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WORTHY OR UNWORTHY: TWO VIEWS ON POVERTY PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim Jordal   
Thursday, 23 November 2006

COMPASSION FOR THE POOR: A CHRISTIAN VIRTUE

By Jim Jordal

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and in truth.

I John 3:16-18 (NASB)

"If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks…You shall generously give to him, and your hear shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings."."

Deut. 15:7-10 (NASB)

It saddens me to mention it, but some Christians have little compassion for the poor. When issues arise concerning poverty or any of its attendant ills their first comment is to disclaim responsibility, since, as everyone knows, the poor contribute heavily to their own suffering. These compassion-challenged persons then cite in support of their position whatever individual examples they may have encountered in which individual shortcomings led to poverty. Often they respond from their own personal experience about how they overcame economic adversity, adding, "and if I could do it, so can they."

But Scripture disagrees: For every verse blaming poverty on deficient individual behavior, there must be 50 tracing poverty to oppression and injustice administered by powerful persons or groups abusing their economic and political power. Actually, this sort of economic injustice, by virtue of the vast weight of biblical consideration, the thundering voices of prophets, and the revealed anger of God, ranks as a major message of the Bible. So why is it still ignored in so many churches?

One reason is that other matters capture our attention. In many Christian circles sexual purity seems to trump all other virtues. We quote chapter and verse condemning those practicing what we view as sexual laxity, while conveniently ignoring many possibly greater sins. My intent is not to condone sexual sin, but simply to say that there are other equally egregious sins that should also claim our attention.

We also generally pay more attention to doctrinal correctness and religious tradition than to matters of economic justice. Again, it's not that these are unimportant, but just that we often devote too much time and effort to them.

Does this unfortunate condition exist because Christians are all "head" and no "heart"? Or is it because the politics of many Christians generally minimizes such values? Or is it because the poor need nothing other than the saving of their souls? After all, they created their own problems, didn't they, so now they must bear the consequences. If they would "get right with God," all their problems would go away.

I think this unfortunate lack of compassion exists mainly because Christians are uninformed concerning what Scripture says concerning economic justice and our responsibility toward the "least of these." As one preacher said, "We are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good." Our view is of a dreadfully sinful world deserving only Divine judgment. We await the "rapture" to remove us from this veil of tears; willingly assigning the remainder of the earth to the ravages of the dreaded Antichrist during the tribulation. So why care about the poor now--they and their suffering are almost irrelevant in the overall scheme of things.

But again, God says otherwise. In His well-known Sermon on the Mount Jesus spoke of several attributes and virtues needing cultivation by those who would be citizens in His earthly kingdom. Among the requirements for kingdom citizenship were a hunger and thirst for righteousness (accepting God's righteousness rather than our own, leading to obedience to His word), poverty of spirit (a malleable, teachable spirit that recognizes its utter spiritual bankruptcy apart from God), mourning (sadness, compassion over sin and its ravages), and meekness (humility, self-control). The opposites of these--arrogance, stubbornness, pride, complacency, ignorance, and rebellion--are attitudes incompatible with citizenship in Christ's kingdom.

As the Scriptures quoted above so clearly maintain, it is incongruous to call ourselves Christian and yet have little or no compassion for the suffering, marginalized, impoverished "least of these." Yes, some of them perhaps do deserve their fate; but what of the millions who live good, hard-working, moral lives and who still cannot "make it" in modern society? God cares greatly for them, and Christ spent most of His time and effort ministering to them. Can we do otherwise?