Helping the Poor Isn’t Biblical. . .But Serving Them Is!

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I spent five years of my ministry among the poor.  The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter.  The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country.  It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty.  And it isn’t their fault.  Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level.  Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts.  Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people.  We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.

We are taught that those with money  are perfect in every way.  Those without money are flawed.  The “have’s” are godly.  The “have-nots” are worthless.  The rich are smart.  The poor are dumb.  The wealthy work really hard.  The poor are lazy.  Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.

As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things.  One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!

In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance.  We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words.  Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.”  We have interpreted that as “help the poor.”  Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied.  But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.

The word “help” implies I am the rescuer.  It means I am here to save you.  The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together.  I am the knight on the white steed.  You are the damsel in distress.  I am worthwhile and you are worthless.  Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.

With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor.  Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong.  The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that.  What if they spend the money on drugs?  What if they waste your gift?  You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you?  We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that.  What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you?  Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of.  It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything!  So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’  Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”

Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical.  But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!

The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that.  It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive.  So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive.   I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough!  So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.

That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical.  In Scripture the fit do not survive.  They perish.  The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive.  The crucified criminals are saved.  The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive.  The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace.  Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.

We do not help the poor.  But we do serve them.  We do wash their feet.  We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).

And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.

So what’s the difference between helping and serving?  Let me give a few examples:

Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”

Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”

Helping lectures.

Serving listens.

Helping gives money to a local service organization.

Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.

Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.

Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.

Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.

Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.

Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.

Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.

And finally,

Helping doesn’t care about their name.

Serving learns their name.

In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:

I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.”  Actually it’s not about either.  A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something.  A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place.  Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out.  If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you.  Forget the handout or the hand up.  Just reach a hand across.  Let’s be equals and partners.  I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me.  My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”

The Best Way to “Stand Up” For Jesus: Revisiting Romans

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Just in case you are one of those incredibly wonderful people who has been living on a remote island without technology lately or who has the metaphorical equivalent of their head in the sand, there is a pretty massive culture war going on regarding homosexuality and its place in our society.

It all started about 30 years ago but the Gettysburg was just recently won when the Supreme Court finally decided to allow homosexuals to marry.  This means that if you are an evangelical, conservative, Republican, Fox News watching, straight, middle class white American your side lost the battle.

And like most sides who lose major battles, it has made that demographic angry, resentful, bitter but most of all desperate.  Also, like most wars, the two sides have wanted to do anything possible to win.  The so called “bible believing” Christians have shown themselves more than willing to tell lies (a violation of one of the 10 commandments) to gossip and slander (repeatedly forbidden throughout Scripture) to ignore certain parts of Scripture and to sin in their anger.  More than that the sun has now set about 100 times since the Supreme Court’s decision and they are still angry.

They feel justified in all this because, as they put it, “we need to take a stand for the Lord and not let ‘them’ win.”  This apparently justifies violating all of God’s commandments in order to get others to follow one prohibition repeated only about 4 times in the Bible.

Their go to text has been Romans 1 where the Apostle Paul seems to be the most ardent about homosexuality.  Not surprisingly, even my non Christian friends who have never opened a Bible in their lives can give me a rough outline of it.

The premise drawn from Romans 1 (and I would encourage you to actually go read it here) is that if we allow homosexual behavior to become “normalized” then God will destroy us, and probably enjoy doing it.

The desired result is that us good, Bible believing (or ignoring) Christians should boycott the goods of any company who disagrees with us.  We should gossip and slander anybody who is not on our side.  We should excommunicate those Christians who believe differently than us and, of course, we should not vote for politicians who seem to be even wavering on the issue.

Interestingly, none of these are biblical practices.  Actually, I have done some research lately and found the idea of boycott is not even mentioned in Scripture.  Never in Scripture are we commanded not to make cakes, process paperwork, bank with or buy goods from people who sin differently than us.  In fact Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 addresses those who are refusing to buy meat from idolaters.  He tells them to go ahead and purchase and eat freely, even if the owner of the shop sacrificed the meat to idols.  Some Christians today would have burned all copies of 1st Corinthians for that one suggestion.

Those Christians, of course, have never read Romans 2 or 3 or 4 or all the way until chapter 12.  I don’t even think they have read to the end of chapter 1 where Paul describes “them” as, “Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters,[f] insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”  There are 17 adjectives there and to my count 13 of them describe conservative Christianity”

More than that, this list ends a long tyrant against “them.”  In the NRSV translation there are over 20 instances of “them” and “their” between Romans 1:18 and Romans 1:32.  Clearly this passage is not about “us.”  That is, until we reach Romans 2:1 where Paul suddenly swaps the pronoun on the poor Roman Christians by declaring, “Therefore YOU are without excuse.”

It is one the most shocking turns in all of Scripture.  Anybody reading this for the first time would be completely caught off guard by Paul suddenly turning on us after decrying all the “thems.”

Paul goes onto explain that we are actually the hateful, insolent, slandering gossips who are under the wrath of God and then concludes in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fallen short of giving God the glory that God is due” (my translation).

But don’t worry because in Romans the answers to God’s wrath is not destruction or punishment or even discipline.  It is love.  While we were yet weak, unable to save ourselves, completely cut off from God and experiencing the consequences of our idolatry, Jesus died for us. (see Romans 5:6-8).

Then we hit Romans 12 where the letter comes full circle.  Just as all of our minds were darkened when we worshiped the creation over the creator, Paul now explains that our minds can be enlightened, renewed, restored.  So Paul pleads with the Romans and with us to offer ourselves (not “them” selves but “our” selves) as living sacrifices so that God can renew our hearts and minds.  Then Paul spends 3 chapters talking about what a mind renewed by the grace of God looks like.

A mind renewed looks like love without hypocrisy.  It looks like owing nothing to anybody except love to everybody.  It looks like showing hospitality to strangers (i.e. those who are not “us”, i.e. those who sin differently than “us).

It looks like blessing those who persecute us, blessing them without cursing.  It looks like feeding our enemies (maybe even making cakes for their weddings) and clothing the naked.  It looks like submitting ourselves to everybody, especially authorities and even those who misuse their authority.

If you want to “stand up” for Jesus in these bizarre and changing times, the best way to do that is not boycotting, slandering, gossiping or returning evil for evil but to live your life by the precepts of Romans 12-15.  When we bake cakes for those who sin differently than us we are showering the love of God down upon the heads of those who have not yet received and accepted grace.  When we enter into polite conversation with them at grocery stores we are showing them an engaging God who is seeking the lost.  Heck, we might even try letting them use our buildings.  What better way to start a conversation with them!  We don’t do any of this in the hopes that “they” will become “us” but that all of us may become more like Christ.

So please stand up for Jesus.  Do not be ashamed.  Do not back down from loving everybody.  Do not shy away from embracing those different than you.  Do not stop trying to love without hypocrisy, (which is a Greek word meaning hyper judgmental).  Do not stop showing honor and service to everybody you meet.

Or at the very least please stop re-posting all those ridiculous and hurtful articles, memes and posts.  You have to start somewhere after all.