Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Bible study on poverty

A Bible study on poverty
Posted: March 07, 2008
1:00 am Eastern

© 2008

In a new book, "Red Letter Christians," Tony Campolo makes the case that Christians can fulfill their duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless by electing politicians who will make this the collective responsibility of the government and all taxpayers.

For fear that even one Christian in America might be so misled by the noted evangelist and theologian, I decided to do something Campolo failed to do – consult the Bible.

Of course, that's not entirely fair. Campolo does offer a scriptural citation for his prescription for coercive wealth redistribution by government. It just doesn't apply. He cites Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus explains the responsibility each of us has individually to be compassionate to our neighbors in need.

Notice Jesus did not suggest those listening to Him lobby Herod to take care of the poor. Notice Jesus did not suggest this was Caesar's responsibility. Notice Jesus did not suggest people, listening to His words then or reading them 2,000 years later, should mug the rich and distribute their wealth to the poor.

Jesus didn't suggest anything remotely like that to help the poor and truly needy. Instead, he speaks to each of us individually. He lets us know about this because it is the best prescription for both the poor and for us who make the sacrifice to help.

Sacrifice is not meant to be easy. Sacrifice is not painless. And personal sacrifice is clearly what Jesus is prescribing for His followers in Matthew 25 – and throughout the rest of the Bible, for that matter.

Jesus doesn't suggest spreading the pain and sacrifice by forcing non-believers to carry the load. Jesus doesn't suggest reducing our own responsibility by foisting it upon the entire nation. Jesus doesn't suggest stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

But that's what Campolo's version of enlightened Christian socialism is all about. He specifically says problems like poverty are too big for the individual and too big for the church. Only government can tackle them, he says. Gee, I wonder why Jesus forgot to mention that to us?

When Jesus talked to the rich young ruler, He told Him to sell his goods and give the money to the poor. Even Jesus didn't force him to do so – which He certainly could have done. Had He forced Him, the rich young ruler would still not be in obedience and still not eligible for the rewards of the afterlife. That is the result only of a personal decision to follow God, not the result of coercion.

There's nothing compassionate about taking from those who have and redistributing it. In fact, it would deny the Zacchaeuses of the world (Luke 19) from the gifts of repentance, forgiveness and salvation.

Would that be biblical?

Go further two more chapters in Luke to learn of the kind of sacrifice God values. The poor widow who gave two mites, we learn, actually gave more than the rest. Why? Because it's not the amount that counts in God's eyes, it's the faith motivating the giving that counts. Campolo has this all upside down. God doesn't want or need our money to perfect His Creation. He requires our obedience and faithfulness.

The Bible does, however, warn us about people who use the poor as an excuse to sin, as a rationalization for sowing discord, as a means of undermining the very will of God.

We see this explored in John 12, where Judas condemns Mary for putting expensive, perfumed oil in Jesus' hair.

"Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?" demands the man who would betray Jesus.

The next verse goes to Judas' motivations: "This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein."

Judas was like so many "do-gooders" today who demand we show compassion for the poor by giving them, the do-gooders, our money. That's not the way it's supposed to work. You're supposed to help the poor. You don't need a middleman, a Judas, a tax collector, a bureaucrat, a politician taking a cut. It's no longer charity. It's no longer compassion. It's no longer obedience to God.

And what did Jesus say to rebuke Judas' insolence?

"Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always."

It seems eliminating poverty is not what God requires of us. The poor will always be with us, He says.

So why help the poor? Because God commands it. He doesn't tell us to solve global poverty. He doesn't tell us to pass the buck to others. He doesn't tell us to enlist government in the cause. He doesn't tell us to make the poor a political cause.

God wants us to look the poor person in the eye when we give. He wants us to show God's love when we do it. He doesn't want us writing bigger checks to the U.S. Treasury. He wants us serving Him. And through serving Him, we help spread the good news of His grace.

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