'For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also'.
James 2 v 26.
'An epistle of straw' was Martin Luther's uncomplimentary critique of the Book of James, seriously questioning whether it should be in the Bible. He wrongly saw in it a 'gospel of salvation by works' that appeared to contradict the 'salvation by faith alone' text of Romans1 v 16-17 that inspired the Reformation.
In reality Biblical truth is held in paradoxical tension. Personal salvation is 'by faith alone', but 'works of faith' authenticate our life changing encounter with Christ. Jesus said as much in his teaching:
' Let your light so shine before men, that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven'
Matt 5 v 16.
In this short paper, I want to give some of the key Biblical passages that have shaped my thinking and practice in serving the poor. It is far from comprehensive, and I am the first to acknowledge that I have so much more to learn and practice in my own life. I am keeping it to the main passages that are important to me, and have refrained from illustrating what I say with any personal examples or stories. I want to let the scriptures do the talking without the need on my part to over elaborate.
I have found very inspirational a paper written by Ray Mayhew entitled 'Embezzlement: The Corporate Sin of the Western Church'. I have also found the teaching of Arthur Wallis invaluable on this subject.
In Proverbs 19 v17 we read: 'He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, And He will pay back what he has given' To the pious God fearing Jew, giving to the poor was synonymous with living a righteous life. For example, when Job defends his innocence and righteousness, one of his primary appeals is to the way he had treated with honour the poor:
'Because I delivered the poor who cried out, The fatherless and the one who had no helper..... ' I was eyes to the blind, And I was feet to the lame, I was a father to the poor, And I searched out the case that I dud not know'
Job 29 v 12, 15-17.
All of us at sometime have either lent out or borrowed something from a friend that is still out on 'long term loan'. Others have lent time, money, and gifting to people and organisations and have received no reward or recognition for their efforts.
What is striking about Proverbs 19 v 17 is that those who have given to the poor as an outworking of their faith in Christ, will be rewarded in full by God himself. We may never receive back things we have lent out to people in this world, but God will repay us in full for everything we have lent out to the poor on His behalf.
In Matthew 25 v 31-46, in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus gives clear teaching when this repayment is made. There are six categories of the poor and disadvantaged that the saints are 'repaid' in full for serving. These are:
- The hungry
- The thirsty
- The stranger
- The naked
- The sick
- The imprisoned
Interestingly, in commending the acts of the righteous towards these six groupings of people, Jesus uses the phrase:
'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to me'
Matt 25 v 40.
Some commentators have pointed out that the poor and destitute in this parable are the disadvantaged and persecuted parts of the global church. The emphasis on 'what you did for the least of these My brothers', clearly implies that it was those in a personal relationship with Christ who were the ones being served as well as the ones doing the serving. We are only Jesus' brothers if we are in personal relationship with Him (Hebrews 2 v 10-14).
One of the yardsticks that the Lord will use to test and reward our faith will be based on how well we have treated the poor and persecuted parts of the church family (Galatians 6 v 10, Hebrews 13 v 3, I John 3 v 17). However we also have a mandate to serve the poor irrespective of whether they are part of the church or not. The Gospel is 'good news to the poor', and caring for the poor was seen as axiomatic for the early church (Gal 2 v 10).
Our vision in serving the poor is to see them established as 'trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified (Isaiah 61 v 3). In Psalm 113 v 7 we read of the Lord that:
'He raises the poor out of the dust, And lifts the needy out of the ash heap, That He may seat them with princes- With the princes of His people.'
Providing basic humanitarian care and practical love towards the poor is an important but incomplete ministry. What distinguishes the church's mandate from mere humanitarian aid, is that the poor we are caring for 'might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven'. 'Glorifying your Father in heaven' implies a person or community of people have had an encounter with the Lord for that to be an experiential reality. The language is rich in personal /corporate adoration and intimacy with God. It is as if the poor and disadvantaged have so seen and been impacted by the grace of God in our lives towards them, that they themselves have now become a part of God's family. By the rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit they have now been fully 'taken from the ash heap, and seated with the princes of His people.'
All authentic works of God amongst the poor will produce 'trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified'. Healed lepers, prostitutes, blind Bartimaeus, the woman with the flow of blood, Zacchaeus the tax collector, the Gadarene demoniac, Mary Magdalene, and the thief on the Cross, are all examples of the poor and outcast being taken by Jesus from the ash heap and being seated at the table of princes. If Jesus is our plumbline, then serving the poor is more than humanitarian alleviation of poverty, important though that is. As the 'friend of sinners', Jesus transformed every life he touched, whether that person was a known name or not. They became prophetic signs that the Kingdom of God had come, and were the 'trees of righteousness displaying the glory of God'.
It is interesting to read Ezekiel's account of what lay behind the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. We tend to associate sexual perversion as the sin of these two towns, and although that was the ultimate depravity that they fell into, the rot had set in earlier when they chose to shut their ears to cry of the poor. In Ezekiel 16 v 49 we read:
' Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom; She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.'
When we close our ears to the poor, the Lord closes his ears to our prayers (Proverbs 21 v 13). When that happens corporately, society declines into the moral corruption that was not only characteristic of Sodom and Gomorrah's final days, but of all civilisations that have closed their ears to the cry of the poor. Giving to the poor seems to be one of the safety mechanisms that the Lord has given to help prevent societies from becoming consumed and ultimately destroyed through insatiable greed and idolatry.
In conclusion, we care for the poor practically, prayerfully, and prophetically. Jesus is our plumbline, and our vision is to see the poor and needy transformed into 'trees of righteousness, displaying the Lord's glory'. Alleviating humanitarian disaster and disease is important, but we also want people to 'see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven'. Praising our Father in heaven would suggest that people have not only had their practical needs met, but have come into an understanding and intimate relationship with God themselves. We love the poor whether they love God or not, but an authentic work of God will at least be seeing some who have been ' taken from the ash heap and seated with princes'.
To finish with, I have listed some of the questions that I personally ask when testing the quality of any work amongst the poor. These are:
-Whose name and honour is clearly being seen and heard? Is it Jesus' over and above anyone else? Or is His name relegated to the small print and either the name of a person or of the organisation gets the headline?
- Whose spirit and strength is this being done in? It is amazing what men and women can do without God. Only the strength and resources of the Holy Spirit bring about the permanent change that has the essential and eternal perspective in place. Could what we are doing be done just as well by a group of well meaning atheists or humanists?
- What transformation and change has taken place? Humanitarian aid is important. Jesus fed the hungry with bread and fish. However, he also challenged and invited that same crowd to be transformed spiritually by feeding from him as the bread of life. It isn't enough to focus solely on alleviating physical needs, important though that is in demonstrating the love of God. We want to see total transformation of people's lives, city and nations filled with 'trees of righteousness, displaying the Lord's glory'.