November 9, 1997

FRIEND OF THE POOR

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. Psalm 146:7

God is a friend of the poor. If you are poor, you can’t find a better friend than God; but if you harm poor people or refuse to help them, you can’t find a fiercer enemy than God. The Bible make that unmistakably clear.

Just look at the central event in the Old Testament part of the Bible, the Exodus. God befriended poor Israelite slaves and punished their rich Egyptian oppressors. When “the Israelites groaned in their slavery, God heard their groaning,” says the Bible, “and was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:24-25). He sent ten terrible plagues on their oppressors, and when the army of Egypt still tried to stop God’s poor people from leaving, the Lord drowned the whole army. He rescued the Israelites from bondage and poverty and provided for their needs all through their travels and gave them a land of their own. That great rescue, the Exodus, became the defining event for God’s people all through the Old Testament.

It’s no surprise, then, that when the Israelites sang of God in their worship, they sang of him as a friend of the poor. One such song, Psalm 146, says,

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked (v. 7-9).

Any Israelite who knew his nation’s history and knew his God had no choice but to be a friend of the poor, to help the refugee, the hungry, the homeless, the woman with no husband, the child with no parents, the defendant with no lawyer.

The Old Testament says that not only does the Lord care about the poor and help them, but he actually identifies with them. God takes treatment of the poor personally. “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,” says the Bible, “but whoever is kind to the needy honors the Lord.” “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 14:31, 19:17).

God made all of this clear already in Old Testament times, and he made it even clearer when he came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, God with us in human flesh. Jesus was born into a poor family, and his first cradle was a feedbox. For several years, he and his parents were refugees in a strange land, fleeing from a murderous politician named Herod. Later, they settled in Galilee, the most backward province of a poor country occupied by a foreign army. As an adult, Jesus had no fixed address. As he put it, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Jesus lived on earth as one of the poor, and even today he still identifies with poor people. Listen to Jesus’ description of the final judgment:

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. 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, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

That’s how closely the Lord identifies with those in need.  What we do for them, we do for him. And if we neglect them, we neglect him. Jesus says that the King will banish to hell those who ignore the plight of his needy brothers. He’ll tell them, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45).

God is a friend of the poor, and any friend of God will also be a friend of the poor. This doesn’t mean that being kind to the poor is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t mean that as long as we try to help people in need, we don’t need forgiveness or faith. The Bible constantly reminds us that we’re saved by Jesus, not by our own goodness. We’re saved by faith, not works. But faith isn’t really faith at all if it doesn’t produce good works, if it doesn’t help the needy. The Bible says,

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).

If you have a living faith, if you know God in Jesus Christ, if you know he’s a friend of the poor and identifies himself with them, if you know how much Jesus sacrificed for you to meet your desperate needs, then you can’t possibly turn your back on those in need. You’ll be a friend of the poor as God opens your heart to the needs of others and shows you ways to help.

Jesus opens our hearts to the needy. The Bible says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Since Jesus did this for us, continues the biblical writer, Christians with more than enough should share with those who don’t have enough.

Our desire [he says] is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14).

When God give you more money than you need, do you think it’s because he wants you to spend the extra on your own enjoyment? No, says the Bible, if God gives you more than enough, it’s so that you can share with those who don’t have enough.

John Wesley had a simple, three-part approach to money. First, get all you can. Second, save all you can. Third, give all you can. In other words, make as much money as you honestly can. Then, instead of spending it on all sorts of things, save as much as possible. And finally, once you’ve decided how much money is necessary to meet your own needs, give the rest away.

Wesley practiced what he preached. When he had an income of 30 pounds, he spent 28 on himself and gave away two for missions and aid to the poor. When his income rose to 60 pounds, what did he do? He spent 28 on himself and gave away thirty-two. When his income was 120 pounds, he still lived on 28 and gave away ninety-two. Get all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

You and I will never be friends of the poor, we’ll never give all we can, until we tell ourselves “Enough!” That’s not easy. It’s more common to assume that if your income goes up, so should your spending and your standard of living. As soon as you can afford a nicer house than the one you’re in, you should buy it. As soon as you can afford a more prestigious car than the one you have, you ought to get it. As soon as you can afford more expensive clothes than what you’re wearing, you should upgrade your wardrobe. But does every increase in income call for an upgrade of lifestyle? Why not use the additional money to help someone else? That’s why God gave you that extra money! Get all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

But let’s not talk only about money. If you’re truly a friend of the poor, don’t just give money. Give yourself. Give time and attention to those who need it. People often need a friend even more than they need cash. Single mothers sometimes need an adult to talk with, or a few hours of relief from child care. A jobless person may need advice and encouragement in how to go about looking for a job. People struggling with addictions need a friend who is willing to respond any time, any place, when temptation is getting too strong. Prisoners need visits, support for their families, and help starting over when they’re released.

Being a friend of the poor sometimes involves money, but it also involves time and effort and personal involvement. This personal dimension is so precious and so important. In some cases, you’ll be building friendships with brothers and sisters in need who are already Christians. You will increase their joy, and they will increase your joy.

In other cases, needy people may not yet know Jesus, and by helping them you’ll be showing them the love of Jesus in action. You can tell them about Christ and his salvation and invite them into the fellowship of the church. When you do that, you’re sharing the greatest treasure of all. Nothing is more valuable than being a child of God, a part of his family, and living forever in his joy.

When you share your faith and lead people into fellowship with Jesus, you are giving them a chance to share in benefits that last for all eternity, and you’re also sharing a key that opens up new possibilities right now. Faith in Christ brings eternal benefits in heaven, and it also helps here on earth. In the poor areas of our cities, the best single predictor of whether families stay together and get above the poverty line is whether the man of the house goes to church. For prison inmates, the best way to avoid crime and stay out of prison after they are released is a living faith in Jesus. And for people with addictions, a spiritual fellowship is crucial to staying sober. If you really want to help people with problems, be their friend and introduce them to Jesus and to the fellowship of his church.

This is crucial for helping people you know, and it’s also an important principle to keep in mind when you support various organizations. Today there are many agencies that reach needy people in areas you can’t reach personally, and by giving money to such agencies, you’re able to help people you’ve never met. That can be a wonderful thing. But these organizations are best when they go beyond handouts to helping people develop and when they share God’s Word and bring people into Christian fellowship.

Sometimes, of course, there’s an urgent need for short-term relief. Victims of famine need food. Victims of flooding need homes. Victims of disease need medicine. When you give money for disaster relief, you’re helping people who are in a life-or-death crisis. This is the kind of cause that arouses the most sympathy and raises the most funds. It’s the kind of thing that makes for touching TV commercials. It’s hard not to be moved by the heart-rending pictures of people at death’s door.

But although disaster relief is sometimes necessary, it’s not a long-term solution. It may warm your heart to think, “I provided food for a hungry person,” but it’s better yet to know, “My gift helped that person learn to provide for himself.” So if you really want to help the poor to help themselves, support organizations involved in development: that don’t just cure diseases but work to prevent them through immunization and developing pure water supplies, that don’t just feed hungry people but show them how to support themselves, that teach literacy and agriculture and help families become self-supporting. Community development isn’t as glamorous as crisis relief, but it’s often more effective.

And keep in mind that the best organizations for helping the poor are those that do it in the name of Christ. For one thing, in the hands of a church-sponsored mission, your gift has a greater probability of actually helping the people it’s intended to help. It’s a sad fact that government efforts at foreign aid often end up doing nothing but enriching corrupt officials. It’s also true that some secular charities are headed by lavishly paid executives, and a large percentage of the donations go to overhead costs and advertising, rather than to helping people in need. Relief organizations associated with the church have a much better track record in this regard, thanks to greater spiritual integrity and more direct accountability.

But an even more important reason for supporting Christian organizations is the fact that the best thing we can share with the poor is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Food and clothing and education are precious gifts, but life in Christ is the gift that lasts forever. In seeking to help people in physical poverty, we shouldn’t neglect their spiritual needs. Those who are poor in spirit, who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, need the blessing that only Jesus can give.

The gospel message addresses spiritual poverty, and in doing so, it also strikes at the very roots of material poverty. Faith in Christ gives people hope. Without hope, there is no incentive or ambition, and without incentive or ambition, there is no escape from poverty. When a bleak situation tempts people to give up, faith in Christ gives them hope, and hope has enormous power.

Also, the gospel attacks physical poverty by helping people to reject false beliefs that keep them down. For example, if people believe in karma and reincarnation and the caste system, they may simply resign themselves to poverty and oppression as punishment for a previous life. The gospel shows inequality and injustice for what it is and opens up new possibilities.

Still another way the gospel helps deal with poverty is that it calls people to take responsibility for themselves. Some people’s poverty is partially due to sexual sin and decaying families, to drinking and drugs, to laziness at work and school, or to buying on whims rather than having the self-control to save for future needs. The Bible helps people confront all these things honestly and deal with them.

These are just some of the reasons we can’t address poverty in all its dimensions without telling people about Jesus. The gospel Word and the loving deed belong together.

In short, what I’m talking about is generosity that is both intelligent and Christian. Don’t throw your money at just anybody you meet in an airport or on the street who claims to be raising money to keep kids off drugs or feed hungry children. Don’t send money to just any organization because it produces a tear-jerker of a TV commercial. Sure, it sounds good, it might make you feel better to send some money, but who knows where the money really goes? When you really want to help people in need, give to churches and Christian organizations which have a clean record of fiscal integrity, which help needy people develop and become self-supporting, and which address spiritual needs by introducing people to Christ and his church.

If you’re a friend of the poor, you’ll practice intelligent generosity, and you’ll also seek justice for the needy. Start by behaving justly yourself. If you run a business, treat your employees fairly. No matter how much money you give to charity, God won’t be pleased if you made that money by underpaying the people who work for you. The Bible says, “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy” (Deuteronomy 24:14). When there are people desperate for a job, or immigrants who are willing to take any work they can get, that doesn’t give you the right to pay them rock bottom wages that hardly meet their needs.

You owe it to your employees to pay a fair wage, to provide safe working conditions, and to treat them with respect. If your business is reaping huge profits, justice may means some form of profit-sharing. Will that decrease your personal income? Maybe. But it’s more just, and what’s more, you may find that your employees do a better job and stay with you longer and that in the long run your business is more successful and satisfying for you. As the Bible says, “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:25).

It’s no sin to be a success in business. Running an efficient, profitable business can be godly and honorable. You give employees meaningful work and a way to support themselves and their families. You provide goods and services that benefit your customers. And, if you’re generous with your profits, you provide resources to support the spread of the gospel and help the needy. It’s marvelous when God gives you a talent for creating wealth and at the same time gives you a heart for serving others and for doing justice.

Doing justice means treating people fairly, and it also means speaking for those who can’t make their own voice heard. Wherever possible, we need to use our influence to change unjust structures and oppressive policies. A commitment to justice for the powerless means we do what we can on behalf of the helpless unborn, the uninsured, the elderly, those with disabilities. Justice means we must work for safer streets, better schools, and more job opportunities in impoverished communities. Justice means we oppose rulers who oppress and impoverish their own people. Justice means we oppose policies that crush poor nations with enormous debt. Often rich nations feel generous for providing foreign aid, when in fact poor nations are paying far more in interest payments than they are receiving in foreign aid.

Justice means helping immigrants and refugees who flee persecution instead of despising them. It’s a horrible thing to mistreat foreigners who are trying to find a new home. God told the Israelites, “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 23:6,9). These days a lot of people are interesting in aliens, but often they’re more interested in make-believe aliens from outer space than in real, flesh-and-blood aliens who come from another country. Instead of neglecting or mistreating those whom we consider foreigners, let us, with God’s help, stand with them.

Some of these issues are complex, of course, and there’s not a quick, easy solution to every problem. In some cases, we may not even be sure what justice requires or what we can do to promote justice. But let’s be alert to the plight of others, especially those who don’t have the clout to defend their own cause. The Bible says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).

This is all part of what it means to belong to Jesus, the friend of the poor. This is what it means to be a friend of the poor yourself. The Lord moves us to personal, intelligent generosity, and he also moves us to do justice and to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. When we trust in Jesus, God’s love flows to us and it also flows through us. Let me conclude with these powerful words from the Bible,

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.