July 29, 2012

The Least of These I: The Heart of God For The Poor

Mihag Gedi Farah
Dadaab, Kenya
Photo: Schalk van Zuydam (AP Photo)
I have completed my last paper for a theology class for my degree and it was about the downtrodden and the poor in the world. I can never look at them the same after doing this paper. The Lord has dragged me too deeply into this to ever ignore it the way I used to. If you are not stirred to action by this you do not have a heart beating within your chest nor a conscience. I would even go as far as to say that you do not truly understand God's purposes for a believer being benevolent to the poor or even their fellow man. I will be breaking this abbreviating and dividing this paper up into about 5 posts as this was originally 41 pages.

Prologue: The Heart of God for the Poor

To be able to understand what the church should be doing when dealing with the poor and how they handle social issues like poverty we must understand how the Bible speaks to it. We must especially focus on the dealings Jesus had with the poor since Jesus was God and is the main focus of Scripture. These will be the Biblical ideals that the church must aspire to. We need to do this because we will find written accounts of God’s actions towards the poor in the Bible. If we are to be Christian and emulate God in our behavior(s) towards the poor we need look no farther than Jesus’ actions as they are the benchmark for the Christian and therefore the Churches behavior towards less fortunate and disenfranchised of humanity. When I say poor or poverty I’m referring to people that are unable or have an inability to acquire enough money, goods or necessities of life to get along or be able to live (Furness 57). This is important if we are to see how the Body of Christ matches up to Jesus Christ Himself.

After this I will show how the early church, previous to and immediately following Christ’s ascension matches up to these ideals. In other words, the first part of this paper will be a “how-to” that is geared towards treating the poor in a biblical manner based on Jesus and his interactions during His ministry. We will then do the same by examining the Apostles/disciples that followed Christ’s lead. They will be a good gauge to see if there were consistent out-workings or manifestations of Christ-like behavior in the Church in the likes of Paul and other Apostles/disciples.

As could be expected from an undertaking so extensive, encompassing all the socially benevolent practices recorded of Jesus (God) and His disciples in the Bible will not be possible in a paper of this size. I will be hitting on some of the main ideas furnished by Scriptures and elaborating on them.

Invariably, this will give us a good indicator of where the Church universal and society should stand concerning the poor then and now. These out-workings of the church are relevant whether they be in the nascent church or today. The same principles that applied then, apply now as we are all under one Spirit in Christ. So to try and compare the ancient church to the modern church to try and draw distinctions is irrelevant. On the other hand, comparisons to see if we align consistently to one another throughout history is critical as we are all under a God of order and He is immutable.

1 Corinthians 14:33 ~ “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.”

Therefore, if He indwells all believers we should see a consistent and uniform behavior in believers towards the poor from the time of Christ until today. It goes without saying that if we do not see behavior in modern times and it is not harmonizing with Biblical principles, it would need to be corrected and aligned to Scripture to keep it within the will of God. This should be the goal of any Christian as it brings ultimate glory to God. We should all be adhering to the same biblical principles. The contexts and applications may change but the principles remain the same as they find their source in God who is unchangeable irrespective of time or place. 
What we will find in this paper is not necessarily what man is doing in the church to help his fellow man as much as we will see what God is doing through man and the Church to fulfill His sovereign purposes which inevitably lead to the fruition of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God which is in essence, a return to the way things should’ve been all along before the fall of humanity in Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. In the end I will summarize and offer a few personal insights.

Part I: Scriptures and Jesus

The Case from Scripture
The Bible being God’s revelation of Himself needs to always be the starting point for determining God’s motives or intent with the Poor. We see this intent all over Scripture and we see in it Jesus’ overflowing compassion for the ill, crippled, poor, etc. Scripture is replete with encouragements to be compassionate to the marginalized of society as they are most often the preferred audience for Jesus (Ridderbos 185-190). We are called to assistance the poor. If these types of statements and commands are all throughout the Bible and we see Jesus doing them fulfilling the very same commands He has given us, this must truly be the heart of God. The following are some of these passages of Scripture. As can be expected, some of these sayings are from Jesus himself. [All Scriptural citations in this paper from NIV unless otherwise noted. The general framework of Scripture is as garnered from the World Vision website as it is a worldwide evangelical relief organization (World Vision International, “What Does the Bible Say?”). World Vision International is a Christian organization that states that its purpose is:
“…an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God.” (World Vision International, “Mission Statement”)].
At times, God is not subtle. There are times due to humanity’s lack of compassion, ignorance (or both) that God has to come down hard on humanity. It is at these times God actually ups the ante for believers and issues commands as humanity will not volitionally do what is right. Below are some of God's commands and instructions concerning those in poverty. Please note I said commands not requests.
Deuteronomy 15:7 “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.”

Proverbs 31:8 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

Isaiah 1:16-17 “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Jeremiah 22:3 “This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”

Jeremiah 22:13-17 "“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion."

Luke 3:11 “John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Luke 12:33 "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys."

2 Corinthians 9:6-9 “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”

Other Scripture that also speaks to the issues of poverty, injustice or those in need:

Psalm 82:3 “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed”

Psalm 140:12. “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.”

Isaiah 25:4. “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat…”

Matthew 25:40-46 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. ‘“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Luke 6:20-21 “Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

James 2:5 “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

As can be expected, there is reward when a Christian is obedient to the will of God (a la Deuteronomy 28). We see the following blessings for generosity and helping the poor which is in accord with the will of God or there would not be a reward for obedience.

Psalm 41:1 “Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.”

Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done”

Proverbs 22:9 “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor”

Matthew 19:20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

There are of course other exhortations and warnings to not neglect the poor in Scripture. These warnings apply to those that have neglected the poor but some also speak to those that oppressed or subjugated the poor.

Proverbs 14:31 “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

Ezekiel 16:49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

Amos 5:12 “For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”

Luke 6:24 " “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."

2 Corinthians 8:9 “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

1 John 3:17 “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

The reason I list these plethora of verses early in the paper and en masse is because I am presenting God’s inclination towards the poor and His concern for them. It is a concern that has been around since the beginning in God’s redemptive plans. If it has been God’s concern, it should most certainly be ours if we are truly Christians. The most perfect and accurate revelation of God is in His Word and His Son Jesus Christ. As such we should see a concurrence and parallel between the Scriptures and Jesus in terms of words and actions towards the poor and this is exactly what Scripture reveals to us. It is exact what our actions should also reveal to us also to assure that we are indeed “in Christ” as Paul was so fond of saying. It is proof positive that God’s Spirit (therefore salvation) is within us also.
It is the principle we will see all throughout Jesus earthly ministry. It is the idea of taking care of one’s neighbor as one’s self or as Jesus had said in Matthew 25, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The reason this becomes so critical to us in the Church is because we are a Body of believers built upon the Cornerstone which is Christ. What we know of Him and His ministry is revealed in the Scripture. So if we are to properly understand the Scripture’s that Jesus used (Old Testament) and properly understand how they speak of Him (both Old and New Testament), we need this baseline to work from. Furthermore, if Jesus can be found in the Scriptures, Jesus should be found in us. This also means that the Scriptures should be found in us or at least an outworking of what they say in our actions. As such we will be revisiting many of these pieces of Scripture throughout the scope of this paper to look at them in further detail.

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