writers. In addition, I might have pointed out that Paul had every opportunity to adopt a Platonic separation of the body and soul, and yet he never did. This doesn’t mean that he or Jesus never distinguished between the two, for surely they did. But what they didn’t do was elevate one above the other. I could have also shown how it has been largely philosophical systems, such as that of Plato and Aristotle and their influences on Augustine and Aquinas respectively, that have greatly influenced our theological tendency to exalt one aspect of the human self over the other. I could have given evidence that Christianity, following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment, has come to embody many of the precepts of modernity, precepts that furthered the chasm between the secular and sacred. But my aim, has not been to overwhelm anyone with evidence, but rather to simply help us to see that this holistic notion is in Scripture, and it is there in a pretty major way!

I also want to pause, and point out that this has been a journey for me. It is not something I have arrived at casually or, in some ways, even intentionally. In the course of studying other things (eschatology and church history, for instance) I have sort of stumbled across these things, and then as a result of what I found (more accurately, what others have found and written), I’ve felt compelled to look into this a little deeper. As a result, I am increasingly convinced that the biblical picture is holistic, that when Jesus said, “whatever you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me,” that he was saying something of extreme importance for the Church about the external aspects of our faith, about the integration of faith and acts of service.

The thing is, and this may surprise you, but my own calling and gifts lie mostly on the proclamation/evangelism side of things. I am primarily a teacher/preacher with a deep interest in theology and apologetics (could you tell?). Those passages of Scripture that most resonate with me are those that show Paul using ‘persuasion’ and presenting arguments and evidence that help convince people of the truth of Christianity (see Acts 17:4; 18:4; 19:8). And yet, that said, I am convinced by Scripture that if my whole ministry, my entire Christian calling consists of nothing more than standing in a classroom and teaching, or sitting behind a computer reflecting on theological meanings, or even standing behind a pulpit on Sunday morning speaking to the mostly already convinced, if my Christian life never gets out into the byways, highways, and alleyways where the broken, the lost and the suffering live and struggle everyday, and if I don’t meet them there with the love of Christ, tending to them in body and soul, then I’ve missed something. I’ve come up short of what Jesus has called me to do. Because all theology is ultimately practical, and all of our faith must ultimately find its way to our hands and our feet, not just to our hearts and heads.

Even as I write this, I recognize how far away I am from this holistic biblical picture at times, and I am convicted. But, my prayer in all of this is that we would all take seriously these emphases in Scripture as we plot our course forward, that we might embody a faith in which preaching the good news and compassionate acts of service become as two cords twisted indubitably together, exhibiting a strength that neither aspect could ever have on its own. May we embody a Gospel faith, a loving and compassionate faith, a proclaiming faith, a teaching faith, a building faith, and in everything a serving faith. So that when the Lord of the harvest returns He’ll find us, as was He, always about His Father’s business.

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Is Priority the Right Question? Part II: The Biblical Concept of Justice

Introduction

Justice. It is a word that often grates against our western, republican sensibilities. As a friend said to me once, “it smacks of entitlement.” Indeed it does. The word ‘justice’ in American parlance often drags around the ball and chain of socialist connotations. As a result, we are inclined to reject the concept outright. After all, we in the AG are Arminians (mostly). We believe in free will and the power to choose. We believe in the ability to pull one’s self up by the bootstraps, whether one actually has boots or not.

It’s important that when we talk about biblical justice that we don’t allow our politics obscure what God says to us through Scripture. The justice of God is a major emphasis in Scripture, stressing that God’s plan for humanity includes the righting of wrongs, the overturning of inequality, and the championing of the disadvantaged (see Part I). Why? Simply stated, because just-ness is an inherent aspect of God’s character. Thus, if God is to be consistent with His character then He must hate injustice. And to hate something and do nothing about it would smack of hypocrisy. And God is no hypocrite.

What in the World is God Doing?

To understand God’s justice and how it fits into who we are and what we do as the Church it is essential to understand what it is that God is doing in the world. Scripture gives us several important keys by which to discern the answer to this question. We discover one of these keys by considering what precisely it was that Jesus and His earliest followers actually preached.

Frequently, the NT defines “preaching” in relation to the coming of the Kingdom. Luke 4:18 can be seen in many ways as Jesus’ own mission statement, and as a description of what the coming Kingdom looks like:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed. (NASB)

As Pentecostals who so frequently make use of Luke-Acts, it would serve us well to pay close attention to Jesus’ stated purpose since in Luke’s two-volume work the purpose of the Church ought to naturally follow the mission set forth by Jesus. Lest we try to spiritualize this text, as we are so apt to do with those portions of Scripture that unsettle us in their most obvious, literal reading, a look back at the Isaianic passage being quoted sheds important light on what exactly Jesus is saying.

The OT passage that Jesus is quoting here is Isaiah 61, a text reflecting the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25). The Year of Jubilee represented a Sabbath Year of rest for the nation of Israel and called for treating one another with fairness and equality, especially in forgiving debts, and showing particular care for the poor and the foreign wanderer in the land (going back to my last post on this topic, this also mitigates against an understanding that serving the poor should take place only or even primarily within the church!). It was to be a time of rest and restoration for all God’s people as well as for the land, with the whole of it pointing proleptically forward to the time when God would right all wrongs and restore His creation to its original glory. The idea behind this was the notion that God Himself had redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, and therefore He owned every person, every parcel of land, and every animal. Deeply rooted in the Year of Jubilee was the notion of God’s desire to redeem His creation from both the physical and spiritual effects of sin (see Rom. 8:22).

Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would quote Isaiah 61 at the outset of his ministry. It was the essence of Jesus’ mission to usher in the Kingdom of God in his person and his work. This Kingdom is both an earthly and a heavenly reality, which is why Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, “your Kingdom come, on EARTH as it is in HEAVEN.” It is both a present and future reality. In other words, the idea is not that God is rescuing us out of a dying world, but is rather transforming this world by renewing and restoring all of creation to its former state of sinlessness and perfection. We see this in that there is a striking parallel between the picture presented of the original creation in Gen. 2:8-15 and that of Rev. 22:1-5:

In the Genesis passage, we see mankind dwelling in a paradise, situated within a garden, and prominently featuring a river and a tree. Connected to the tree was a call to obedience. As we know, this call was abandoned, and rebellion and the curse of sin entered the world (Gen. 3).

Similarly, in the new heavens and new earth of Rev. 21-22, humanity is now dwelling in a city (the primary difference between a garden and a city? Population! Heaven is populated by the redeemed of the Lord.). The city, like the original garden, also features a river and a tree. The river continuously waters the tree, whose leaves were for the healing of the nations. The curse has been lifted.

The point here is that what God is doing is far more than a spiritual work. Its a total work, wherein God is remaking all that exists by removing the effects of sin in all its many forms through the redemptive act of the Suffering Servant. We see this when considering the Greek word for “new”—kainos, which is the same word Paul uses in 2 Cor. 5:17, “if any man is in Christ, he is a new (kainos) creation.” The idea is not of wiping the slate clean, but of renewing, restoring and redeeming; so too with the new heaven and new earth.

I’m not saying that God will not ultimately bring about an entirely new heaven and new earth at the consummation of history. After all, Jesus did say, “heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:15). I am simply saying that Scripture bears out that the physical world is positively affected and transformed by what God is doing in the present, and that there is some continuity between the present physical world and the world to come. This is obvious in that in Jesus’ own resurrection body bore some continuity to his pre-resurrection body (i.e., his scarred hands, feet and side which prompted Thomas to declare, “my Lord, and my God”). The importance of this is that our life in Christ has both physical and spiritual significance, because we participate physically and spiritually in God’s redemptive plan.

Paul consistently portrays this throughout the NT. For instance, in Romans 8:22-23, Paul says, “the whole creation groans….and not only this, but even we ourselves groan within ourselves while we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, for the redemption of our bodies.” Notice Paul doesn’t say we wait for the redemption of our souls! He makes this same point in Phil. 3:21—“who will transform the body of our humble state, into conformity with the body of his glory.” In 1 Cor. 15, Paul uses a couple of metaphors, such as that of seedtime and harvest that also bear out this idea of continuity and transformation.

What in the World are We Saying?

Jesus’ instructions on preaching often took two distinct forms in the NT. At times, Jesus instructs his followers to preach the “Gospel,” or “good news” (Gr. euggelion). But this “good news” is also defined more precisely as the “gospel of the Kingdom” (Matt. 24:14; Acts 8:12; 20:25; 28:31). What is the significance of this distinction? It is simply that the good news to which the Church is called to proclaim is the good news of Christ’s rule and reign. The biblical concept of justice is rooted in the fact that this rule and reign is founded upon God’s plan to restore creation and right all wrongs, to especially overturn the misfortunes of the poor and needy. In a sense we are all poor and needy, due to the effects of sin, but there are those among us who are poor and needy in both body and soul, and it is for those that God shows special concern.

We see this in the Psalmists declaration that “justice and righteousness are the foundations of His throne” (Ps. 89:14; 97:2). The words justice (Hb. mishpat) and righteousness (Hb. tzedeqah) are twin concepts found throughout scripture that tell of God’s passion and concern for those who suffer at the hands of others, those who are poor and needy (see Gen 18:19; 2 Sam 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; 1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:8; Job 29:14; 37:23; Psa 33:5; 72:2; 89:14; 97:2; 99:4; 119:121; Prov 1:3; 2:9; 21:3; Eccl 3:16; 5:8; Is 1:27; 5:7; 9:7; 16:5; 28:17; 32:16; 33:5; 56:1; 59:9, 14; Jer 4:2; 9:24; 22:3, 13, 15; 23:5; 33:15; Ezek 18:5, 19, 21, 27; 33:14, 16, 19; 45:9; Hos 2:19; Amos 5:7, 24; 6:12; Mic 7:9). When Scripture says that these concepts are “the foundation of His throne,” it is saying that they are the chief characteristic of God’s rule.

So, when we declare the gospel of the Kingdom, we are declaring the good news of Christ’s reign and sovereignty, and the justice and righteousness entailed therein. At the heart of that reign is God’s own righteousness and inherent justice, which he brings in His person. This is the meaning of Jesus’ Luke 4 reading of Isa. 61. It is a reign that begins in the present, that broke in especially at the resurrection of Christ, and is unfolding through God’s sovereignty and through God’s people as history moves toward the time when God will ultimately make all things right and fully reign in the new heaven and new earth. Thus, the Gospel we preach has both a physical and spiritual nature because it addresses both physical and spiritual realities. To miss this is to misunderstand what God is doing in the world, and to miss what we are called to do as a result.

Conclusion

We as God’s people are called upon not only to preach the Gospel but to emulate Jesus in every way. “Come, follow me” still stands as the beckon call for would-be disciples. As such, we are to embody all that Jesus taught and did. At the heart of Jesus’ own ministry was the breaking in of God’s rule and reign, founded upon righteousness and justice of God, promised in the OT, and declared emphatically by Jesus to be the very essence and heart of His own life and ministry. Therefore, everything we do in Christ, whether it embodies the present reign of Christ through signs and wonders, or whether it points forward to that reign in acts of righteousness and justice carried out in the world, is meant to anticipate the final Day when God will make all things right. In a sense, we Pentecostals seem to understand this more than some, for we hold that the atonement of Christ wrought not only healing for our souls, but also healing for our bodies. And yet, oddly, we still seek to establish a hierarchy when it comes to discussions of evangelism and acts of compassion. My point in all of this is that this hierarchy is largely absent from Scripture. Instead, we see a God whose rule and reign and coming Kingdom encompasses all of creation in both its seen and unseen aspects, in both body and soul, physical and spiritual, present and future. God declared of creation in the beginning that, “it is good.” Well, though a bit damaged and corrupted, this creation of God’s is still good and worth saving, for God is still great and what he calls us to is a life that anticipates and embodies all that He is doing in us and in the world as we move inexorably toward the consummation of all things. And so we go forth preaching and embodying the Kingdom, proclaiming the good news of God’s justice and righteousness, and living out the Kingdom paradigm in Pentecostal power and in practical acts of love and service until our enemy the devil is finally and fully defeated. To proclaim this ‘good news’ and not live it out is to implicitly deny what we ask others to believe. No more than we can separate Jesus from his words can we separate the Gospel from its implications. It is, by nature, it is at its core, completely holistic.

*for any wishing to further explore this topic, I recommend two excellent resources: Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

Is ‘Priority’ the Right Question? Part I: God’s Concern for the Poor

Introduction

It has become a given that whenever committed Christians gather and begin to discuss the notion of compassionate ministry or involvement in social justice issues, the conversation ultimately comes around to the question of priority regarding evangelism and compassion. Often the issue is stated something like this: “There is nothing wrong with our being involved in compassionate ministry as long as it remains a secondary thing—and only if evangelism/proclamation remains our top priority.” In this essay, I wish to argue that the very notion of “priority” is fundamentally the wrong question, and that evangelism apart from compassion falls short of the model given to us in Scripture. God’s plan of redemption centers on the renewal and restoration of His creation, encompassing us and the entire cosmos. Therefore, our present efforts to engage in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58) must incorporate both physical and spiritual realities, both present and future needs. Over the course of the next several days (or weeks as my schedule permits) I will unpack what I mean by this through a series of two essays under the above title. Part I, as noted, will address “God’s Concern for the Poor.” Part II will look at “The Biblical Concept of Justice” and include a discussion of “God’s Plan of Redemption.”

Before I go on though, and before I get tied to a stake and barbequed, let me be explicit about what I am not saying. I am not saying that compassionate ministries are the same as evangelism, nor am I saying that there is not a difference between the two. Neither am I saying that compassionate ministry can legitimately exist in Christian form apart from connection to the local church. When it does, it is not “holistic”—to use a word often associated with compassionate ministry. Compassion divorced from the local church ultimately becomes yet another social program void of any eternal significance.

What I intend to argue here is simply that the Great Commission (“go and make disciples of all nations,” Matt. 28:18-20) and the Great Commandment (“love God and love your neighbor,” Mark 12:28-34) are not exactly the same thing, and therefore must both find expression in our Christian lives and ministry if we are to be truly biblical. The point is that there are some things that can only rightly be seen as two parts of a whole and to divide them is to diminish one or the other. For example, we might think of prayer and bible study when it comes to our devotional lives. None of us, I don’t think, would deny that both are important and that one without the other leads to an imbalanced life in Christ. Genuine, Christian prayer cannot happen apart from the study of the Scriptures, because it is in Scripture that God has revealed himself, and it is there that we learn what to pray and how to pray. So too with disciple-making and love (compassion). One without the other will lead to an imbalanced Christian life that fails to fully embody the Kingdom principles to which Christ directs us. Discipleship apart from compassion will result in quasi-disciples who do not understand God’s concern for the poor and needy, and thus who fail to live out their faith in biblically meaningful ways.

Before I get to the heart of my essay, let me also add that I firmly believe that the often bitter tension that each side feels toward the other in this debate is ultimately fear driven. One side feels that if evangelism is not made the explicit priority, then we run the risk of becoming yet another social program void of any salvific potential. We might meet people’s immediate needs, but will fail to address their eternal ones. On the other hand, compassion advocates fear that a failure to understand the biblical prominence of compassion, concern for the poor, justice, and love for one’s neighbor will lead to a truncated Gospel that overly spiritualizes what it means to be human.

So, how do we overcome these dueling fears?

First, a brief word is in order about what exactly it means to be a disciple. Is disciple-making about bringing others to faith in Christ? Yes. But is it also more than that? Yes. To be a disciple of Christ is to care about that which Christ cares about, to love what He loves, and hate what He hates (Psalm 97:10; Zech. 8:17; Col. 3:10; 1 John 4:17).

I believe that we can arrive at a more balanced perspective if we take a few moments to consider three aspects of Scripture that are often overlooked in our disciple-making efforts. First, we must consider the abundance of Scriptural references to the poor, and the clear teaching of Scripture that the poor occupy a place of special concern in God’s redemptive plan. The implication of this is simply that if this is a major concern of God’s, then any true disciple-making efforts must also make these things a major concern. Second, we must also look at what God says about justice. We in the west often hear the words justice and with it political intonations with which we are less than comfortable. But justice is a biblical concept. There is throughout Scripture the notion that God hates injustice, and is Himself the champion of the downtrodden and those that are disadvantaged. Again, God calls on His people to also adopt this same passion. Finally, We must understand precisely what it is that we as Christians look forward to. What does Scripture mean when it refers to heaven? Is heaven a spiritual place, a physical place, or both? Our answers to these questions will say much about the degree to which we engage in compassionate ministry and whether we do so from a solid, biblical basis or not. Answering these questions is the general pattern I will follow in this essay and those that follow.

God’s Concern for the Poor

There can be little doubt that God throughout the Bible maintains a special and prominent concern for the poor. But who are the poor? How does Scripture define the word? Hebrew uses a number of words to denote poverty, and all of them have at their center the notion of oppression and injustice. The poor are those that are needy and unable to care for themselves. They are dependent and helpless, and often because they have suffered at the hands of others. This is seen for instance in Amos 2:7, which specifically relates poverty to oppression:

They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.

This is but one of many examples in which God in response to the injustice done to the poor fights on their behalf. For example, twenty times in the first five books of the Old Testament alone, God gives the newly formed nation of Israel specific guidelines regarding His concern for the poor (see Ex 23:3, 6, 11; 30:15; Lev 14:21; 19:10, 15; 23:22; 25:25, 35, 39, 47; 27:8; Num 13:20; Deut 15:4, 7, 11; 24:12, 14–15). This same theme is carried over into the historical books, as we hear the prophet Samuel declare

He raises the poor from the dust,
He lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S,
And He set the world on them. (1 Sam. 2:8)

In fact, God’s concern for the poor is a frequent theme among God’s prophets. Isaiah for instance declares that God’s judgment is coming upon the people of Judah and Jerusalem precisely because of their neglect and abuse of the poor:

The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people,
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
The plunder of the poor is in your houses.
15 “What do you mean by crushing My people
And grinding the face of the poor?”
Declares the Lord GOD of hosts. (Isa. 3:14-15)

There are a total of seventeen explicit references to the poor in the major and minor prophets (Is 3:14–15; 10:2; 11:4; 58:7; Jer 2:34; 5:4, 28; Ezek 16:49; 18:12, 17; 22:29; Dan 4:27; Amos 4:1; 5:11–12; Zech 7:10). In addition, the Psalms are replete with similar admonitions regarding the poor as God instructs His people to have the same concern for the poor that He has. For example in Psa. 72:13 we read,  “He will have compassion on the poor and needy, And the lives of the needy he will save.” A total of fifty-nine times God makes reference to the poor in the books of Job, Psalms, and Proverbs. Proverbs 14:31, for example, warns that disregard for the poor is tantamount to disregard for God: “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, But he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.”

We see this same concern carried over to the New Testament as well. When a man came to Jesus boasting of his religiosity, Jesus admonished him saying, “go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and come and follow me” (Mark 10:21). Though much could be said about what is going on this passage, at the very least it shows Jesus never departed from the regard and concern for the poor seen in the OT as a central component of the faith of Israel. Some have tried to argue, based on Jesus’ statement “the poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7) that concern for the poor was not a primary feature of Jesus’ ministry. But we must understand this verse (like all verses) in their historical context. Jesus was addressing hypocritical comments about a lavish act of worship. Jesus’ main point, against their hypocrisy (which likely had nothing to do with the poor but rather with their own pride), was that His time on earth was short and this woman recognized it to be so.

We see Jesus’ concern for the poor in numerous other occasions, but perhaps none as clear as when he says, “When you give to the needy…” (Matt. 6:2-4). We often note this language regarding Jesus instructions on fasting (i.e., “when you fast” not “if you fast,” Matt. 6:16). Surely the same principle applies here. The “when” implies that we will! This commitment on behalf of Jesus to give to the poor also comes out in John’s Gospel. When Jesus tells Judas “what you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27), Scripture records that the other disciples assumed that Jesus might have been instructing Judas to give something to the poor (John 13:29). This simply doesn’t make sense unless Jesus had a habit of giving to the poor. Why else would they have come to that explicit conclusion so readily? In fact, alms giving was a common feature of first century Judaism, and it would have been surprising if Jesus did not give to the poor on a regular basis. Luke’s Gospel also especially highlights the plight of the poor, but I will address the Lukan perspective in some detail in Part II.

In the rest of the New Testament, one of the most obvious references to the poor is Rom. 15:26, which references Paul’s collection in Macedonia and Achaia for the poor in Jerusalem. This text raises one of the most common objections to giving to the poor, namely that our compassion should be primarily directed toward the poor in the church. We will return to this thought when we address Luke’s perspective on the poor in the next section, but here it will suffice to say that we must remember that all of the letters of the NT are occasional letters, and thereby address specific situations. From those specific situations, we are to draw out broad principles and apply them to our own situation and setting. Since all of the NT letters are written to churches, it should not be surprising that the poor in these letters refer to Christians. When we consider that neither the OT nor Jesus made a distinction between concern for the poor within Israel and concern for non-Israelite poor, we also should be hesitant about making such a distinction. George Wood (if memory serves me) once remarked in writing that when Christians argue that the NT especially emphasizes the poor within the church, he often responds by asking how frequently they gave to those ‘poor within the church’? The point he was making was a good one: we shouldn’t use texts like Rom. 15:26 as an excuse to avoid caring for the poor, especially in light of the shear weight of biblical testimony that commands us otherwise. Galatians 2:10 also underscores the reality that concern for the poor was a central feature of the early Church.

Other notable references to the poor in the NT include the well-known passages in James. James 1:27 states that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widowsin their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Similarly, James 2:2-5 reflects a direct and clear repetition of the OT themes regarding God’s concern for the poor, and especially the notion that we as God’s people are to reflect that same concern. In James 5, Scripture warns the reader against ignoring the poor and needy (and here, no indication is given of whether these poor are “in the church” or not). Finally, in the book of Revelation, we find two specific references to “the poor.” One (Rev. 3:17) is a warning against those who trust in their riches, and are ignorant of their own poverty. There is a link here between this verse and Jesus’ comments in Luke’s Gospel, “blessed are you who are poor, yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). The link is simply that the poor are often more aware of their need of God than are the rich and wealthy, who trust in their own resources and genius. The second (Rev. 13:16) teaches that all are equal in God’s eyes and that their economic status has no bearing on their standing before God.

The Integratedness of Worship and Compassion

What might we conclude from all of this? First, no one can claim to have read Scripture and deny that the poor occupy a place of special concern in the eyes of God. I have only quoted a few of the many texts that make direct reference to the poor in the Bible. There are many others that indirectly make similar claims. In fact, I think a passage from Deuteronomy that doesn’t specifically mention the poor, very succinctly highlights what we are talking about here:

 Deut. 26:12   “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. 13 “You shall say before the LORD your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion from my house, and also have given it to the Levite and the alien, the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed or forgotten any of Your commandments.

Notice a couple of things here. First, this concern for the poor in this passage in Deuteronomy is rooted in God’s instructions to Israel on their worship practices. That is, their very acts of worship themselves are to include concern for the widow, the orphan, the stranger! There can be no doubt that “stranger” refers to non-Israelites, and represents a real challenge to those who would advocate for “church only” service to the poor. The point here, is that worship and acts of love and compassion are to be integrated if they are to be meaningful. In fact, this is the entire theme of Isaiah 57:6-7,

6 “Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
7 “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Conclusion

The point is simply this: if we are to embody all that God has called us to be, then we too must integrate love and compassion in our acts of worship and in all that we do in serving Christ. The notion of priority overlooks a great deal of biblical data that reflects the reality that we are to be a people who embody God’s love and compassion, especially for those who are most needy. The point is that compassion then cannot be secondary, but must be inherent. It must flow from us constantly and consistently as a central part of who we are! What I intend to argue in parts II and III is that by holding these two aspects of Scripture together, God’s love and God’s commandments, we embody Christ in a way that gives credibility to our message and substance to our actions. We serve a God who never changes, and whose plan for humanity is rooted in His desire to overturn the effects of sin, in all its many parts. That is the subject of Part II. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts!