In the earliest days of Christianity, the Roman emperor Julian was contemptuous of Jesus's first followers. But he recognized that their generosity to the poor was making converts of many. "Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of the Christians as their charity to strangers...the impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor, but for ours as well," he is quoted as saying.
Certainly there are numerous examples of Christians today –- both individually and institutionally -– ministering to the homeless, manning soup kitchens, underwriting hospitals for the poor, and much more.
Timothy Keller, however, in his latest book Generous Justice (scheduled for release Nov. 2), makes a strong case that we don't do nearly enough. Keller argues that most Christians believe in helping the poor, but that they're insufficiently motivated. He believes that probably stems from a lack of understanding as to how integral, how critical that element is to being a Christian.
Dr. Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and the author of three earlier books -- The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Counterfeit Gods -- all of which I've written about in these pages. As he has in the past, Keller sheds new light on teachings we've heard since Sunday school, this time on what it means to "do justice and love mercy."
In the Old Testament, God makes it clear to the Israelites that they are to care for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor (Zechariah 7:10-11). And it is in Micah 6:8 that they are exhorted to "do justice and love mercy." Keller explains that while these two things may sound different, they are not. The Hebrew word for mercy is chesedh: God's unconditional grace and compassion for us. The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat, which occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament. It emphasizes action, and means treating people equitably and caring for those who can't care for themselves. Keller writes: "To walk with God, then, we must do justice out of merciful love." We must take action with a loving attitude.
Keller writes that God is our example in this matter. Read Deuteronomy 10:17-18: "The Lord your God...defends the cause [mishpat] of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrants, giving him food and clothing." And from Psalm 146:7-9: "He executes justice [mishpat] for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves those who live justly. The Lord watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked." We should care about those who need help because God does.
In the ancient world, Keller points out, the idea of God identifying with the downtrodden was unheard of. He cites Sri Lankan scholar Vinoth Ramachandra as noting that in other ancient cultures, the power of the gods was associated with the elite of society.
The theme of caring for and about the poor and needy is carried through into the New Testament. Keller refers to Matthew 6:1-2 in which gifts to the poor are called "acts of righteousness." In that case, Keller writes, "Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God's law." In Luke 14:12-13, Jesus's instructions are clear: "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind...."
Keller does not believe that Christians should be silent about their faith in the public square when performing acts of mercy. "The pursuit of justice in society is never morally neutral, but is always based on understandings of reality that are essentially religious in nature. Christians should not be strident and condemning in their language or attitude, but neither should they be silent about the Biblical roots of their passion for justice," he writes.
As Christians, Keller argues, we have no justification for telling the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak, because we didn't pull ourselves up spiritually. Jesus did it for us, by giving his own life freely. We are the recipients of God's grace, and should give generously to others out of that grace, not out of guilt. Another key point Keller makes is that Jesus didn't instruct his disciples about how to treat the poor as a way of getting salvation. Rather it would be a sign that they already had salvation.
The Old and New Testament exhortations to care for the needy are part and parcel of being a Christian, according to Keller. Understanding and accepting God's grace will make it so.
Keller's final scriptural reminder is from Matthew 25:35-40: "'For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.' Then the upright will say to him in reply, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?' And the King will answer, 'In truth I tell you, in so far you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.'"
After 10 years as a producer for CBS News, 40-something years as an Episcopalian, and 17 years as a mother, Marcia Segelstein considers herself a reluctant rebel against the mainstream media, the Episcopal Church (and others which make up the rules instead of obeying them), and the decaying culture her children witness every day. Her pieces have been published in "First Things," "Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity," and BreakPoint Online, and she is a contributing editor for Salvo magazine.
This piece originally ran at OneNewsNow.com. Reprinted by permission of the author.
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