The poor among us, the measure of faith

Jesus said we would always have poor people among us. In a broken world such as ours, it seems a fact of life. But should it be? Is it necessary that most of the world struggles simply to survive? That children die by thousands for lack of clean water? That "poor" in America equals "rich" in much of the world?

It's true, you know. There is appalling pain and hardship around the world. And the American church - the wealthiest church in history - is making only a small dent in the problem. This is not a good thing.

I have been reading a fascinating book, The Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns, the president of the U.S. part of World Vision. I recommend this book to everyone who would understand the gospel of the Kingdom, because it raises some difficult questions, things we need to consider. (And, for the record, I have received nothing from the author or publisher for the preceding comment. They don't know I exist.)

I grew up in a church that considered itself evangelical, had an aggressive discipleship program, and did a lot of things right. However, they believed the "gospel" pertained mostly to the question, "If you die right now, will you go to heaven?" It was about "saving souls," getting people to pray "the sinner's prayer." And that was it. One prayer and you're good to go. Have a happy life.

As I have grown, both chronologically and spiritually, that position has become problematic for me. The problem with it is, it's simply not biblical. The idea of "saving souls" and an exclusive focus on "going to heaven when we die" is simply not in the pages of any of the several Bibles I own and read.

Stearns points out that there has been a separation in the American church since the early twentieth century. One side has reduced the focus of the church to social action. They work to make a better society by focusing on social welfare. Nothing about Jesus or blood or any of that messy stuff.

The other side has gone as far from that as they could get, and is focused completely on the business of "saving souls," considering that social action and related activities are the stuff of "those liberals." Don't want to associate with them, of course.

In truth, if we actually read our Bibles - a novel thought - we will notice that neither of these two extremes is correct. Yes, there is a lot about Jesus and blood, and it's close to the center of the story. But there is also an undeniable passion in the heart of God for the poor, the orphans and the widows.

Ancient Israel was blasted over and again for neglecting social justice. The New Testament - for those who are saying, "Yeah, but that was then, under the Law" - continues that same thread. Here's what Jesus said (Matthew 25:31-43):

31 But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

34 Then the King will say to those on His right, "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 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; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to 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? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?"

40 The King will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me."

41 Then He will also say to those on His left, "Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me."

In my years in the church, I have never - never! - heard a sermon on this passage. There is a clear and disturbing statement here that when Jesus comes there will be a judgment. For some folks it's going to be a good day, and for others, a very bad one, indeed. And the standard of judgment will be whether they have "asked Jesus into their hearts." Right? NO!

The standard will be their treatment of the poor! Have they fed, clothed and cared for the poor, recognizing Jesus in them?

My first response was that this must be a mistake! Salvation is about grace! It's always and forever grace! This is nothing more than that nasty "works righteousness." But of course, that's not true. Our salvation is indeed by God's grace. Always has been and always will be. But there's more.

Paul is the foremost proponent of salvation by grace, and that grace is "activated" in us through faith. Paul is correct. But what about James? There are some who speak of the "conflict between Paul and James." You know, Paul's grace, and James' works.

But there is no conflict. Paul is saying what saves us: grace through faith. James is saying what kind of faith is needed: faith that produces action, that compels us to work.

What Jesus is talking about is that the sort of faith that opens the door to the presence of God is the kind that moves us to compassion for others, seeing them through the eyes of God. And then we act on what we see. It's that simple.

So Sterns points out that the church has done very little compared to what we might do and have the resources to do, and he is right. There can be no argument. But why is that? Why are we doing so little - though admittedly more than before - and take such great pride in what we do?

The only conclusion I can reach is that a lot of folks are fooling themselves, and are in for a terrible and tragic shock.

We put vast amounts of money into buildings, the latest sound and audiovisual systems, and hiring a staff. And we put a tiny portion of our resources into caring for those less fortunate.

Which is closer to the heart of God: buildings and staff, or caring for the less fortunate? The answer is obvious.

Perhaps it's time for us - individually and collectively - to stop and read the gospels carefully, to see what Jesus really thinks about it all. And then, two things: First, beg forgiveness for our hard hearts, and second, beg God to soften us and move us to see people as he sees them.

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