Yesterday I wrote on how the New Testament calls believers to help minister to those afflicted by tragedy and disasters such as this week’s tornado. I gave some practical steps for churches to apply the biblical commands to meet each other’s needs in times of distress. Yet it occurred to me later that there might be some people who cringe at those commands, and who feel like the Bible does not command believers to use their resources in that way. This post is my attempt to argue that the New Testament directs Christians to use their money to meet the material needs of other believers.
The desire to help the poor is a biblical mandate. For example, when Zacchaeus repented, he gave half of his wealth to the poor (Luke 19:8). This was not a works-based form of penance, but rather an expression of compassion towards the needy. In fact, Jesus often used giving to the poor as a basic standard of righteousness (Matt 19:21, Luke 14:13), and even specifically blessed them (Luke 6:20). In the sermon on the mount, he told his listeners, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matt 5:42). He repeated this ethic in Luke 3:11: “Whoever has two tunicsis to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” On another occasion, immediately after Jesus told his followers not to worry because God would provide for their needs, he added:
“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34).
Finally, he gave a specific way Christians can serve the poor:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothersor your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12–14).
To underscore the importance of showing compassion to the poor, when Paul received his specific ordination for ministry the Apostles gave him only one direct charge: “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10). How Paul fulfilled that command is noted in his epistles. First, he took collections from the other churches to meet the needs of the poor in the Jerusalem church (Rom 15:26). In fact, he told the church in Corinth to take this collection every week, so that when Paul would arrive there, there would be no shortage for the poor in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1–4). When Paul established the criteria for eldership, one of the qualifications is that an elder be “hospitable,” a word which refers to how one loves and cares for the poor. It is evident that a care for the poor is a mark of New Testament ministry.
Beyond Paul, James forbids favoritism to the rich, while practically lambasting the rich for their chronic neglect of the poor (Jas 1:10–11, 2:6, 5:1). He ridicules the idea that a Christian can claim to have faith while not meeting the poor’s physical needs (Jas 2:16). Meanwhile, John in typical black-and-white fashion, simply writes, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
Indeed the command for Christians to love and care for the poor just may be the most common specific New Testament command. I actually agree with Tim Keller when he writes, “The striking truth is that the work of mercy is fundamental to being a Christian.”
The connection is not accidental. The importance of ministering to the poor is so stressed in the New Testament because it is reveals a connection to the heart and character of God. God is compassionate to the poor, the gospel is the hope of the poor, and God has chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith. Christians are therefore to “adorn the gospel” in all that they do, because the gospel has been made known to them (cf. Titus 2:10–11). The compassion God showed Christians in giving them the gospel is to be seen in the compassion Christians are to have in bringing the good news to the poor.
I do believe that those commands refer to the poor in the church (in your own local church first, and then in other global churches second). The New Testament does not mandate cultural renewal or social transformation, and the church never has as its goal the eradication of poverty in the world. But believers are called to minister to the poor in their midst, and to meet the needs of believers world wide. Obedience to these commands is one of the most basic ways that God’s glory is revealed through the church.