What does God say about caring for the poor?
(Or: How to get rich in heaven using this one weird trick from the Bible!)
If it were really, really important to God that the poor were cared for on earth, then we would expect to find the whole Bible reverberating with the call for his people to do so, by individual acts of mercy and by social structures of justice. We would expect to find (e.g.) the Law, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Letters unanimously saying things like:
‘“You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”’ (Deuteronomy 15:11)
‘If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness…’ (Isaiah 58:10)
‘Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.’ (Luke 12:33)
‘If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?’ (1 John 3:17)
But how can we respond to this call in a way that isn’t misguided, isn’t toxic, isn’t condescending, isn’t romanticised, etc.? These are important practical questions. Unless of course they hold us back from doing anything at all, in which case they become entirely theoretical questions. But at heart they all have the same answer: it comes down to relationship. Relationships are what the Kingdom of God is actually made out of. They are the only thing external to your person that have a chance of surviving into the age to come.
So here’s a growing hunch I have: your ‘treasure in heaven’ won’t turn out to be a pile of sacred riches, or a few extra lumens of radiance for your resurrection bod, or a tally of holiness points visible above your head… It will turn out to be people. It will be the breadth and depth of relationship you can enjoy with other human beings in heaven – and especially those who are now poor.
‘“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”’ (Luke 12:33-34) 1
Think about it. If you ‘give to the needy’ then that is literally where your treasure is. And if the process of giving and serving actually connects you and them in a meaningful relationship of love like it was always designed to, then that’s where your heart is also. The people themselves become your treasure: ‘a treasure in the heavens that does not fail’, in exactly the sense of Jesus’ exhortation to “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). 2
The stunning, sobering picture that emerges is this: acts of selfless love and sacrificial service done for someone in the present age will forever adorn your relationship with them in the next. (Or as Maximus has it: What we do in life, echoes in eternity.) So when you truly care about the poor enough to care for the poor, not only do you serve God’s kingdom purpose of establishing justice and mercy on earth; not only do you affirm the dignity and worth of all people, created in God’s image; not only do you have the unspeakable privilege of ministering to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46); you might just begin to think, like God,3 that relationship with people is the only treasure really worth having in the heavens or on the earth.
P.S. Because a suggestion for practical response can be helpful, rather than because I’m meant to say this: if you want to serve the poor in a relational way, or (next best) give to someone who is doing so, then you could see what your most local Church Army centre of mission is doing, with a view to volunteering some of your time or money there!
19 June 2020
T. Greene is part of the Church Army training team based in Sheffield, helping train evangelists from all over the UK & Ireland for the Anglican Church/the glory of Jesus. T's favourite prime number is 571.
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1 We’re probably used to assuming that the focus of this saying is on me getting rid of my things and my money, so that I’ll be free to concentrate on the things of heaven, which is thus where my treasure/heart will be. There’s a very challenging truth to that which I’m not trying to dodge, but there’s also an individualistic/egocentric flavour that stops us seeing the full picture. Because guess who becomes essentially irrelevant in that reading? As usual, the poor.
2 This relational perspective might help us begin to see other passages in a fresh light. No space here for a proper study, but some food for thought: In Luke 12:12-14, could Jesus have meant that you will blessed when you serve those who ‘cannot repay you’ yet, precisely because they will see to it that ‘you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just’? In Matthew 19:16-22, could it be that Jesus told the rich young ruler to “sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” not because he needed less money but because he needed more friends?
3 Also like Paul; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:19.