Pure Religion -- Remembering The Poor

Sunday, 21 November 2010 07:13

On our planet, 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty and survive on less than $1 per day. Over 800 million people worldwide are chronically hungry and malnourished. These are not merely the poor, but the “extreme poor” fighting to survive. Each day, 25,000 of them fail to survive and succumb to hunger or hunger-related causes

[1]. Over 8 million won’t be able to survive this year. Everyday, 30,000 children die due to causes related to poverty[2] and 9.7 million children never see their 5th birthday, all due to poverty. 11 million children die of a preventable disease. 3 billion people, half the population of our planet, lives on less than $2 a day[3] and God is watching.

The United Nations and the International community have set the goal of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015. This goal called the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) has set bold aggressive plans in motion to combat world hunger, health and poverty issues. The good news is that these world organizations are actually making a difference. The fact that9.7 million children diebefore age five is tragic and unacceptable, yet still better than the 10 million last reported[4]. In 1960 the number was 20 million. And yet for every victory there are more causes for concern. AIDS is impacting our world on a scale that we as a global community can simply no longer ignore. Over 39 million are known carriers. Many of these have children who will soon be orphaned. This will add more than 100 million orphans to the already overwhelming numbers worldwide. Each year, new dangers and disasters impact the globe. It is as Jesus said; “the poor you will always have.[5]” There are hundreds of organizations out there around the globe helping the poor. The question is, should we the church be involved? Is not our mandate the salvation of souls? Is not our jurisdiction “spirituality”, and isn’t that where all our time and energy should be focused? Isn’t that the great commission? Not feeding clothing and teaching poor people. After all, there are plenty of world relief organizations out there in existence already! Would it not be prudent to let them do this while we save souls?

This short paper we will examine the role of the Church and individual Christians in regard to the poor. We will begin with a theological perspective and end with a practical analysis.

"My whole being will exclaim, who is like you, O LORD? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.'"

Psalm 35:10
Theology of serving the poor

His name was Barney and everyone in this Bronx neighborhood knew him as the local street bum. Nobody knew nor cared why he was there. By his own admission he was a “loser.” The once successful family man had over the years descended to living on the streets alone, addicted to cheap alcohol and surviving off panhandling. He was dirty, ashamed and powerless to change his situation. He was a slave to his problems. Everything changed one bright sunny morning. A grease fire broke out on the first floor of the building across from where Barney slept. People were rushing out of the building in their robes and pajamas carrying their loved ones and the few precious items they could grab. Somewhere on the second floor a scream grew louder and louder with a plea for help. Like a slow motion explosion the fire was climbing up the walls at an amazing speed. Barney heard the desperate cries and rushed into the building. The very building that banned his presence only the day before. Working his way through black smoke and blind hallways he found the source of the cries on the second floor. He picked up two small children and ran out the building through flames and falling debris. Despite the onlooker’s pleas, he then ran back into the burning building and found the mother who had passed out on the way out and carried her to safety. Barney saved the whole family. When the fireman arrived they were amazed at his courageous rescue. They asked Barney who now looked even worse than his normal tragic appearance, “what were you thinking? Why would you do such a thing? What possessed you to do this?” His answer was “ I have no idea”. The answer to that question is a profound truth we must all understand. Barney did this heroic rescue because Barney is made in God’s image. He was designed to rescue the helpless. It is in his DNA to be like God, and God is the God who rescues.

"For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death."

Psalm 72:12-13
We are made in the image of God. We are designed to be like him. When we act out our design we reflect God and live out our purpose. But what is the image of God? The Apostle John gives us a simple description that is one of the most profound theological statements ever made. John who walked with Jesus the logos and exact representation of God[6], perhaps knew God better than any other man alive while inspired by the Holy Spirit said of him “God is Love[7]. This phrase “God is Love,” tells us volumes about God. He did not say, “God is loving” or “full of love”. He said that God actually “is” love. He is Love; therefore love is his essence, his being. Love is not a choice to God; it is his nature and his being. He can no more be “unloving” than he can be “ungodly”. God is the source of love because it is him. All real love therefore comes from God. We as Christians are deeply encouraged by the fact that God’s love is unconditional. It has no strings attached. We cannot be separated from his love. Although we may condemn and ruin ourselves in sin, he still loves us. He is the prodigal son’s father. This unconditional Love that is so powerful is not only for us as Christians but also for every man, woman, and child on this planet. As a parent loves every one of their children, so much more does God love not only our children, but also the children who live in slums, dumps and war torn places fighting for their daily survival. God is the good shepherd who finds the one missing sheep. The evil in our world is directly connected to the absence of God, the absence of Love. A world without God is a world without love. Where there is hunger and poverty there is always an absence of love and an absence of God. One description of Hell is the place where God’s presence is absent and therefore there is no love. Our planet has all the resources necessary to feed and care for everyone on Earth. God has always provided everything necessary for everyone. God’sconcern for the poor has been expressed clearly from the beginning. The Levitical law is filled with commands concerning the poor. As God was forming his people he was etching this on their communal hearts. He taught his new people early on what kind of heart they were to have.

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God." Leviticus 23:22

"There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." Deuteronomy 15:11

The Old Testament is filled with scriptures concerning the poor, widows, orphans and the fatherless. There are dozens of scriptures with very specific instructions concerning care for the poor.

"I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy." Psalm 140:12

"He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free" Psalm 146:7

"The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked." Psalm 146:9

"He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." Proverbs 14:31

"Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Proverbs 31:9

The sheer volume of scriptures is overwhelming. God has made it very clear, he cares for the poor and he wants his people to do the same! The Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed one of the strongest and most revealing statements.

"'He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD." Jeremiah 22:16

Can someone know God and not help the poor? God himself makes the connection crystal clear. To help the poor is equated to truly knowing him! The Apostle Paul called us to be imitators of God[8]. In what ways can we possibly imitate God? We are not omniscient, omnipotent, and immutable or any other supernatural attributes of God. How can we be like him? We can have his heart of self-sacrifice motivated by his love.
"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 3:17-18

"So he replied to the messengers, Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.'" Luke 7:22

As has been the case with God the father, so too the son is always concerned for the poor. Jesus’ ministry was filled with helping the poor and needy. The Greek concept of ethos (e.qoj) is used to describe the way in which a person lives their life. Jesus’ ethos was to help the needy wherever he went. So much so, that it was his reputation among the people and it drew thousands of the poor and needy to him. Even more than that, it was the hallmark of his true identity. He healed, cured, fed and preached to the people. This was prophesied by Isaiah[9] and is the evidence of God’s presence! People would know God was here not only because of the power being displayed but the compassion that manifested it as well. Most people are completely uninterested in theological argument or biblical exegesis but are very interested in being cured, healed and given hope for their lives. The poor often find God in helping hands and caring hearts. Those that cannot read or hear sermons find God through acts of kindness. Gandhi once said “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”.

"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." Matthew 25:35

Jesus took up the cause of the needy. In fact, he takes it personal! What is done for the poor and needy is done for him. What is not done for the poor and needy is also not done for Jesus and Jesus takes notice. If it is done for Jesus than it is done for God.

"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.' Mathew 25:45

The parable quoted above also reveals that there is a standing call to all God’s people that they should help the poor. Jesus includes in the final judgment the question of how we handled the poor and needy of our communities. One of the most striking features from this parable is that the topic is also salvation! Those that did not care for the poor and needy are condemned to eternal punishment. What does this mean? Does it not mean that we must help the poor in order to get to heaven ourselves? In my short Christian walk of 25 years after living in several third world countries and returning to the United States I see that even in the church we are in a great danger of being entrapped in what Jesus called “the deceitfulness of wealth and desires for other things[10]” I see that as much as the third world needs our help financially and spiritually so too we desperately need them. The poor help us, the rich, to be grateful and generous. They help us to open our eyes and see beyond the deceitfulness of wealth and see our own need. The truth is we are all needy. Poverty makes the need obvious.


You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” Rev 3:17

Jesus taught that we should be actively involved in reaching out to the needy. He called us to not only help those who can help us back, but also to help those who cannot give anything back to us. This is the heart of Christianity.

"But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind." Luke 14:13
Jesus’ ministry was indeed the perfect model we all look to. His time with the apostles laid the founding convictions in their hearts with which the church would be built. Jesus laid the foundation of the Kingdom on the apostles hearts and they in turn built the church on his foundation. The early church was and continues to be our model.

“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” Galatians 2:10

The church and HER HISTORY

The book of Acts provides us with a snap shot of the church founded by the Apostles. From the earliest descriptions it was recorded that the church took care of it’s poor; “There were no needy persons among them”. Later Paul would speak of collections for the poor in Jerusalem in many of his letters. I have included a section here written by Bill Moulden, doctoral candidate and evangelist of the Albuquerque Church of Christ,

We are always inspired this scripture aren’t we? The unity of the Gentile church to the Jewish church was forged by the compassionate act of meeting the needs of the poor. While the Gentile world was flourishing through Roman expansion, the Jewish nation was experiencing a famine that left many of these first century brothers and sisters broken and destitute. “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor…” It would be through Paul’s obedience to this mandate that his third missionary journey would begin. “In fact, so eager was he to engage in this work of mercy that his third missionary journey, the one that was to follow immediately the present (second) trip during which Galatians was written, had as one of its chief objects, in the words of the apostle himself, “to bring alms to my nation” (Acts 24:17).” [11] But built into Paul’s mindset was not just a desire to help the Jerusalem Christians but to help the poor in general. As a trained Rabbi, Paul certainly would have had in mind the demands of the laws of God (Exod. 23:10, 11; 30:15; Lev. 19:10; Deut. 15:7–11), and the exhortations of the prophets (Jer. 22:16; Dan. 4:27; Amos 2:6, 7). But more importantly, as a disciple of his risen Lord, Jesus’ words must have pressed him to the point that ‘remembering the poor’ would be the very thing he was eager to do. (Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:36, 38; cf. 21:1–4; John 13:29; Gal. 6:2)[12]

But what about the Church that was to follow the age of the apostles? Did they have the conviction to ‘Remember the poor’? Were they ‘eager’ to do so?

Tertullian tells us the pagans remarked, “See how these Christians love one another.” And the pagans’ words were not irony; he meant them. Christian love found expression in the care of the poor, of widows and orphans; in visits to brethren in prisons or to those condemned to a living death in the mines; and in acts of compassion during a famine, earthquake, or war. [13]
For the early church, surrounded by a hostile pagan world, the practical expression of Christian faithfulness and love was seen in its treatment of the poor. Their out-pouring to the marginalized peopleof the Roman world was probably among the most powerful causes of their numeric success.

The impact of this ministry of mercy upon pagans is revealed in the observation of one of Christianity’s worst enemies, the apostate Emperor Julian (332–63). In his day Julian was finding it more difficult than he had expected to put new life into the traditional Roman religion. He wanted to set aside Christianity and bring back the ancient faith, but he saw clearly the drawing power of Christian love in practice: “Atheism (i.e. Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” [14]


“ There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales” Acts 4:3

Ours is a restoration movement, meaning we look to the Apostolic church as our example in faith, doctrine and practice. Clearly, from the first days of the early church till now, Christians have taken care of the poor. The Apostles in Jerusalem were concerned that the poor be remembered as the church grew and spread into the gentile world. Paul was a champion of poor as he was a champion of the Gospel. The church has been a vehicle of God’s relief both spiritually and physically throughout the ages. More people in more places through out history have received food and medicine in the name of Jesus than any other name in the world.

Today’s World
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.

God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of the wasted opportunity and lives and God is with us if we are with them.

- Bono, Lead singer of U2

Our world is dramatically changing. Ecclesiologists and many sociologists are calling this the post Christian era. Christianity has decreased to a point that it is no longer considered a dominant force in world events. Even historically “Christian” countries are radically changing. At its present rate of change, Europe will be predominantly Muslim by the year 2050. According to Barna research the percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001. This is an unprecedented drop of almost 1 percentage point per year.” Where the population of the U.S. has grown by 32.2% since the 1980 census, church attendance has only increased 1.6% [15]. The postmodern world is developing a culture adverse to church and even Christianity in its traditional forms. Recent studies have again and again revealed the following widespread beliefs among people under thirty:

Many books have been written in recent years attempting to describe the postmodern world and changes that have occurred in people belief system because of them. Most any church conference in the last ten years held classes on how to reach the “post moderns.” In a recent national survey young people were asked what they hoped for in a religion. The top answers given were…
While many denominations are shrinking, at very the same time there are other groups that are exploding in growth and impact in their communities. They are particularly finding great success among younger crowds the “postmoderns”. In a recent research project the fastest growing churches and movements were surveyed with the goal to identify common characteristics. The following common characteristic was discovered. The fastest growing groups were those that were heavily involved in serving the poor and needy in their communities or around the globe. In fact, some of the most effective groups were those that concentrated on community service. They were also the most effective among people under 30. Dr. Vaughn the church growth expert states that “The landscape of the Christian church is changing faster than at any other point in American history.” George Barna, the founder and Director of the Barna Group calls this an age of a “Revolution” that is comparable to the Reformation or Great Awakening[16]. The simple fact is that the fastest growing movements and churches today are the ones who serve the poor. Helping the poor in service groups provides community, relevance and a chance to make a difference. All the indicators are that helping the poor connects postmodern people with Jesus and provides a non-traditional presentation of Christianity. In other words it makes Christianity relevant once again. This is a core feature among the fastest growing churches in the world. They have presented Jesus in a new light with the same spirit as Paul on Mars Hill speaking to the Areopagus using Greek poets and rhetorical argument. Paul used his knowledge of Greek culture and morals to effectively present Jesus. These groups have found an effective way to present the Gospel to a new generation that resonates. Even Pop stars and political figures are shining in the spotlight of admiration for their benevolence works. People recognize “pure religion” whether they are religious themselves or not. We are designed to be like God and serving the poor provides a key step toward understanding and knowing God.

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” -Albert Einstein

The future

The eradication of extreme poverty is widely recognized as the great moral challenge of the 21st century. The wealth of the late 20th century has spotlighted the extreme poverty found around the globe. Natural disasters along with worldwide news communication systems have created a global awareness unprecedented in history. Secular organizations in business, government, and charity as well as relief organization around the world are recognizing the importance of solving these issues. To say this is an issue important to all is an understatement. In 2005 when the G8[17] met in Scotland the meeting was marked with a peaceful demonstration of 250,000 marchers expressing their desire for the leaders to recognize the importance of addressing poverty in the world. Seven million bracelets were sold to express the conviction that extreme poverty must be eliminated. Not only are new churches recognizing the importance of serving the poor, the world is making a similar discovery. As Global awareness expands, poverty is at the forefront of the many needs. For many, serving the poor is a way to find meaning and purpose in life. Even corporations are joining the bandwagon as unprecedented numbers of foundations are being set up around the world! The wealthy, such as Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, are setting powerful examples that the world is noticing. Because of these changes in our world, Hope worldwide through it’s benevolent outreach has reached global levels undreamt of before. Doors have been opened to Kings, Presidents and celebrities. Governments, including the United States, have opened their doors to help from HOPEww. Recently HOPEww was even given a special status with the United Nations! As the needs of our planet increase, so also will the need for trustworthy, reliable, effective organizations that expertly meet the needs of the poor and are able to tackle the great challenge of the 21st century.



The task of helping the poor and needy in our world is daunting. So great is the challenge that one could fear the church might be swallowed up by the needs of the poor. Obviously the church cannot become a relief agency or the branch of one. The greatest need of mankind has always been and always will be spiritual. The Catholic Church has had to fight off for decades the advances of the radical left wing promoting Liberation Theology. Jesus cannot be made in man’s image or to serve man made plans. He is the Logos of God, to change that is to offend him and the father. The church is God’s relief to a sick and hurting world both spiritually and physically. God has shown that he is deeply concerned with the poor. He is the God who rescues the needy. He has always commanded his people to care for the poor. Jesus’ ministry was filled with serving and helping others in need. He did not start a program or a project. He is the program and the church is the project. Helping the poor was his ethos as much as preaching the gospel. He was clearly concerned that his people should help those who could not help themselves. The early church understood this clearly. The church was known across the empire as a people who cared, not only for the needy of their own communities, but also the world’s poor. Helping the poor is far more than simply a good idea or a weekend activity for Christians. It is the heart of God and the way of Jesus. Our world is becoming a single community. The global village is watching to see who really cares. As God’s people we can do no less than Jesus. We must live out “pure Religion.” Hope worldwide has provided an amazing opportunity for our fellowship’s relief efforts, but it is not the responsibility of HOPEww to instill the heart or conviction. There should be no conflict between our commitment as disciples to world evangelism and world relief. They are hand in hand. In many cases it is as the proverbial saying goes, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We must be involved because God commands us, Jesus exemplified it and we need to be connected. We need the poor as much as they need us. Third world people need the resources both physical and spiritual of the first world Christians, but first world Christians need the examples of the third world hearts. The first world Christians live in constant danger of being lukewarm and self-sufficient believing we have everything we need. Serving the poor and needy keeps all our hearts passionate and grateful. The world is watching to see who truly loves others enough to take action. God is watching to see who is like him and will love a poor and needy world.


"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." James 1:27


[1] Hunger and World Poverty Sources: United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Oxfam, UNICEF

[2] www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2005/webArticles/110705_Poverty.html
[3] www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2007/issue1/0107p22.htm

[4] Unicef progress for children statistical review, Dec 2007

[5] Mathew 26:10-12; Mark 14:7

[6] Hebrews 1:3

[7] John 4:8,16

[8] Ephesians 5:1

[9] Isaiah 35:5-7, 26:19, 29:18-19 and 61:1

[10] Mark 4:19

[11]William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 8, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Galatians, Accompanying biblical text is author's translation. New Testament Commentary, 86 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-2001).

[12]William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 8, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Galatians, Accompanying biblical text is author's translation. New Testament Commentary, 86 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-2001).

[13]Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed., 35 (Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub. 1995).

[14]Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed., 35 (Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub. 1995).

[15] Godgrown.net

[16] Barna, G. (2005). Revolution. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers.

[17] An international forum for the governments of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union with the purpose of creating dialogue concerning global issues

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