“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

In the December 2008 issue of the online journal Themelios, Tim Keller has an article titled, The Gospel and the Poor. I’d like to share some of the highlights with you and make a comment or two about the content.

I think one of the main questions I have always had when it comes to the Christian and the poor runs something like this: Does the Bible command us to be rich towards all poor or just our ‘own kind’? When I read the book of Acts, I see a congregation we are told had ‘no poor among them.’ The author of Acts wrote, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money to the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Well, does this refer to the church alone? Does this mean that the church had a (re)-distribution center among themselves and that the only way to participate in the program was to be one of the church (folk)? Or does this mean that the church shared liberally with ‘anyone’ who had need? I’m not sure we can make any definitive statements about this. I think we need to be cautious at best and ere on the side of generosity at worst. Or maybe the other way around.

Then there’s another verse that might contradict this verse (if we take the verse to refer strictly to the church’s actions within itself). That verse is found in Matthew, and was uttered by Jesus himself. Consider:

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:44-46)

I kind of find it difficult to believe that God is generous towards the unrighteous poor and that we are somehow only to be kind to the righteous poor. There would seem to be a disconnect somewhere if that is true; and I cannot imagine God is into disconnects. So Keller begins his essay by asking this question, “How does our commitment to the primacy of the gospel tie into our obligation to do good to all, especially those of the household of faith, to serve as salt and light in the world, to do good to the city?”

Keller then moves on to demonstrate the primacy of the Gospel as a mainly proclaimed Gospel. To be committed to the primacy of the Gospel, he writes, means that ‘first…the gospel must be proclaimed.’ We are, he contends, mainly a people of speech. However, we are not only a people of speech even if, as he writes, preaching and proclamation cannot be replaced: “Gospel ministry is not only proclaiming it to people so that they will embrace and believe it; it is also teaching and shepherding believers with it so that it shapes the entirety of their lives, so that they can ‘live it out.’ And one of the most prominent areas that the gospel effects is our relationship to the poor.” (Keller, 9-10)

The best part of this essay by Keller is that his main defense for his position is an essay by Jonathan Edwards called ‘Christian Charity.’ Edwards based his understanding of the Christian duty to the poor on two thoughts. The first, is that believing the Gospel will move us to give to the poor. The second, is that ministry to the poor is a crucial sign that we believe the Gospel. Consider these excerpts from Keller explaining these two broader points of Edwards’ thesis.

Edwards repeatedly shows us how an understanding of what he calls “the rules of the gospel”—the pattern and logic of the gospel—inevitably moves us to love and help the poor. While Edwards believes that the command to give to the poor is an implication of the teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God, he believes that the most important motivation for giving to the poor is the gospel: Giving to the poor “is especially reasonable, considering our circumstances, under such a dispensation of grace as that of the gospel.”

One of the key texts to which Edwards turns to make this case is 2 Cor 8:8-9 (within the context of the entirety of chapters 8 and 9). When Paul asks for financial generosity to the poor, he points to the self-emptying of Jesus, vividly depicting him as becoming poor for us, both literally and spiritually, in the incarnation and on the cross. For Edwards, Paul’s little introduction “I am not commanding you…for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” is significant. The argument seems to be that if you grasp substitutionary atonement in both your head and your heart, you will be profoundly generous to the poor. Think it out! The only way for Jesus to get us out of our spiritual poverty and into spiritual riches was to get out of his spiritual riches into spiritual poverty. This should now be the pattern of your life. Give your resources away and enter into need so that those in need will be resourced. Paul also implies here that all sinners saved by grace will look at the poor of this world and feel that in some way they are looking in the mirror. The superiority will be gone. (10, for point 1)

And:

In the most powerful part of the discourse, Edwards answers a series of common objections he gets when he preaches about the gospel-duty of giving to the poor. In almost every case, he uses the logic of the gospel—of substitutionary atonement and free justification—on the objection. In every case, radical, remarkable, sacrificial generosity to the poor is the result of thinking out and living out the gospel. (11, to point 1)

And Finally:

In short, Edwards teaches that the gospel requires us to be involved in the life of the poor—not only financially, but personally and emotionally. Our giving must not be token but so radical that it brings a measure of suffering into our own lives. And we should be very patiently and nonpaternalistically openhanded to those whose behavior has caused or aggravated their poverty. These attitudes and dimensions of ministry to the poor proceed not simply from general biblical ethical principles but from the gospel itself. (12, also for point 1)

This last block means that, yes, we should give generously even to those who have made their situation worse by being irresponsible. Some would say we don’t need to give to those who have created their situation, Edwards (and Keller) argue to the contrary).

Now, on to Edwards’ second point:

The principle: a sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of service to the needy is the inevitable outcome of true faith. By deeds of service, God can judge true love of himself from lipservice (cf. Isa 1:10–17). Matt 25, in which Jesus identifies himself with the poor (“as you did it to the least of them, you did it to me”) can be compared to Prov 14:31 and 19:17, in which we are told that to be gracious to the poor is to lend to God himself and to trample on the poor is to trample on God himself. This means that God on judgment day can tell what a person’s heart attitude is to him by what the person’s heart attitude is to the poor. If there is a hardness, indifference, or superiority, it betrays the self-righteousness of a heart that has not truly embraced the truth that he or she is a lost sinner saved only by free yet costly grace.

Edwards’s appeal and argument is very powerful. He begins his study asking, “Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms, and in a more peremptory urgent manner, than the command of giving to the poor?” He concludes his survey of the biblical material with Proverbs 21:3: “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he shall cry himself and not be heard.” Edwards adds, “God hath threatened uncharitable persons, that if ever they come to be in calamity and distress they shall be left helpless.” Edwards brings home the Bible’s demand that gospel-shaped Christians must be remarkable for their involvement with and concern for the poor. We should literally be “famous” for it. That is the implication of texts such as Matt 5:13–16 and 1 Pet 2:11–12. (13, to point 2)

Thus far, I don’t think we have answered the question I posed at the beginning. That is, is the church to be a place of circular generosity or a place of centrifugal force? The church in the book of Acts didn’t seem to wrestle with this question: They gave themselves wholly to the work of Christ and did whatever it took to minister in his name to whoever happened in their path on any given day.

In other words, I think maybe I am asking the wrong question. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all whether the poor person put in our path is a Christian or not. Maybe what matters is whether or not I believe God has put me in a position to help someone. Maybe what matters is how I consider what God has re-created me for, what he has re-created me to do, what works he has predestined me to accomplish by His power, in His Name, and for His glory.

Maybe we church folk spend far too much time trying to figure out who are to serve at the expense of serving anyone. Perhaps the church is so consumed with the idea that there ‘be no poor among us’ that we miss opportunities all around us, every day, to serve the least, the last, and the lost—who are also among us. Perhaps the church is so intent on hoarding God’s blessings for ourselves that we have forgotten to be a blessing to others.

Perhaps we are so intent on maintaining our property that we have forgotten to be stewards of his planet, his creatures, his image.

If I may say it this way: Perhaps the church is too damned selfish with God’s blessings. The church is so damned concerned about their image that they neglect God’s image or, worse, defame it by their inaction towards the poor. Could be. I hope I’m exaggerating, but I don’t think I am. My experience has taught me differently. It’s not true of every church, but probably more than we care to admit.

There is something remarkably beautiful about Jesus who hides himself among the poor, downtrodden, broken, and beaten of this world—hid so remarkably well that we can’t even see him or tell that it is him. There is something remarkably beautiful about a church being as poor as Jesus.

We are quite ironic Christians–we Americans.

“Jesus wants to save the church from thinking that the priests are somebody else” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 178)

The church has ceded too much of its responsibility and obligation to the poor to the very powers that Christ destroyed at the cross. We need to be reminded again of who we are created to be in Christ.We need to be reminded again that our Master gave up all to come among us. We need to be reminded again and again that we are, in fact, quite poverty stricken regardless of our personal wealth.

In part 2, I shall investigate Keller’s essay a bit further and try to answer my question a bit better and try to wrap my head around Keller’s profound statement, “The basis for ‘doing justice’ is salvation by grace.” In the meantime, you might click the above link and read Keller’s excellent essay for yourself.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 at 1:39 am and is filed under Christian Living, Church and Society, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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9 Comments(+Add)

1   Zan    
August 19th, 2009 at 9:23 am

Jerry,

That was great food for thought! A very challenging (good) way to start my morning. I have Tim Keller’s essay pulled up and have started reading it, but I read/comprehend slowly, so it will take me a while.

Here is my issue/struggle though:

And we should be very patiently and nonpaternalistically openhanded to those whose behavior has caused or aggravated their poverty. These attitudes and dimensions of ministry to the poor proceed not simply from general biblical ethical principles but from the gospel itself.

Patience is key, yes. Virtually all people have made choices that contributed to some difficult time in their lives. Here’s the “But”: I read II Thessalonians 3:6-14, and must believe that there are certain times, subjective though they may be, that one must not help. Is this a case-by-case issue, to be decided between myself and God? Paul says, “warn him as a brother”, which could fall into the “nonpaternalistically” category…

I can not, nor do I believe I should, be an enabler. If I continue to give to someone who continues to be irresponsible, how is that good for them? I know it isn’t just about them, it is also about my heart, but that is money I see as being thrown away, “pearls before swine” type of action…Is it wrong for me to take that money away and give it to someone who innocently needs it?

Thanks for raising thought-provoking questions! It is good to be stretched.

2   Theodore A. Jones    
August 19th, 2009 at 9:23 am

Keller’s comparison of the contemporary church(s) to the churches described in Acts and notes the differences does not reconize that the church in Acts is an entirely different “animal” than contemporary churches. The church in Acts was built on an entirely different foundation than contemporary churchs. Contemporary churches are not the same “animal”.

3   Jerry    http://www.dangoldfinch.wordpress.com
August 19th, 2009 at 10:26 am

Zan,

In the second part of the essay, Keller discusses how eschatology plays a part in our understanding of how we are to respond to the poor and Keller ultimately concludes that the question of ministry to the poor can be answered apart from eschatology. He writes, “As we can see from Edwards’s exposition and argument, the case for the importance of ministry to the poor does not rest on these controversial issues. As he says, the mandate to care for the poor is as strong as any in the Bible, and in the New Testament (and even the Old Testament), it is usually grounded in the gospel of substitution, ransom, and grace.” (14)

It’s a valid question you raise, and interestingly enough the people Paul wrote to in Thessalonians had a thoroughly messed up eschatology thinking that they didn’t have to work because Christ had already, in a secret way, returned.

It is amazing that Paul wrote what he wrote not to the church concerning the ‘lost’, but concerning the ’saved.’ Interesting that we are warned not to enable other Christians! But I don’t think we are afforded the luxury of being so discerning when it comes to the ‘lost’ poor who have no eschatology whatsoever.

So if our ministry to the poor is grounded in the gospel of grace, then there cannot be any such limitations. How many times a day do we go to the Father, empty handed, poor, broken, and ask for a hand-out? When God demonstrates grace to us I don’t think he views it as enabling, He views it as a reflection of His own character. He is God, slow to anger, abounding in love…

In a sense, we may very well be helping a person who will go right back to the puddle of mud. On the other hand, we may also be giving them one more opportunity to experience grace. Where would we be without grace?

We need to be reminded again and again that we are, in fact, quite poverty stricken regardless of our personal wealth.

Thanks for the feedback.

4   iggy    http://wordofmouthministries.blogspot.com/
August 19th, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Zan,

My gut just tells me that nobody is innocent when we get down to brass tacks. Some are more fortunate and made better choices, yet the bottom line, none of us deserved to have Jesus come and die then rise to give us life. I think that enabling has some aspects of truth yet often we forget that even the most lowly are still human. That man who takes your money, makes up a story about his car, kids, sick mother/wife (we have all heard them)… are embarrassed to tell us the truth…. they have fear of acceptance for their bad choices. I am not saying go out and buy them booze, but how about praying with them as you give them money or food? How about looking at ways to humanize them.

I am speaking to myself as well so I hope you do not take it as chastening you. I truly understand, but wonder is there really a line in the sand when it comes to giving God’s Grace away to others?

5   Jerry    http://www.dangoldfinch.wordpress.com
August 19th, 2009 at 1:43 pm

iggy,

I truly understand, but wonder is there really a line in the sand when it comes to giving God’s Grace away to others?

I don’t think so.

6   Zan    
August 19th, 2009 at 3:04 pm

But does grace always translate as money/food?

Iggy, I agree 100% no one is innocent therefore deserving of God’s grace. thus “grace”…I just believe that we can’t divorce our head from our heart in HOW we administer God’s grace. I absolutely believe God can work in the most hopeless situations. Is it wrong, therefore, for me to shift my giving to someone with a different attitude? We will never run out of places/people to give to, but if I think I would rather help a single mom in poverty, but not a drunk on the street…is that wrong of me? I don’t deny the need to show grace to the drunk, but I believe the money/help given would be used better by the mom. I wouldn’t ever say that it was a line in the sand, I don’t believe we should withhold grace from others. (And how arrogant to think we are the sole arbiter of God’s grace! but how often we do…) But that also goes to the matter of gifts…Jerry is blessed with the gift of ministering God’s grace to special needs kids. I love high school kids and have a heart for them. I struggle with intolerance for spineless people, who don’t take ownership of their situations. (I know…duh!)

Ok, I apologize for the rambling. Not as eloquent as Jerry, but just trying to work out my faith in writing…

7   Jerry    http://www.dangoldfinch.wordpress.com
August 19th, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Zan,

We will never run out of places/people to give to, but if I think I would rather help a single mom in poverty, but not a drunk on the street…is that wrong of me?

Nope. That’s the beauty of grace. Or, as the Scripture says, “To one is given this gift, and to another that gift. We do not all share the same gift because if we did, then where would the other gifts be? But the greatest of these is love.” (rough paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 12).

That is, all our gifts are administered through the lens of grace and are prompted by our love. So, no, you are not wrong; just different. And thank God! If all of us were the same, the world would be bland and nothing would get done.

You help the single mom; I’ll help the special needs kids; iggy can help the drunks; together, in cooperation with the Spirit, we will rob the strongman of his possessions one person at a time. Christ has bound him; now he can be robbed!

Blessings.
jerry

8   AnonymousJane    
August 20th, 2009 at 12:20 pm

I didn’t read the name of the author before digging into this article, but halfway through, I knew it was Jerry before looking. Jerry, you are really adding something wonderful to CRN. Thank you.

9   Jerry    http://www.dangoldfinch.wordpress.com
August 20th, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Jane,

Thank you.

jerry