Posts Tagged 'ministry to the poor'

“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)


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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