Remember the Poor
The Gospel ministry of the apostle Paul was accompanied by a consideration for the poor (see Gal. 2: 10), and it is thus clear that any testimony is defective unless it is accompanied by an element of practical care. What is not immediately obvious, however, is the balance to be struck between the message of salvation and any good works associated with it. Most would regard such activities as a helpful adjunct to the Gospel, but in many cases, the physical has come to dominate the spiritual, or even supplant it altogether. This regrettable dilution of the pure evangelical message is often accompanied by an insistence on a campaigning voice for social justice despite the Christian being characteristically a stranger and sojourner on this earth, and one whose interests are in heaven (see Phil. 3: 19, 20; Heb. 11: 9, 13, 14). However, this is not the only extreme, for at the opposite end of the spectrum of profession are those who, while sound evangelically, seem to have either forgotten that “faith, if it have not works, is dead by itself” (James 2: 17), or are so constrained in their outlook that they confine their good works to those within their immediate circle. Neither extreme should carry any weight with the faithful believer—what he wants to know is what things were like in the beginning, and for that, as always, he must go back to the Bible.
God’s compassion for the poor and oppressed is a recurring theme in the OT for “Jehovah will maintain the cause of the afflicted one, the right of the needy” (Ps. 140: 12). Generous provision was made for them in the Mosaic Law, a provision that flowed from the character of God Himself: “And thy vineyard shalt thou not glean, neither shalt thou gather what hath been left of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Jehovah your God” (Lev. 19: 10, my emphasis). Indeed, Israel’s neglect of the hungry and destitute was a significant factor in divine judgment falling on the nation (see Is. 1: 23; Jer. 5: 28, 29). The sphere of compassion, however, while including the stranger that dwelt among them (see Lev. 19: 34), appears to have been limited by national boundaries.
When we come to the Gospels, we find that the Lord Jesus is often said to have been moved with “compassion” (Matt. 9: 36; Luke 7: 13), and this was put into practical effect such that “he healed many suffering from various diseases” (Mark 1: 34), and that He “healed all” (Luke 6: 19). It is true, of course, that the miracles He exercised were part of His credentials as Messiah—those who saw them were responsible to at least “believe me for the works’ sake themselves” (John 14: 11)—but it is also clear that His going about “doing good” (Acts 10: 38) was more than just a question of power. His actions flowed from His innermost being and were the expression of the divine nature. Furthermore, in His teaching, the same goodness was required of those who sought to inherit eternal life. Thus, a man’s neighbour was to be loved as himself, and in response to the question “who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10: 30), the Lord answered with the story of the Good Samaritan—a story so well–known it does not need retelling. Indeed, those who heeded the kingdom message were to be both “the light of the world” (Matt. 5: 14) and “the salt of the earth” (v13)—thus illuminating their “upright works” (v16) to mankind, while at the same time being uncontaminated by “the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet. 1: 4). Only in that limited sense were Christ’s disciples to be a ‘force for good’—they were to be a demonstration of what men ought to be, but they had nothing to do with making the world a better place. They looked instead for the King who would one day reign in righteousness and impose His will on all evil. Thus the NT records no campaigns against slavery and exhorts men to be satisfied with their pay (see Luke 3: 14). Agitating against the occupying power was also off the agenda, for tribute was still to be paid to Caesar (see Matt. 22: 17–21). Any political change would be brought about by the Lord in His own time, and not by His followers.
On one occasion, vociferous objection was made to ointment being poured on the head of the Lord Jesus: “to what end [was] this waste? for this might have been sold for much and been given to the poor” (Matt. 26: 8, 9). The Lord’s blunt answer—“for ye have the poor always with you” (v11)—while not precluding a compassionate care for the needy, shows that having social change as an objective is futile, and out of keeping with the will of God. The Christian looks not for change now, but Christ reigning in righteousness in a day to come. The woman had the right objective: “she has wrought a good work toward me” (v10, my emphasis).
Following the day of Pentecost, we find the multitude that believed in the resurrection acting in such a practical way that “neither was there any one in want among them ... and distribution was made to each according as any one might have need” (Acts 4: 34, 35). Later we read of a “daily ministration” (Acts 6: 1) for the widows of the Assembly, and of an individual sister in the Lord “full of good works and alms–deeds which she did” (Acts 9: 36). There can be no doubt that such giving of wealth and self was the inevitable result of knowing “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sakes he, being rich, became poor, in order that ye by his poverty might be enriched” (2 Cor. 8: 9). Indeed, as Christians, we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2: 10)—works which “God has before prepared that we should walk in them”. This gives force to Heb. 13: 16: “of doing good and communicating [of your substance] be not forgetful, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased”.
What is not in the NT record is, however, striking: there are no examples of charity to unbelievers. There was, for example, in the days of the Emperor Claudius “a great famine over all the inhabited earth” (Acts 11: 28), but it was only “the brethren who dwelt in Judaea” (v 29) that are said to have been sent anything. This is not to say that our care should only be confined to the needy within the Assembly, for Gal. 6: 10 instructs us that “as we have occasion, let us do good towards all, and specially towards those of the household of faith” (my emphasis; see 1 Thess. 3: 12; 5: 15). However, the word specially clearly indicates that the preponderance of our activity is to be directed towards those in need in Christ’s body on earth. To be immune to the suffering of mankind in general is clearly wrong, but it is also wrong to allow our care to be indiscriminate. Care for our brethren must always be put ahead of care for all men. As the apostle says elsewhere, “if one member suffer, all the members suffer with [it]” (1 Cor. 12: 26). This consideration of the one body would also preserve us from having our care constrained by party–spirit for “the household of faith” (Gal. 6: 10) clearly embraces all Christians. As John reminds us, “whoso may have the world’s substance, and see his brother having need, and shut up his bowels from him, how abides the love of God in him?” (1 John 3: 17). Let us therefore be as diligent as Paul was (see Gal. 2: 10) in remembering the poor!