When Tim Keller was a young pastor working in his first church, a single-mother with four children began attending the services. It soon became clear that she had severe financial difficulties, and a number of people suggested that the church should do something to help. So the deacons were assigned to visit her, and the church gave her money to help her pay outstanding bills. However, three months later, it emerged that instead of paying off her bills with the church money, she had spent it on sweets and junk food, had gone to restaurants with her family multiple times, and had brought each child a new bike. Not a single bill had been paid, and she needed more money. Understandably people were perplexed. One deacon furiously exclaimed, ‘no way do we give her any more. This is the reason that’s she’s poor—she’s irresponsible, driven by her impulses! That was God’s money and she wasted it.’
This evening I want to suggest that we must not neglect the poor, even those we think that they are undeserving. For our attitude towards the poor reflects our understanding about the character of God and his gospel.1. Compassion for the poor reflects the character of God
It should thrill our heart to see that God champions the cause of the poor. Our God is merciful and gracious. ‘The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made’ (Psalm 145:9). We should champion things like fair trade because his word tells us that he wants, justice to ‘roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (Amos 5:24). ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God’ (Proverbs 14:31). He is even generous towards those who despise him, sending the sun and rain on both the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). The cross reminds us of God’s desire for justice, for our God does not turn a blind eye towards our evil, but satisfies his demands of justice, being both just and the justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
In the Old Testament God shows a special concern for the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the migrant. ‘Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor’ (Zech. 7:10). These four groups are highlighted because they were the most vulnerable people of that day. Who would we put on the list of most vulnerable in our society? ‘Do not oppress the homeless, the mentally-ill, the single-parent or those in direct provision.’2. Compassion is to be modelled on God’s kindness to us
I heard of a Christian leader who believed that the cross, as a symbol, was bad public-relations for the church. But our message is Christ crucified, and Christ crucified isn’t just about having our sins forgiven, it’s to shape everything.
This logic is seen in the Old Testament, where God’s commands to care for the vulnerable are often spoken in terms of the great rescue event of the Exodus. ‘Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there.’ (Deuteronomy 24:17-18). They are to be generous because God has been generous to them. He has shown them kindness is rescuing them from slavery.
Of course the Exodus looked forward to a greater rescue—through the death of Jesus, God has rescued us from slavery to sin and condemnation even while we were his enemies. You should show grace, because God has demonstrated grace to you. You should be kind, because God has been kind to you. You should care about the enslaved, because God has rescued from slavery to sin, condemnation and death.
Tim Keller writes that ‘there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor’ and that, ‘when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.’3. The Cross demonstrated compassion to the undeserving
In 1700s America, Jonathan Edwards was known for his gospel preaching. He was famous for his sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God.’ Yet he saw that the gospel he preached must impact our attitude towards those less fortunate than himself. However, when he encouraged his people to care for the poor, many came to him with objections. So he wrote a sermon entitled, ‘The Duty of Care to the Poor.’ It dealt with eleven objections that people gave towards giving charity.
One objection Edwards dealt with was when people declare that the poor person ‘deserves not that people should be kind to him. He is of a very ill temper, of an ungrateful spirit’ and, in particular, he has treated us badly.
We might say, ‘the problem with the homeless is their addictions.’ We might say, ‘the problem with the unemployed is that they have not tried hard enough.’ Not only do such comments reveal that we don’t understand the complexity of homelessness and unemployment, they reveal a lack of understanding of the gospel. Gospel-centred people know that God didn’t wait until we deserved before he came to our help.
Edwards wrote, ‘Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving any good, but deserving only to be hated, and treated with indignation; so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving. Christ loved us, and laid himself out to relieve us, though we were his enemies, and had treated him ill. So we, as we would love one another as Christ hath loved us, should relieve those who are our enemies, hate us, have an ill spirit toward us, and have treated us ill.’4. The cross demonstrates sacrificial love
When people said that they had nothing to spare, Edwards suggested that what many meant is that they could not afford to give without it actually being a burden to them. So he emphasised the beauty of sacrificial love.
Think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is moved with ‘compassion’ (the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ is only used in the gospels of Jesus or people in his stories who reflect his attitude). It costs the Samaritan to care, as he uses all his available resources (oil, cloth, time, energy and money) to help. The Samaritan is exposed to personal risk by putting the injured man on his donkey (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for bandits and having a man on your donkey slowed you down and made you more vulnerable to ambush). Bible writer, Ken Bailey, points out that a Samaritan arriving into a village with a wounded Jew on his donkey was open to dangerous misunderstanding (like an Indian arriving into Dodge City with an injured cowboy draped over his horse, he might be considered to be the main suspect to the man’s injuries). He then gives the innkeeper two denarii (which would have covered food and lodging for at least a week), and then commits himself to return to settle any outstanding bills. This is sacrificial love towards someone he never met before.
Such sacrificial loving is demonstrated perfectly by Jesus. Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8). ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).
But where do we draw the boundaries between ourselves and others? In a world of need what luxuries can I justify? How much time to I give to my lonely neighbour?
One of the beauties of the gospel is that it doesn’t present us with a list of rules which would either take the joy out of service or limit us to obligation. Many people would like to be told what percentage of their time and income they should give to the vulnerable. But if we were given such a rule we would be prone to obeying the letter of the law, and not think about what we do with what money and time remains. Jesus wants all of our time and money to be under his loving rule. He doesn’t give us a law but graciously instructs that we ‘should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). The only way you are going to know how to give well is by having a heart that is being shaped by the Holy Spirit.
What about burn out and the need for rest? He is our gentle Saviour who knows our needs. A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering reed he will not snuff out (Matthew 12:20). Take advice from trusted friends who are courageous enough to challenge you, but caring enough to see when you need to slow down.
Tim Keller writes, ‘we tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does—through guilt. This doesn’t work, because we have a built in defence mechanisms against such appeals … however, when justice for the poor is not connected to guilt but to the gospel, this “pushes a button” down deep in the believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up.’
The gospel reflects the beautiful character of the God who cares for the vulnerable; a God who sent his Son for underserving, spiritually bankrupt people; and a God who inspires us to sacrificial service. But he wants us to live this sacrificial life, not so much because he needs our time and money, but because he desires that we would experience the joy of being instruments in the redeemer’s hands. For sacrificial service should have an element of delight in it, as we realise that it is more blessed to give than receive.
So, how did the church that Tim Keller led deal with the woman who spent the money given to her on meals out and treats for the kids? Keller made the point that if they gave no more money to the family the children would suffer because of the poor choice of the mother. As time went by it became clearer to the deacons that the reason that she had squandered the church’s money on restaurants and new bikes was that she felt terribly guilty for the poor life she was giving her kids. She wanted the children to feel like they were a part of a normal family for once. As the deacons truly engaged with her their hearts began to become more sympathetic. Nevertheless, they insisted that she pay off the most pressing bills and formulate a plan to get better skills and a better job. They also realised that all of her problems were not financial and sought ways to support her in raising her children. She agreed to work with the deacons and over time the family’s life began to improve.
Do you know how to win in Monopoly? When I play monopoly I want the car—because a car seems more real than an iron or a thimble. Then I buy everything—because later on in the game someone will want that piece of property, and pay me far more than I spent on it. And, if you want to win at Monopoly, show no mercy—even when the lip on the ten-year-old you are playing begins to quiver. Show no mercy, call in all your debts and then, when you have won, go down to the corner-shop with all you Monopoly money and treat yourself.
Of course, the man in the shop is going to look at you and remind you that the game is over. That Monopoly money is only paper, once the board has been put away.
One day this life’s game will also be over. We will then realise that so much of what we put our energy into in this life is as worthless as Monopoly money. But the cross-shaped generosity that we have shown in this life will have a significance that will pass with us into all eternity, and be a cause of eternal celebration.