This Sunday, Bethel will be hosting Bill Payne, who is the Assistant Director of Missoula 3:16. Missoula 3:16 is a local ministry seeking to aid and meet the needs of the homeless and economically disadvantaged in Missoula. As I was thinking about their work, I recognized that throughout Church History, God’s people have responded in various ways to the plight of the poor and oppressed. History is full of Men and Women, who in the name of Christ, built hospitals, cared for the sick, abolished slavery, and ministered to deep felt needs. But over the last century, especially in the Evangelical church, there has been a movement away from what I call “compassion ministries.”
As an Evangelical, we believe that the primary purpose of the Church is to point people towards receiving and growing in Christ. We have focused on spiritual issues rather than meeting the felt needs of people and lately I can’t help but sense that we have been missing out on something. So I find myself asking, “Does the Church have a responsibility to the poor and oppressed?”
I think Scripture overwhelmingly teaches that we do. Being the Church is more than just a matter of preaching about Spiritual things, but its about demonstrating the power of those Spiritual ideals in our relationships. Here are two realities that I think Scripture reveals about our responsibility to meet physical and spiritual needs.
1) Jesus commands it of us. (Matthew 25:34-45)
In this passage, Jesus reminds us that our neglect of the needs of the poor is ultimately a neglect of Jesus himself. He stands in solidarity with the poor and expects that we as His people care for those needs. Those that came and clothed, encouraged, and cared for others are rewarded as if they had done it to Christ himself. At the same time, one cannot help to notice the harshness and directness with which Jesus speaks to the other group. Those that looked past needs missed the opportunity to care for the poor and in doing so are held responsible for their neglect. Our obligation to meet the physical needs is first and foremost sourced in the fact that Jesus requires it of us.
2) Our recognition of the Love of God expresses itself in a love for the poor. (1 John 3:17)
The degree to which we understand the love and provision of God will express itself in the love and compassion that we have for others. The Apostle John writes, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” John is reminding us that God has set an example for us of how we are to love. He gave himself extravagantly to bring us into a right relationship with himself. He provides for our needs even when we take him for granted. The things that we enjoy as his provision are ultimately a gift from God.
John puts his finger right on the issue when we says that this person, “sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him.” To be sure there is a place for wisdom and stewardship in meeting the needs of the poor. The church is not an ATM to be taken advantage of. But, I fear that we have gone to the opposite extreme and closed our heart to true need. The first step to showing compassion for the poor is to “notice” and to not close the heart. People in need can fade into the background just like the wounded man that was passed by the Rabbi and Scribe in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I think more than just seeing someone “in need” we need to see the person. Only then can our hearts be brought into a place where we can truly minister to physical and spiritual needs. If the love of God doesn’t translate for a care for the poor, then have we really understood the goodness and Love of God in our own lives?
I believe that, “All true beliefs express themselves in tangible action. “ The truest test of whether or not we believe something is whether or not we are willing to live it. Our care and compassion for the poor is a reflection of our understanding of the love and mercy of God. May he grant us the grace to keep our hearts open and to manifest his love to a world in need.