“When James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They desired only that we should “remember the poor“, the very thing which I also was eager to do” (Gal 2:9-10)
That seems, perhaps, a very mundane and unglamourous topic for all these exalted apostles to be discussing. After all, their principal function as servants of Christ was the proclamation of the gospel, not the relief of the poor. The Jerusalem apostles could have brushed aside the subject by saying, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to worry about the poor” – but no, that was exactly what they were concerned about. And Paul could have brushed aside the subject by saying, “Christ did not send me to worry about the poor, but to preach the gospel” -but no, that was “the very thing I also was eager to do.”
The apostles could have constructed far more plausible excuses for neglecting the poor, than most of us can. Yet they did not construct those excuses. And neither should we. If it was important for the apostles to “remember the poor,” then surely it is important for us to do so as well.
Yet, much too often we find ourselves making excuses – much flimsier excuses than the apostles could have made. Too often we find ourselves wanting to do other things, and trying to justify doing what we really want to do, rather than inconveniencing ourselves by assisting the poor.
Four Excuses Not To Assist The Poor
(1) “There are no poor people nowadays.” “The poor,” Jesus said, “you have with you always” (Matt. 26:11); and many centuries earlier, God had said the same thing to the children of Israel: “The poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, `You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land”‘ (Deut. 15:11).
Brethren, the sad truth is this. If we do not meet with poor people in our home towns, too often that is not because there are no poor people there, but rather because we ourselves are too well-to-do and too materially comfortable to come in contact with the poor people who are living within a mile of us.
(2) ” I cannot spare the money. ” This may sometimes be true. The widow who put all she owned into the treasury (Mk 12:41-44) would not have had much money to give to other people as poor as herself. But more often, we feel that we cannot spare the money because we are too attached to it, and to the comforts which it can buy. That was never Paul’s attitude. “If we have food and covering,” he said, “with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8).
“Whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 Jn. 3:17-18).
(3) “Most poor people do not deserve to be helped” This, again, may sometimes be true. But what if it is? Did any of us deserve to be helped by God, when we were spiritually poor?
Moses repeatedly exhorted the Israelites to look after the underprivileged people. And the same reason for doing so occurs again and again. “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing” (Deut. 24:18; 10:17-19 f; Lev. 19:34).
God gives His sunshine and rain to righteous and unrighteous people alike, “expecting nothing in return” (Matt. 5:45 f; Luke 6:35). He even gave His Son to die for the sins of “the whole world,” including many people who would never accept Him (1 Jn. 2:2).
We may not always be able to give people what they want, but we can always gives them what they need.
(4) “The church is doing things to help poor Christians, ” Maybe so. But where does that leave the poor non-Christians? Each one of us, individually, has a responsibility in that area which no church can ever have.
Let me take an example. The church has a responsibility to care for “widows indeed” – widows who are faithful Christians, who are in need of (say) food or clothing or shelter, and who have no other means of support (1 Tim. 5:3-16). But what about all the widows who do not meet these criteria? Should we let them starve to death, simply because the church must not assist them?
I cannot expect the church to take over tasks which God has allocated to me as an individual Christian. The church must provide material help for saints in need, in order that all the members may function together within the body in the way that God planned (Rom. 15:26 f; 2 Cor. 8:4). But my individual responsibility as a Christian is far more extensive than that. “While we have opportunity,” every Christian is supposed to “do good to all men,” and not only “to those who are of the household of the faith,” although obviously he will be “especially” concerned about needy Christians (Gal. 6:10). As we have already seen, every Christian is supposed to do good to people who do not deserve his assistance (Lk 6:33).
If the only needy people being helped in my area are those Christians who receive assistance from the local congregation, I am failing in my individual responsibilities.
The apostle Paul – “often without food, in cold and exposure” though he was, laboring continually at his special task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles – was nevertheless “eager” to “remember the poor.” What excuse can we offer, when he offered none?