A World Waiting To Be Won Duncan Heaster email the author


Appendix 5: “To the Jew first”

5-1 Why We Should Preach To Israel || 5-2 Preaching To Israel In The Last Days || 5-3 The Preaching Commission Of Isaiah 40 || 5-3-1 John The Baptist's Style Of Preaching

Appendix 6: Tears In Heaven: A Missionary Obituary

Appendix 7: Capitalism And Welfare Policy In The Mission Field

Appendix 8-4: Giving and the Poor

Our need to respond to “the poor” is one of the Bible’s major themes. But our cash crazy society seems to have persuaded many of us that we fulfil Bible teaching about giving to the poor by giving them money. And if we’re not wealthy- then all the talk about generosity to the poor is irrelevant to us, indeed, we may even be tempted to consider that our wealthier brethren have a duty to give us some cash. I’m aware that the eyes reading these words will include the very rich and the very poor, in material terms. But the theme that I wish to develop is that the poor have very much to give- and they should start doing so.

The early converts of Jesus were materially poor- and yet He told them in His opening manifesto in Matthew 5-7 of their need to give “alms” and to give to the poor. There is the implication that it is the poor for whom the Gospel is intended, and it is they who will respond to it. Mostly the poor responded in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:26); the ecclesias James wrote to were largely poor (James 2:5); Gospel preaching is characterized by the poor responding to it (Mt. 11:5); it is the poor who are appealed to and compelled to enter the Kingdom (Lk. 14:21). And yet the teaching of Jesus was clearly that those who respond to the Gospel should give to “the poor”. Clearly enough, we must re-examine what He meant by “the poor”.

Imagine for a moment that you are reading the New Testament for the first time. You read of the wonderful offer of salvation, of the future Kingdom of God on earth- and are attracted to it. But then you read that this salvation is only for people who are blind, or who have one leg, or who have green skin. Your spirit falls, you're very, very disappointed. But then in the small print you read that there may be a few places for other people, who have both legs, who can see, or who have your skin colour. But, the places are very very few for them. This is, in fact, what the Bible says- it's just that the group who will be saved, for the most part, are defined as "the poor". And there will be a few places for the rich. But not many (1 Cor. 1:26; James 2:5). Whilst He wasn’t unmindful of the materially “poor”, Jesus begins His explanation of the Kingdom life by defining the “poor” as “the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3). It’s as if He began His ministry by defining who are “the poor” of whom He would have so much to say; He applied the term to the mentally broken, the spiritually needy. Lk. 4:18 parallels “the poor” with “the brokenhearted... the captives... the bruised”. The whole mission of Jesus was to bring good news to the poor (Is. 61:1,2 cp. Lk. 4:18–21; Mt. 11:5). This doesn’t mean that they material rich are outside the scope of the Gospel. It means that we are all “the poor”. Therefore the huge emphasis on helping the poor applies to the poor themselves- to be generous to the poor in spirit. You don’t need money in your pocket to be generous to “the poor”. Paul could say that although he was poor, he made many rich (2 Cor. 6:10). In saying this, he clearly perceived his connection with his Lord, who although rich became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9). Seeing Jesus was never materially rich, we are to understand this as meaning that despite His spiritual riches, the Lord of glory identified with us in our spiritual poverty to the extent that He became as it were “poor”, on the cross He felt as a sinner, although He was not; He felt “forsaken” by God (Mt. 27:46), alluding to the many OT passages which speak of how God will forsake the sinner but never forsake the righteous. For Paul, “riches” were the spiritual blessings in Christ (Rom. 2:4; 9:23; 2 Cor. 8:9; Eph. 1:7,18; 2:4,7)- those without them are therefore the “poor” (Rev. 3:17,18). David during the time of his kingship could describe himself as “poor and needy [because] my heart is wounded within me” (Ps. 40:17; 70:5; 109:22).

The Greek word translated “poor” means literally “the crouchers”- those in desperate need. The common word for “the poor” is that also translated “beggar” (Lk. 16:22). People are in urgent need spiritually- crouched on their haunches, begging for it. Hence Prov. 19:17; 28:8 Heb. speaks of those who “bow down” to the poor [AV “pity the poor”]. We are to come down to their level in seeking to empathize with their position. Note how the opposite of having pity upon the poor is to despise them: “He that despises his neighbour sins; but happy is he that has pity upon the poor” (Prov. 14:21). If you don’t crouch down to their level and identify with them, then you are despising them. And such spiritual elitism and snobbery is reprehensible to the Father and Son who have ‘come down’ to us in our utter desperation. He humbles Himself to behold then things of Heaven and earth, and then goes further and lifts up the poor on this tiny planet (Ps. 113:6,7). The Psalms are full, as our own prayer life should be, of requests for God to “have pity” upon us; we are to respond to those who likewise beg us to “have pity”, not ignoring them nor pretending we didn’t notice. For God didn’t act like that to us. Only insofar as we perceive our own desperation, and God’s very real response to it, will we find strength to respond to “the poor”.

Truly, the poor are always with us in this sense. People are living lives of quiet desperation, and are crouching down begging for our help. The Hebrew word translated “poor” means simply to be in want or need- again, there isn’t the idea that they are financially poor. The unfulfilled, childless woman is in need, the lonely business man, the blind woman... And we are the ones who can come alongside and help. Their need is itself the call for help, even if they don’t verbalize it. Defining “the poor” as ‘those in need” explains why it can be that someone who’s very lacking materially can be happy, never asking anyone for anything, and therefore isn’t particularly in “the poor” category. But there are those who have more, who feel in need- of comfort, of money, of marriage, of better health, of understanding, of children and so forth. Their need is their poverty.

Practical Response to the Poor

One reason why we don’t respond to the poor is because we realize that poverty is in some cases because people have themselves made bad decisions, and they may misuse our assistance. It’s true that often, although not always, poverty is partly due to poor decisions and mismanagement, and any aid given is often misused. And it’s true that the materially poor are partly poor [in many cases] exactly because of that. And yet the Bible teaches generosity to “the poor”. There is no attempt in the Bible teaching about “the poor” to subdivide them into the genuinely poor, and those who are poor because of their own fault or laziness, or who are asking for support when they don’t actually need it. A person who comes to you claiming need is “the poor”. Thus Israel were not to farm their land in the seventh year, “that the poor of your people may eat” (Ex. 23:11). This immediately raised the issue that all manner of people could eat the fruit which grew naturally on the land that year- but there is no legislation to try to limit who had access to it. Those who had food in their barns might eat what grew- but there was no mechanism within the law which controlled that. The point is, in our spiritual poverty we are just the same. We are in that position partly because of our human situation and other factors over which we have no control; but also partly and largely because we choose to be in it. We cry to God for the riches of His forgiveness- and we waste it, by doing the same sin over and again. Our hold on spiritual things is weak, we don’t respond with the grace and appreciation we ought to. We’re spiritually lazy. We’re no better than those who are materially poor through nothing but their own fault. Our generosity to them is a reflection of our recognition of this. If we stop our ears at the cry of the poor, then our cry to God will go unheard (Prov. 21:13); their cry to us and our cry to God are parallel. Even if a family blow their monthly pay cheque in two days and are totally without food for the rest of the month- they are “the poor”. They are in need. And to argue that “I will not assist them because it’s their own fault” is to have no compassion upon the poor. In spiritual terms, you do exactly the same. Every sin is your fault. It was avoidable. But you keep on and on sinning. You were the wounded man, saved by the Samaritan’s grace. Those in need are “the poor”; the issue of the degree to which they are at fault for that need doesn’t declassify their need, their poverty, and our required response. Solomon’s wise judgment of the two prostitutes was surely in conscious fulfilment of how his father had prayed that Solomon would judge and save the poor (Ps. 72:4,12,13). With the full weight of Divine law behind him, Solomon could have condemned those two prostitutes. Instead he perceived their poverty- for whatever reason- and sought justice for them. Solomon seems to have focused upon the fact they were “the poor” without going into all the moral issues which there typically are with many prostitutes.

Dt. 15:7 foresaw that when confronted by the poor, there would be a tendency to “harden your heart and close your hand to your poor brother”; there was no mechanism suggested for determining his genuineness, but rather a command to respond. Indeed Israel were warned not to have “a thought in your wicked heart” and devise how not to be generous to the poor (Dt. 15:9); they were to “open your hand wide” to the poor who approached them (Dt. 15:11). Lest we think this was merely for Old Testament times- these verses are applied to us, by way of allusion, in 1 Jn. 3:17: “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?”. In Hebrew thought, “the hand” referred to power and ability. No matter how materially poor, we each have a “hand”- even if it’s not a financial one. And we are to “open” it- the Hebrew word carrying the idea of unloosing, as in untying a sack. It’s as if we’re all tied and twisted up inside ourselves, and it’s this which stops us responding. The most extrovert of persons is like this too- for to reach out to assist another’s poverty involves our opening of ourselves and releasing the potential to help which we’ve each been given. And that is totally independent of our personality type. We are all Christ’s servants, and we’ve each been given talents to trade. It’s one of capitalism’s worst myths that if you have no money, you’re no use to anyone.

The same word is used of how God opens unto us His hand, opens up “His good treasure, the heaven to give rain...” (Dt. 28:12). The cycles of the natural world aren’t running on mindless clockwork; God sends His rain, and so many blessings. He is in this sense “open” and not selfish; His eyes are “open” in responding to our requests in prayer (1 Kings 8:58). He loves being generous- and we too are to love showing mercy (Mic. 6:8). He delights in forgiveness- and the poorest person has people who need their forgiveness too. Each record of the Lord’s feeding miracles mentions how there was a super-abundance [the Greek word used means just that] of provision- baskets full were taken up of the crumbs that were “over” (AV)- that ‘super-abounded’. We see here an essay in His love of being generous, almost for the sake of it. God not only loves being generous, but He also identifies Himself with the poor. Therefore “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deed” (Prov. 19:17); “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honours Him” (Prov. 14:31). The Lord taught the same: “To the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (Mt. 25:46). Considering that the poor are often poor partly through their own fault, this identity of God with “the poor” is a deep insight into His grace. Indeed, despite this, God appears to be on the side of the poor; His word warns insistently that the possession of wealth, whilst not sinful in itself, is likely to lead us away from salvation, whereas it is “the poor” who will comprise the majority of the redeemed (Mk. 4:19; 10:17-30; Lk. 12:21,33,34; 14:13,21).

If we are truly influenced by the fact that God came into our lives and sought to save us, working extensively through providence to bring us to His Son, our generosity will not simply be to those “poor” who come to our attention. Job could say that he was not only a father to the poor, but “the cause which I knew not I searched out” (Job 29:16). Further, Job wept for him that was in trouble, and grieved for the poor (Job 30:25), seeking to attain real empathy with them. Each of us are to think how we might be generous to the poor- to take initiative. This is a step beyond putting coins in a beggar’s hand. When was the last time you actively thought out how you might be generous to the poor, searching out the real need behind that begging hand? “The righteous consider the cause of the poor; but the wicked don’t want to understand it” (Prov. 29:7). We are to try to understand “the poor”, when our natural reaction is to walk away from those whom we consider to be in a hole partly because they dug it, or to quickly respond to their need with a few coins or words- without engaging with them. God’s response to our need wasn’t tokenistic- it was the very deep engagement with human need which climaxed in the death of His Son on the cross.

The Last Days

The parable of the great supper suggests that in our last days, it is largely “the poor”, both economically and spiritually, who will be called to respond (Lk. 14:21). The fact many congregations aren’t comprised of these categories suggests the members are there because of a [commendable] following the faith of their fathers, and that those congregations aren’t comprised of fresh converts to Christ. A latter day congregation of new converts will typically be “the poor”- the divorced, abused, asylum seekers, HIV positive, hopelessly indebted, smokers, illegal immigrants, one time whores and busted gamblers, those with aspergers, inhabitants of the night shelters, the irritating, the mixed up... the types no respectable Protestant church can really cope with.

Yet if we don’t help “the poor”, we become yet more self-absorbed. It was because Sodom was arrogant, wealthy and unmoved by the poor and needy that “thus they committed abominations before Me” (Ez. 16:49). Homosexuality is an outcome of self-obsession, and thus in Sodom’s case it was traced back to a mindset which refused to consider others’ need. We’re living in a self-obsessed world, where it seems increasingly difficult to truly ‘open our hand’ and be generous to “the poor”; because the tendency is to be caught up in ourselves. And yet therefore and thereby, this is a world increasingly full of “the poor in spirit”. “The poor” are there, on the internet, on the street, in the ecclesias, in the workplace... and their very existence is to test whether we have really perceived our poverty and cried to God in it, and known His gracious, saving hand.