This post is part of Blog Action Day 2008 concerning the topic of poverty. For those reaching my blog through the Blog Action Day site, there is something you should know about me. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I approach life from that perspective. The post is primarily written for other followers of Jesus Christ in an attempt to exhort and admonish others towards caring for the poor. However, I encourage others (even those who are not Christians) to interact with me in the comment concerning this topic.
If I had written this blog post a year ago, it would have been much different. Why? Because at that time I did not have any experience serving the poor. Instead, for most of my life, I had given money for others to take care of the poor. Looking back, I now see that I was blind to both the needs of those who are poor and the responsibilities that we have as children of God to take care of those who are poor.
Throughout the Old Testament prophets, God punishes his children primarily for two failures: 1) a failure to love Him, and 2) a failure to love others. They demonstrated that they did not love God by worshiping idols. They demonstrated that they did not love other people by refusing to care for the poor, the needy, the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners.
When we turn to the New Testament, Jesus again reinforces these two principles in what we call “The Great Commandment”: love God and love others. In the epistles, this two-fold command (and indeed “all the law”) is often summarized as “Love your neighbor” (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). Similarly, John writes that we do not love God (regardless of what we SAY) if we do not demonstrate love towards other people (1 John 3:17; 4:21).
Perhaps one of the most poignant passages related to caring for other people is found in Matthew’s Gospel:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,1 you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:34-46 ESV)
We often argue about the nuanced implications of this passage without noticing (and living according to) what is obvious: those who are righteous in God’s perspective demonstrate their righteousness by caring for “the least”. In this passage, there are several examples give of those included in “the least”: the hungry, the thirsty, foreigners (strangers), those needing clothing, the sick, and those in prison. Furthermore, “the righteous” respond to the needs of “the least” with action: giving food or drink or clothing, welcoming the stranger, visiting those sick or in prison. These are not passive responses, but active responses. These are not delegated responses, but personal, intimate responses.
However, today, the church deals with “the least” in a much different way. We pool our money and pay others to deal with “the least”. We delegate our responsibilities and pat ourselves on the back for caring enough to give $5 (or even $100). The truth is, the poor do not need your money.
In his book Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development, John M. Perkins highlights the problem:
America’s best intentions, most sincere thoughts, noblest efforts – all of these are useless to the urban poor if they do no connect with our personally defined, deepest felt needs. In fact, acts of charity can be dangerous because givers can feel good about actions that actually accomplish very little, or even create dependency. The result is that their sense of satisfaction takes away any motivation to seek more creative long-range development strategies. Overcoming an attitude of charity is a difficult task because it requires givers to demand more of themselves than good will. (23)
Caring for the poor requires more than giving our money. Our God-given responsibility toward “the least” requires action – not simply giving money. If we are to care for “the least” as Scripture says “the righteous” will do, then we must start responding to “the least” in more appropriate and more personal and more intimate ways.
Like I said, just one year ago, my only response to the poor was to throw a little money at the problem. This may have alleviated my guilt for a short time, but it did very little – if anything – to actually help the poor. I was not living according to my God-given responsibilities toward “the least” by giving money. In fact, as Perkins points out, my money was probably causing more problems that it was helping.
A few months ago, our family started spending time every week with poor people in a government assisted housing development. We found that those living in poverty need much more than money. Primarily, the people that we’ve met need friendship first. They are lonely. Second, they have needs that a little money will not help, but a little time will – things like tutoring, financial planning, parenting help. If we are going to care for “the least”, we must be willing to be part of their lives and invite them to be part of our lives.
Last weekend, as I was driving homes from Pennsylvania with some friends, I received a call. Tina, one of the ladies that we’ve met, needs some help. Tina has had cancer, she has emphysema, and she’s been sick for the last couple of weeks. Over the weekend, Tina’s son OD’d. Tina needs help, but a few dollars out of my wallet will not help her. Instead, Tina needs a friend, and our family has told her that we will be there for her. We can’t alleviate her grief, but we can walk beside her through it.
John wrote, “And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21 ESV). Do you love God? Are you demonstrating that love to others? Do you care about others enough to find out what they need and how you can help?
Its time for the church to stop throwing money at poverty and delegating others to care for the poor. Its time for followers of Jesus Christ to actually follow him by demonstrating his love to “the least”.