Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Caring for the Poor

Who Is Our Neighbor? (excerpt of a 9Marks article)

One of the sections of Scripture most quoted when speaking about caring for the poor is the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

This is a powerful passage to meditate on and to examine our own lives with. An expert in the law asks Jesus a question of great magnitude: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus points him to the two greatest commandments that sum up the entire law: "Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." But then the text says that the expert "wanted to justify himself." He wanted to narrow the commandment so that it would fit with his lifestyle and practice. He wanted a loophole. He wanted to confine salvation to a rule to follow instead of to the dependence on God which overflows with love for God and others. So he asks, "who is my neighbor?"

The expert in the law was probably not a Pharisee because Luke doesn’t use that specific word; though the Pharisees had a zeal for the law and studied it. Either way, it appears that the expert sought to narrow the law to justify himself—like the Pharisees did by not helping the unclean and making up traditions that superseded God’s law.

Jesus then tells the story and shames the expert by using a Samaritan as the hero in the story, since the Jews hated Samaritans. Jesus was showing the expert that a loving Samaritan was closer to the Kingdom than an uncharitable Jew, though the Jews had been given God’s law!

Many people propose that this parable is ultimately about Jesus redefining what "neighbor" means. The word ‘neighbor’ is a covenantal term. To be a neighbor was to be a brother, or a member, or someone who lived under the covenantal rule. For example, Jeremiah 31:33-34 shows that these are covenantal terms by equating "neighbor" with "brother." God says through Jeremiah,

"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord.

Another example of this can be found in Leviticus 19:18. Here "neighbor" parallels "God’s people." God commands, "Do no seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord."

So although there may have been some minor disputes about what "neighbor" meant, all of Jesus’ first hearers would have known it was being used in connection to those who were in the covenant community—Israel.

By using a Samaritan, Jesus shattered the idea that the Jews, as individuals, were only to help other Jews. They were to help anyone in need. Though the parable did not remove the prioritization that should be given to those inside the covenant community, it does show that the kindness of the covenant community (of Christians) must not be limited to other members of the community (to other Christians).

Interestingly, Jesus never specifically answered the expert’s question of "who is my neighbor?" Instead, he turned the tables back on the expert (and on us) about whether he (and we) behave neighborly to others. Are we characterized as those who help others? Do we go out of our way for others? Do we love others sacrificially? Such sacrificial love is indicative of someone who has inherited eternal life, which was the first question the expert posed and what Jesus seems to be answering in the parable.

So how should Christians care for non-Christians? More particularly, what role does evangelism play in providing relief to the poor? Does relief of the poor have a priority over evangelism? Or does evangelism have a priority over relief of the poor? Or are they of equal importance? Should there be a distinction made at all?

Contact Evangelism

It is often difficult to practice acts of mercy and evangelism at the same time. Practically, we must assess each situation and relationship first before unwisely blurting out the gospel message. For example, if a fire destroys a neighbor’s home, it would not be wise to speak the gospel to them first. We must first help them find shelter and care for their immediate needs. This is a caution to what is known as "contact evangelism," which we will define as telling a stranger the gospel in a brief, initial, and forced encounter with the individual.

There are many Christians—perhaps you—who first heard the gospel and came to belief in Christ through contact evangelism. We can praise God for this. He is a sovereign God and can use anything to bring his elect to himself. That said, we should think carefully about the practice of contact evangelism.

While boldly proclaiming the gospel is a good thing, contact evangelism can also be insensitive and reflect poorly on Christ. It can be unhealthy because it involves witnessing to those whom we don’t know and who don’t know us. It’s also unlikely that they would ever become a part of our lives. How much better is it to take time to understand someone and endear yourself to him or her while humbly speaking the truth of the gospel? Paul exampled this for us well when he wrote,
We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. (1 Thes 2:7-9)

We are not saying that one should avoid opportunities that present themselves with strangers. In fact, we should always be mindful of proactively seeking to share the gospel with anyone. Conversations on an airplane or with a hairdresser are good and glorify God. These are done in a natural setting rather than in a forced, interrupted context. What we want to warn against is sharing the gospel callously as so much of contact evangelism does. A good book to read on evangelism is Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth. It reminds us that our whole lives and speech should be marked by and rich with the gospel.


So while evangelism needs to be primary, caring for the poor is an evident outpouring of the gospel message. The fact that the gospel alone brings sinners to repentance does not negate our need to care for a fallen world and for those made in God’s image.

Read full article here by Steve Boyer and the Capitol Hill Baptist Elders.

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