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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Engaging the Needy

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. 32All 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. 33He 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. 35For 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, 36I 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? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When 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. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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."

I heard a good sermon today by Bryan Loritts on engaging the less fortunate. His main point, in summary, was that there is a profound connection between our engagement of the poor and our relationship with Jesus Christ. This, of course, is the essence of the above Matthew 25 passage.

Loritts began by poking fun a bit at today's "missions trips." You know the ones: We raise money and go to some cool foreign country - maybe even rough it a little bit and do some work for missionaries - and in the end it is really more like a vacation. It is kind of a part of the Christian culture these days, especially for teens. But Loritts' point was that this doesn't cut it in terms of really engaging the less fortunate, and we often find ourselves "stepping over" the less fortunate in our own community in order to be a so-called missionary for a week in another country.

Now, for my part I've always been skeptical of celebrities, politicians, and others who lay down the guilt trip about helping the poor. In most of these cases it just seems to me to be a facade or a power play. This is particularly true of politicians who use their appeal to the poor as a basis for winning our votes and thereby gaining political office. So, the politician for the poor may be concerned about the poor, or he/she may just be interested in getting into power. Since, as a general rule, I think that politicians are basically PR spin machines (empty suits with little substance) I find their appeals to "help the poor" to be a bit rhetorical.

Neither am I impressed by celebrities who often appear to me to be arrogant and condescending. In most cases they have spent too much time in the bright lights and their vision is cloudy. They present these doomsday scenarios and often portray the poor as mere victims of an unjust social machine, powerless to ever improve their lives. Only we, through the gracious and loving act of those wonderful celebrities, have the power to improve their lives. And, oh yes, here is the telephone number where you can call and give us your credit card number.

In short, the public appeals to my heart most often fall on deaf ears. I will admit wholeheartedly that I have a callous around my sould when I hear the know-it-all celebrity or the soon-to-be-powerful politician.

But that brings us back to the point by Loritts: What am I doing in my immediate vicinity? What am I doing in my immediate community? That is the question on which our eternal lives literally hang in the balance. I think synacism about the holier-than-thou politicians/celebrities is justified, but what do I do when I see a need?

I heard Donald Miller speak recently and he told about an "epiphany" experience. He was sitting on a bus and saw someone who obviously had extreme handicaps sitting a few seats ahead of him. The person has all kinds of issues that would make them completely undesirable including, as I remember, spit running down their chin. Don said that he thought to himself, "I should be humble enough to go sit by that person." But as soon as he had the thought he realized that he had just elevated himself above that "undesirable" person and created a hierarchy whereby he was more important than that other person. In other words, there is no situation when encountering our fellow man should be humbling. If it is "humbling" to associate with a person, it simply means that we have been already deceived into believing that we are better than another.

Jesus' point in Matthew 25 is not, I believe, to merely mobilize us into action. Action is good. However, I think the real emphasis in this passage is going at the motives and attitudes of the heart: Do we have the compassion and desire to serve. When that is in place then action follows, and this action becomes guided in the right direction. It is no longer a matter of serving just because it is the fashionable thing. It is not a trip overseas for a week of beaches and sun. It becomes a life-fascination and obsession to reach out beyond myself and truly engage with others. Others become a focus and I am the vehicle to serve.

The focus is on the needy. It is easy to sign up with a celebrity and send a check in the mail to make us feel good. It is the easy (and sometimes stupid) thing to vote for a politician thinking that he is going to aid the needy. Programs and organizations are great, but they are safe because they keep us at a distance from the real problem: We don't have to get our hands dirty. But the real question has to do with whether we reach out to those with whom we rub shoulders with everyday.

According to Jesus this issue is personal. To turn away those in need is to turn away Christ, himself. It is a an area of conviction for me, personally, and a huge challenge to our American Christian culture. It is not so much a matter of what I do (giving to the celebrity or voting for the politician), rather, it is a matter of what I do not do. Failing to have a heart of compassion for the needs that are all around me - in my immediate neighborhood, city and town - shows a lack of concern for Jesus, himself, and an utter and absolute failure to grasp his vision and heart.


stacy barton said...

so i am white, educated, middle class. i am a writer, my husband is a teacher. we live in a small southern u.s. town/suburb with four kids a dog and two cats. we are the people socially conscious folks love to hate.

i was raised (oldest kid) in a ministry family that was frequently in financial trouble. my parents adopted a pair of african-american abused children just as i left high school. it - and much of my parent's missional lives - was such a disaster on our own family that i flee from any sort of "you ought to help others" philosophy.

clearly i have issues (wry smile) but i am also not alone. the modern way of approaching lets-give-others-what-they-need (as though we had it all to give from within our magnanimous selves) is a recipe for disaster.

i have no answers on this one

Jonathan Erdman said...

Stacy: Please refrain from complicating the neat and tidy answers to life provided on this blog....just kidding! I do think that this raises the discussion to another level....an important level....

I really don't have answers, either, to the scenario you present. I can relate to where you are coming from on some level because for me it is only recently that my heart has begun to open itself up to the needy in a way I haven't experienced before.

When we open our lives to others (regardless of whether our intentions are golden or rotten) we take a huge risk. It's a risk people often take lightly, but we shouldn't take it lightly - especially if we are putting our families or others at risk.

What happens when giving turns ugly? When the risk runs amuck and leaves us broken?

It doesn't seem fair that those who extend their hand in charity should have that hand wounded: Evil is returned for good.

I don't know that in that situation I would recomend that someone jump right back into the fire and take more risks....but neither do I think I would recomend that they do not take risks....sometimes healing is a process that requires time and space...we can give out of the overflow of our lives, but who fills our cups when our cups are cracked?

ktismatics said...

When I was in The Hague I met a young Dutch guy, pastor of a church in Rotterdam, who believes that Bono is a prophet. This guy's church is very active in outreach projects to the urban poor. There's a thing called Serve the City that started I believe in Brussels and is now spreading through the emerging churches in Europe. They start with time-limited interventions, then move into ongoing programs. I heard about a kid in The Hague who's finishing high school and going to do a year's internship at the Rotterdam church just to be involved in their Serve the City program.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I have mixed feelings for Bono. On the one hand he has said some profound things about giving with the result being that churches have responded by reclaiming a vision for the needy (as you mentioned).

On the other hand, he sometimes seems to fall prey to simplistic thinking: that we can change the world by giving a little more $$. Even Bryan Loritts seemed to drift off into la la land when I heard him speak by saying that if Christians would just give 10% of their income we could eliminate poverty.

Throwing money at a situation is ok, but it never addresses the issues of the individual, nor does it reconnect an individual with a community of support. Also, giving money to other countries may simply wind up going into the hands of a Dictator thug or the money can get "lost" in bureaucracy.

As a general rule, though, I think guys like Bono and Loritts offer a much needed corrective to the contemporary church.

ktismatics said...

The "Protestant ethic" -- hard work, thrift, and a willingness to enter into economic "covenants" beyond tribal boundaries -- fueled the burgeoning economic growth in northern Europe and America. "Throwing money" at countries lacking the cultural underpinnings of the West has proven nearly useless in alleviating the poverty. Interventions like microlending to local small-scale entrepreneurs seem to be more effective than outright grants to countries controlled by strongmen who either pocket the money or dole it out to cronies and warlords.

The historically Protestant countries are still rich, but the traditional Protestant ethic has been replaced (or augmented) by a "hedonic ethos" of self-expression, subjective well-being, quality of life and individualism. The rich countries are the most secular societies in the world. It's complicated.

Jonathan Erdman said...

And I thought I was the cynical one!

For all of the reasons stated it seems to me that the words of Matthew 25 are all the more relevant. They speak of "seeing" your brother or sister "in need." To me this points to a localized effort. Rather than looking for massive change on a global scale perhaps we should keep it simple and look for those who are close to us with real, tangible "cup of water" type needs:

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42)

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