As the US government massively ramps up social welfare programs over the next four years, many will say our poverty and unemployment problems are so enormous that only the government can handle them. A handful will argue that if the church was fulfilling its God-given role in helping “the least of these,” the government would not be needed in a social welfare role.
My friends won’t be surprised to hear I disagree with both.
To the one group, I’d say that helping the poor and unemployed is only the facade erected by cynical politicians on their drive to create a nationwide plantation of slaves dependent on them for survival. They have suckered good-hearted citizens with the “help the poor” rhetoric, but the fact is their motive was political and the kind of help they provide only hurts people in need.
To the other group, I’d say the biblical mandate to help “the least of these” actually refers to other believers who are in need.
Recall the passage in Matthew 25 where the King says to his faithful subjects, who have fed the hungry and visited the prisoners, “I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ (Matthew 25:40 NLT) We often overlook the fact that the passage says “my brothers and sisters.” (Actually, it says “my brothers,” but that’s another topic for another day.)
I was reminded of this just now as I was reading Acts 11 for my current book project. In verses 28-29, we are told that a believer in Antioch named Agabus prophesied famine in Judea, so the believers in Antioch decided to send relief “to the brothers and sisters in Judea.”
So who are Jesus’ (and our) “brothers and sisters”?
I’m reminded of the passage in Matthew 12, which tells about the time Jesus’ mother and brothers came to the house in Capernaum where he was teaching and wanted to speak with him. Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, and they want to speak to you.” Jesus asked, ”Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and said, ”These are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!” (vv. 47-50)
The brothers and sisters of Jesus are those people who do the will of God. That gives us reason to think “the least of these my brothers” refers to followers of Jesus, or God-fearers at least. The passage above not only holds implications for our teaching about salvation, but it also informs a discussion about “mercy ministries” the church conducts.
We are not bound to give money to every panhandler on the street or beggar at the door. Our help should not hurt, and most of the time our good hearts urge us to do precisely the wrong thing.
In the same vein, we are not called as the Church to provide a comprehensive social welfare system for our country. (I also don’t think that’s the proper role of government but, again, another topic for another day.) The churches as they are today spiritually, simply are not up to the challenge of miraculous signs and wonders. Faced with a crowd of 5,000 hungry men, plus women and children, most churches would say, “We have some Rice-A-Roni in the pantry, but what is that among so many?”
While we are not bound to provide for all the poor of our town or country, we are absolutely bound to provide assistance for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need, whether they are in our own congregation or halfway around the world. If I read Matthew 25 correctly, we are bound to love one another at a very high level. Jesus gave his disciples a “new commandment” – “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”
Given the fact Jesus said this just hours before he would be tortured to death for the sins of the world, I’d say he set a very high standard for us in loving our brothers and sisters in Christ.
None of this, however, lets any believer off the hook for helping the poor and oppressed who are not in Christ. Yesterday’s passage, Acts 10:38, reminds us that when God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil. Our call as his followers is to bring God’s justice and healing to people in need, regardless of whether they believe.
Helping people in need is a powerful witness to the love of Christ that transforms us from greedy self-absorbed individuals into the hands and feet of Jesus among the hungry, sick, and imprisoned. I doubt it was a coincidence that as the church in Jerusalem provided for its widows with a daily distribution of food, the number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem as well. (Acts 6:1-7)
The enormity of our world’s problems with poverty and injustice only highlights the divine genius of the PEACE Plan. Not only are these problems too large for the Church alone, they also are too large for the government to meet with justice. But when a community or country brings everyone to the table — public sector and private — it discovers both the will and resources to take down the giants that oppress the people.
God’s people can launch a justice revolution in their community by demonstrating Jesus’ kind of self-sacrificing love for needy brothers and sisters. That, in turn, will draw multitudes of others to Christ, giving the church resources to enlarge its vision for those outside the church. When we make common cause with leaders of other sectors in society, very powerful alliances can be built that are capable of fundamentally realigning even entire countries toward justice.
Ignoring the cries of the poor and oppressed offends God and put us (as it did with Israel) in danger of exile and captivity, but it also deprives us of the joy that comes with seeing God work miracles through his people. Remember: “By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope.” (Ephesians 3:20 NLT)
With v.21 we say, “May he be given glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever through endless ages.”