Much of the push for the church to engage in social transformation and indiscriminate care for the poor of the world comes from a wrong understanding of the relationship between the church and Israel. There is no doubt that Israel was called to care for the poor in their land—regardless of their creed. The alien, foreigner, slave, and sojourning widow were all protected by the Law, and if Israel would have kept the law, there would have been no poor in the land.
The question is this: does the church have a similar task? Is the church charged to care for the poor of the world, in the same way Israel was? I have argued elsewhere that the answer is “no,” but here I want to explain why the difference is important and helpful in understanding God’s mission to the world.
First, it has to be noted that Israel’s call to care for the poor was constrained in a very significant way. While it was not limited by creed, it was bound by geography. Israel was not called to care for the poor in Egypt. When a drought hit a neighboring country, the Israelites would have been more likely to celebrate than send a food pack. Contrast that with the church; we are quick to send aide around the world, but are rightly cautious to aide the non-believing poor in our own community. Why is that?
Because the church and Israel have different functions in redemptive history, and the respective response to poverty is connected to that intimately. Israel was supposed to stay in their land, and live in such a way that the other nations of the world would be attracted to her. In this sense, Israel was a light unto the nations. They even had their own great commission in Deut 4:5-8, where Moses explained that if they kept the Torah, the nations of the world would be attracted to Israel. They would come and they would see that Yahweh is a wise God. The nations that went their own way in Gen 11 would be magnetically attracted to Israel in Judges 1, or at least that was the plan (which Israel forgot to keep).
The response to poverty was an intrinsic part of this missional strategy. Deuteronomy 15:4-11 explains that when they meet the needs of the poor in the land, “there will be no poor among you…if only you will strictly obey the voice of Yahweh your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” Of course the rest of the passage goes on to admit that because Israelites are sinners, “there will never cease to be poor in the land.”
But in the meantime, Israelites are supposed to stay and obey. Missiologists (there are such people) refer to this as “centripetal missions.” By staying in the land and transforming their culture, Israelites were to be missionaries to the world. This worked a grand total of one time: when the Queen of Sheba came, say the absence of poverty, and praised Yahweh. But we know how that story ended—with Solomon marrying 1,000 women. With that act of wisdom, the OT missional window was shut, never to be reopened.
Contrast that with the church’s approach to both missions and poverty. While Israel was to stay and obey, the church is supposed to go and proclaim. Israel was supposed to transform their culture as a means to attract the world. The church is supposed to scatter around the world, and preach Jesus. We don’t wait for them to come to us, but we go out knocking on doors.
This does not mean that the OT ethics are treated as relics of some bygone dispensation. But rather than transforming the culture in a geographical area, we ignore borders and instead have a transformed community inside the church (hence the tiny arrows in the picture). As Christians sealed with the Spirit, we live in such a way that there is no poor inside the church. And in so doing, the world will see the way we love one another, and thus be attracted. That testimony is not enough to save, mind you. It is simply enough to validate our testimony. Thus, if a church fails to adequately care for the poor in the church, they are committing the sin of Israel, and sapping their testimony of all credibility.
Nevertheless, the difference is significant. Israel was to transform their culture as a means of attraction, and STAY in the land. In the OT, if you see an Israelite leaving, you see an Israelite compromising. How different is the church! As we scatter around the world, living transformed lives inside of transformed communities, we preach the gospel to the lost. This is why in the book of Acts there was such an emphasis on meeting the needs of those inside the church (Acts 2:44, 4:32; cf James 1:27, 2:14-17).
This discontinuity in poverty is highlighted by Paul’s collection for famine victims in 1 Cor 16:1. This never would have happened in the OT, but in the church it happens regularly (“on the first day of every week”). The church approaches missions the opposite way Israel did. By going and proclaiming, we spread the gospel and turn the world upside down. Trying to bind the church to OT ethics and methods is going in reverse, as if the kingdom of God could be brought about by those actions. Israel already tried that.
By the way, these observations are not part and parcel with dispensationalism. Keller (in Ministers of Mercy, p. 41,) explains how because of the OT approach to missions, covenant keeping morality was connected to social justice in Israel. Patterson (in The Widow, Orphan, and the Poor, p. 228-232) makes similar observations. The most thorough explanation of this is from Christopher Wright in The Mission of God, which I strongly recommend. And there is the Grissanti article linked above.
Also, if you want to read more the apparent controdiction in Duet 15 (there will be no poor/the poor will be with you always), check out Merrill’s commentary in the NAC or Christensen in Word. They are both very helpful.