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!

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

  1. Jerry, I am reading your blog article with great interest. I look forward to reading the next installments. I hope to respond to some points at the conclusion. Thanks for the time you put into this and the readable style with which you write.

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