God's Plan for the Poor

The great debate a hundred years ago was not about contemporary music or whether we ought to have seeker-driven services. The great debate a hundred years ago was all about the Social Gospel.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a Baptist minister among the poor and the industrial workers of New York City. He proposed the idea that Christianity is not just about preaching about how people can be forgiven from their sins and go to heaven when they die. It is also about feeding the poor, caring for the sick, and looking after the less fortunate in society. The classic text of the Social Gospel is Matthew 25:

 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

     34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

     37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

     40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

     41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

     44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

     45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

     46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

The other side fought back, "What good does it do to feed them if their soul is headed for hell?"

I remember a line from one of my seminary classes: it seems that both sides walked away from the table with half of the gospel.

Happily, in this era, there seems to be a wedding of the social gospel and the other side. Many of us are realizing that God called us to feed the poor AND tell them about Jesus. I am reading Bob Roberts new book on Transformations. He says we need BOTH Billy Graham style proclamation and Mother Theresa style caring. Well said.

Stick around Willowcreek for any time at all and you will hear them speak of the importance of caring for the poor in ways I never heard growing up. Rick Warren is engaged in PEACE plan which includes planting churches, but also assisting the poor:

Planting Churches 
Equipping Servant Leaders 
Assisting the Poor 
Caring for the Sick 
Educating the Next Generation

Saddleback is applying this concept to the individual, as well as the small group and the church. Your Sunday School class or small group could get involved in the peace plan at all five levels. (See http://www.saddlebackfamily.com/peace )

Bruce Wilkinson has spent the last several years establishing a ministry called Heart for Africa. (see http://www.heartforafrica.org/ ) and has invited teams of people to plant Never Ending Gardens  all across Africa to help create a permanent solution and feed the hungry in Africa. The idea is that they plant a small garden and give to someone, teaching them to care for it. Because it is theirs, it appeals to their entrepreneurial interest to take care of it. It is theirs. If they do take care of it, it will feed not only them but their kids and their grand-kids. See http://www.dreamforafrica.com/neverending.htm In addition, they are in a campaign to teach abstinence to teenagers to help stem the tide of AIDS in Africa. It is called Beat The Drum. (Recently, Bruce has come home and turned this ministry over to someone else. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/002/8.76.html )

These are just a few examples of evangelicals who are not just preaching the gospel but preaching the gospel and feeding the poor. It is a good thing, too, because the needs are overwhelming.


The need

Time magazine featured a cover story by Jeffery Sachs last year. Here is an excerpt. As you read it, remember the words of Jesus quoted above, "I was hungry and you fed me."

Currently, more than 8 million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. Every morning our newspapers could report, "More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty." How? The poor die in hospital wards that lack drugs, in villages that lack antimalarial bed nets, in houses that lack safe drinking water. They die namelessly, without public comment. Sadly, such stories rarely get written.

Nearly half the 6 billion people in the world are poor. As a matter of definition, there are three degrees of poverty: extreme (or absolute) poverty, moderate poverty and relative poverty. Extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as getting by on an income of less than $1 a day, means that households cannot meet basic needs for survival. They are chronically hungry, unable to get health care, lack safe drinking water and sanitation, cannot afford education for their children and perhaps lack rudimentary shelter--a roof to keep rain out of the hut--and basic articles of clothing, like shoes. We can describe extreme poverty as "the poverty that kills." Unlike moderate or relative poverty, extreme poverty now exists only in developing countries. Moderate poverty, defined as living on $1 to $2 a day, refers to conditions in which basic needs are met, but just barely.

The total number of people living in extreme poverty, the World Bank estimates, is 1.1 billion, down from 1.5 billion in 1981. While that is progress, much of the one-sixth of humanity in extreme poverty suffers the ravages of AIDS, drought, isolation and civil wars, and is thereby trapped in a vicious cycle of deprivation and death. Moreover, while the economic boom in East Asia has helped reduce the proportion of the extreme poor in that region from 58% in 1981 to 15% in 2001, and in South Asia from 52% to 31%, the situation is deeply entrenched in Africa, where almost half of the continent's population lives in extreme poverty--a proportion that has actually grown worse over the past two decades as the rest of the world has grown more prosperous.


A solution that WON'T work

The Bible offers two seemingly contradictory perspectives on the poor. The first one, stated above is summarized in Gal 2:10 "All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do." The other view is stated succinctly in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat.'"

A similar balance can be found in these two passages from Galatians. As you read these passage, look for who is supposed to carry my load/burden--me, or someone else:

  • Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2 (NIV)
  • for each one should carry his own load. Galatians 6:5 (NIV)

In the Greek there is a subtle difference between these two words that the translators have tried to communicate by using two English words, burden and load. The burden is the overwhelming disaster that comes our way from time to time. The load of verse 5 is the daily responsibilities of life. It is this load that is spoken of in the 2 Thessalonians passage that says "If a man will not work, he will not eat."

One of the things that has cooled some of our hearts to the plight of the poor is seeing some who refuse to work. Some. And indeed, we are called upon by scripture not to feed them. But, the situation in much of the world is not a matter of able-bodied men refusing to work. It is indeed and overwhelming burden, the kind that Galatians 6.5 calls upon us to do something about.


God's solution

The Bible offers an ingenious solution to this dilemma in the Old Testament practice of gleaning. Who says there is nothing practical in Leviticus?

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:9-10 (NIV)

The idea is that we feed the poor, but they have to work to get the food. We don't offer a hand-out to people who refuse to work. But, we put doable work within reach of anyone who is willing to do it. Unger's defines gleaning this way:

GLEAN. Moses provided a liberal treatment of the poor at the harvest season. In reaping the field the owner was not to “reap to the very corners,” etc. (Leviticus 19:9-10); i.e., he was not to reap the field to the extreme edge, or gather together the ears left upon the field in the reaping. In the vineyard and olive plantation the fallen fruit was to be left for the distressed and the foreigner (cf. Deut. 24:20-22), hence the proverb of Gideon (Judges 8:2).—New Unger's Bible Dictionary.

Gleaning, in a modern sense, would be the practice of creating jobs that unskilled people can do and earn enough to eat for today. We make it possible for people to eat, but we never, never, never give healthy, well-bodied people something for nothing. Giving people something for nothing damages them and cripples the economy. (For more on this, read Brian Tracy's book by that Title: Something for Nothing.)

It is kind of like this. Suppose a mom has the practice of leaving a little cake mix so her son can lick the bowl. One day, the son is vegging on the couch and says, "Mom, I don't want to get up and carefully scrape the bowl. Would you mind getting the last of the cake mix out, putting it in a parfait dish and bringing it to me on the couch?The appropriate response is, "What part of 'NO' do you not understand?"

Sometimes, the poor can be just this ridiculous. Because they have received hand-outs before, they begin to expect and demand them. The something for nothing approach has already damaged their soul. When I was on church staff we gave a mom some money for some disposable diapers. Her response, instead of gratefulness was, "But this amount will only pay for the generic brand." Generous, well-meaning people have enabled that kind of attitude.

But, the really sad thing is this. We hear a few stories like that or stories about food wasting on the docks in Africa because of political skirmishes, and, if we are not very careful, we become hardened to the plight of the poor. We become jaded. May it never be. God, keep our heart tenderly aware that we care for Jesus by caring for the poor. But, let us do it in a way that gives people a hand up, not a hand out.

The modern application of this may be a little tricky. I would like to ask for your help. What are some creative ways we could apply the principle of gleaning in a modern world? Go to http://joshhunt.blogs.com/blog/ to submit you answer.

ONE thing we can all do is to join the ONE Campaign. See www.one.org for details.