Some would say that what you believe is paramount to what you do in regard to the Gospel, emphasizing correct doctrine over meeting the needs of the less fortunate. Others would disagree suggesting that meeting such needs is the only way to truly live out the Gospel.
Jesus said that when we feed and clothe the ‘least of these’ we have done so unto Him– and yet he insisted that the ‘poor would be with us always’ as he allowed the use of an expensive perfume for washing his feet (perfume Judas thought should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor).
And while James proposed that pure religion is to care for widows and orphans, Jesus spoke of a certain kind of follower that could prophesy, cast out demons and do other mighty works in His name– and yet God ‘did not know them’.
Such paradox makes it hard for us to simply pick a side and stick with it.
It’s only human to create neatly packaged and well-reasoned mandates for Godly living, and to pursue practical, linear and sequential steps for pleasing God. But at some point, me trying to please God by determining what it is that He ‘wants me to do and doing it’ (like serving the poor for example), becomes a cleverly disguised form of self-righteousness.
Because a righteousness that revolves around me determining what is acceptable to God, pursuing that, and then achieving it- is the epitome of a self-oriented righteousness.
There is a big difference (although it’s very hard to discern) between following the Spirit of the Living God, and following our carefully crafted, well-reasoned formulas for pleasing God.
In what ways do we obey the rules, ‘play the part’ or follow the recipe in hopes of entering into the Kingdom of God?
Is it possible that we can sponsor children, provide clean drinking water to those who have none, or rescue those enslaved in sex trafficking- all in the name of Jesus- and yet still remain ‘unknown by God’?
How is it even possible to do such ‘good’ things and yet still come up short?
Perhaps because there is a subtle but important difference between letting God use me for His purposes- and a self-righteousness that compels me to fight for His attention or favor by offering my acts of love and kindness towards others in His name.
Is it possible that for some of us, serving the poor has become an honorable distraction from letting God’s love invade our own lives? Are we serving the ‘least of these’ out of God’s great love for us- or because we want God to love us? One approach has us trying to ‘perform well’ in effort to validate our acceptance by God, while the other sets us free in the reality that God’s acceptance has no such prerequisites.
It’s okay for us to acknowledge that the weight of suffering in this world is far greater than any of us can carry. There is good reason to feel completely overwhelmed and helpless to ‘make a difference’ when we come face to face with the utter depravity, suffering and oppression that is all around us.
We should feel overwhelmed because we are in fact impotent to meet the God-sized need of this world.
Thankfully, the Kingdom of God is not advanced by our capacity, ability or efforts. God is not depending on our bank accounts, talents, resources or achievements in order to advance His Kingdom. He’s inviting us into a movement that already has Divine momentum- not something that needs resuscitation or rescue by our hands.
And this is one of those things that leaves me annoyed and yet relieved.
Because while the over-achieving performance junkie in me is upset at the notion that I can’t impress God or advance his Kingdom, another side of me (the side that is trying to eek out some honesty as I write this) can breathe again.
Perhaps Jesus saying that the ‘poor will be with us always’ does not give us license to ignore the less fortunate, but instead clarifies that our responsibility is to engage with poverty- not to end it (which sheds an interesting light on the myth that if we would all just ‘come together’ and ‘do our part’, we could put an end to hunger, poverty, oppression, etc).
Because there is a huge difference between engaging and eliminating.
Knowing that ‘the poor will be with us always’ has a way of taking the self-righteous ‘wind from our sails’, reminding us that we must lean into resistance despite our inability to eliminate it.
When we engage with the ‘least of these’ we are confronted with the reality that we too are the least of these. As we come face to face with the horrors that others endure in their everyday lives, we are given eyes to see the same but altogether different horrors we suffer in as well.
When I help the victims of sex trafficking, I am reminded that I am also held hostage to, and need rescue from, my own sexual trappings of a different kind.
When I feed the hungry, I am made acutely aware of my total dependance on the hand of God for provision in my life.
When I mentor teenagers in the most under served neighborhood in my hometown, I start to realize that I am not a ‘self-made man’ and that it was not my own efforts- but the unmerited favor, talents and incredible opportunities that God has given me that have made me who I am today.
And when I accept the unacceptable person- I am reminded of how recklessly God loves and accepts me just as I am.
I can engage poverty and oppression with humility and boldness, knowing that although I am utterly impotent to meet the greatest need of those around me, I am tapped directly into the Source of Him who can. I can take heart knowing that the Kingdom of God is greatly advanced in and through me as I engage with poverty- not necessarily when I am distracted by the task of trying to eliminate it.
Because I am the object of God’s ruthless love, and my heart is the ground upon which His Kingdom advances.
So without objectifying the marginalized and less fortunate by minimizing their real and present needs, I am hoping to draw attention to the continuing need for God in our own lives- a need that has an interesting way of surfacing (for contemplation and surrender) as we engage with those less fortunate than us.
I’m certainly not advocating a selfish lifestyle that ignores the needs of others, that assumes physical needs are unimportant, or that is content with hoarding the comforts afforded by the blessings of God. Nor am I suggesting that God’s love for the poor is but a mere teaching point, that He doesn’t hear the cry of the oppressed or that the poor are in any way less loved, accepted or aggressively pursued by God than I am.
The poor have very real needs, here and now, that God does (and will continue to) meet through us as we submit to the guidance of His Spirit in our lives.
I suggest we take a moment to reflect upon whether our love for the ‘least of these’ is stemming out of the insatiably deep, wrecking love of God in our own lives- or if we are serving the poor as a means of earning God’s approval, or perhaps as an attempt to remove a manifestation of resistance that Jesus himself said is never going away.
Because one approach allows me to encounter Jesus when I serve the poor- while the other has me doing ‘mighty works’ in the name of a God that doesn’t even know me.
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Haitian Orphans Photograph by Ryan Booth