Some people are noted for particular virtues. For example, we might look at the mother of a lively child and admire her patience; we might be told of a brave voice speaking out against a corrupt regime—like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe—and be moved by their courage; or, we might witness a life poured out for the world’s most vulnerable—like mother Theresa of Calcutta—and be inspired by their compassion. But what single virtue stands out when we think of the person of Jesus? The answer is that no one virtue stands out. No one virtue stands out because he is perfect in all that is good. No one virtue stands above all the others because in him all virtues reach to heaven. His love does not stand above his courage; his courage does not stand above his sense of justice; and his sense of justice does not stand above his compassion. The world has never seen another person quite like Jesus, for all good things are perfected in him alone (thought adapted from Spurgeon).
Jesus is beautiful; his message is lovely; and his life is awesome. This morning, as we look at God’s heart for the poor, I want us to be stirred towards kindness. I don’t want to shame you into grudgingly caring for those who are in need—I want to inspire you towards a passion for people. Tim Keller explains that, ‘I have observed over the decades that when people see the beauty of God’s grace in Christ, it leads profoundly toward justice.’
1. Social Concern in the Old Testament
… And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). This verse contains a summary of how God wants us to live.
In the Old Testament, God’s people constituted a nation and that nation was given a law code, referred to as the Law of Moses. This law had many provisions for those in need, which reflected the character of the God they served. For example, every third year there was a special tithe for those in need; every seventh year debts were cancelled; and there was the provision for gleaning (seen in action in the book of Ruth), whereby grain was left in the fields for the needy.
In the Old Testament God is called ‘a father to the fatherless’ and a ‘defender of widows’ (Psalm 68:4-5). Interestingly, in almost every ancient culture the gods were on the side of the elite, but in the Old Testament we see God side with the needy. The word translated ‘justice’—which has the basic meaning of treating people equitably—occurs over two hundred times in the Old Testament.
In the book of Proverbs we read that, Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God (Prov. 14:31). All people are made in the image of God; to despise any person is to despise their maker. So for example, while we want to affirm the biblical truth that sex designed for a man and woman in the context of marriage, nevertheless, there must not even be a hint of homophobia about us. The gay community in this city must become convinced that though we may disagree with them yet we truly love them as people and are concerned for their welfare.
In the Old Testament there is mention of a quartet of vulnerable people—the fatherless, the widow, the immigrant and the poor. For example, do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor (Zech. 7:10a). Those four groups constituted the neediest in that society; who constitutes the neediest in ours? On the road into the city from Ennis there are advertising bill-boards; some of them have advertisements from charities. There was one for mental health (among our own number are people who struggle with this issue); there was one for the unborn (abortion is an issue that we need to deal with sensitively remembering that people we may know may have secretly had one, and we want to assure them that God is willing to forgive those who have had abortions); there is one for the aged (reminding us that old-age can be accompanied by terrible loneliness). When we look at these bill-boards we must not be immune to the suffering they seek to remind us of.
What about God’s heart for the migrant? Hasn’t this church been blessed by having new people from other countries join our number? Please make people feel welcome in this country! I learn a little Polish so that I can show Polish people I am interested in them (although Caroline says that sometimes it gets on their nerves when I try my Polish with them).
As I was preparing this talk I thought, ‘who might feel most unwelcome in this culture?’ I reckon it must be hard to be a Muslim in Western Europe; everyone views you with suspicion. I remember a town in the north where planning permission for a mosque was continually blocked. The suspicion was that this building was having its planning permission opposed because of the nature of its use. But don’t we want countries that are predominantly atheistic or Islamic to allow us to share our faith in peace?
2. Social Concern and the New Testament
D. L. Moody was a famous American preacher in the nineteenth-century. He preached a marvellous sermon entitled, ‘Christ’s boundless compassion.’ In this sermon he mentions occasions that highlight Jesus’ compassion; like when his heart went out to a widow grieving over the death of her child, how he wept over the rebellious city of Jerusalem, and how he told the stories of a prodigal son and a Good Samaritan. He says, ‘I will challenge any one on the face of the earth to find any reason for not loving Christ … if you knew Him you would have no reason for not loving Him.’
There is a word translated compassion in the gospels that is only used of Jesus or people in his stories (like the Good Samaritan) who act like he would. Sometimes this word is translated with the phrase, ‘his heart went out to them.’ We follow a compassionate Saviour and the Holy Spirit is at work within us to make us more like him.
To be compassionate is to identify with Christ, and to lack compassion towards the poor is to betray him. Think about it; Jesus was numbered amongst the poor. When he was born he was placed in a fed trough; when he parents had him circumcised they presented two pigeons, the offering for the poorest class; he declared that, foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head; he rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, held the Last Supper in a borrowed room, and was laid to rest in a borrowed tomb. Can you see how ironic it would be if a Christian was a social and financial snob?
Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than receive. When Jonathan Edwards was preaching on giving, in the eighteenth century, he told the people, ‘it is not your money that I want but your happiness.’ You will have failed to grasp this message if your heart is left heavy at the thought of having to give away some of your time and money; you will have grasped this message if your heart is stirred with gladness at the thought of pleasing God through caring for others.
Jesus famously taught the parable of the sheep and the goats. In it he taught that what we did for the least of these ‘my brothers’ you did for me. ‘My brothers’ is probably a reference to fellow believers. We demonstrate the reality of our Christian faith in our love for Christians in need. In the Book of Acts the original deacons were set apart to cater for needy church members. But the New Testament is not only concerned to tell Christians to care for each other, our care is to go towards all people; the Apostle Paul told the church in Galatia to us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (6:10).
3. Social Concern and the Gospel
There are many evangelicals who have impressed the world with their concern for those in need. William Wilberforce campaigned against slavery in the 1700s); Thomas Barnardo, from Dublin, set up a work for needy children in the 1800s; Tear Fund was established in the 1900s. Tim Keller explains that, ‘there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of the grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor.’
I had a friend who used to remind the church council that we were not a charity. That was not true. Legally the church is licenced as a charity. Also, we are a community that have been the recipients of the greatest act of charity—the word ‘grace’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘charis’, from which we get the word charity.
Supposing someone comes to us and their life is in a mess. We might be tempted to say, ‘well, it’s their fault.’ Maybe they have made poor decisions in life, maybe they have squandered wealth, and maybe they have spent money in sinful ways. Do we not remember the parable of the prodigal son? Are we not supposed to identify with that rebellious child who blew his father’s inheritance? Don’t we love a father who welcomed that child home? Don’t we know that we were without excuse before God and that we received what we have done nothing to deserve. Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit (who know that they are morally bankrupt); not, ‘blessed are the middle class in spirit’ (who believe that they have made their own way in the world).
But there is a dark shadow hanging over Christian acts of charity on this island—it is the issue of souperism. During the famine people were sometimes offered relief in exchange for switching their denomination—people who did this were said to have taken the soup. This brings up the relationship between evangelism and social action.
I think that the best way to think of the relationship between evangelism and social action is to realise that social action is a part of being holy. No-one would ever ask, ‘which should I do, be holy or share my faith?’ We seek to be holy because we want to please our loving heavenly Father. We seek to practice social concern for the same reason. He cares for those in need and so should we. We should also share the good news of God’s radical forgiveness for the same reason: out of a desire to please God and in love for people’s spiritual need. Yes, holiness will enhance our witness, and that is good; but holiness is also its own reward. We seek to be holy even if the world laughs at us because of our stand for Christ. Similarly, social concern is its own reward; even if it doesn’t bring a person closer to God it was still worth doing. It is always worth doing good—whether that good is speaking the good news, caring for people’s physical needs, or doing both together. We should not think of social action as something that we do out of compassion for people and evangelism as something that we do with the agenda of building the church; rather we should be motivated in both with a desire to please our heavenly father and a passionate love for a physically, emotionally, and most of all spatially needy world.
Christianity grew at an explosive rate in the first three centuries after Christ ascended to heaven; even though at times they were mercilessly persecuted. For example, at the time of Emperor Nero they had to close their services to outsiders for fear that they would be joined by informers. At this time they couldn’t publically preach. The church was labelled a superstition. Prominent people scorned this movement. Believers were discriminated in many petty ways. Yet the church continued to grow. Why? Because its people and community were attractive and this drew people like a magnet. The emperor Julian, who despised Christians, explained, ‘Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of the Christians as their charity to strangers … the impious Galileans provide not only for their poor, but for ours as well.’
Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). Let us, live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12).