Excerpt from Economics of Neighborly Love by Tom Nelson
In his death and resurrection, Jesus the Messiah provides the final solution for humanity’s greatest poverty. However, we must also remember that Jesus Himself demonstrated compassion and care for the materially poor throughout His earthly ministry. When Jesus spoke about his messianic mission, He often spoke of the poor.
In His hometown of Nazareth, as He read the Isaiah scroll, Jesus identified Himself as one bringing good news to the materially impoverished. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). And as John the Baptist languished in prison, having second thoughts about Jesus and His messianic mission, Jesus reassures John by informing him that all kinds of healing has occurred, and that “the poor have the good news preached to them” (Mt 11:5). Jesus highlights the economic dimension of His messianic work alongside His physical healings. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus look on the multitudes with deep, heartfelt compassion, moved by those who were poor, weary, and sick. Our Lord told stories that gave dignity to the poor and elevated their status.
A poignant example is the story Jesus told of the rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, whose disparate temporal circumstances in this life are highlighted to a hyperbolic extreme.
Jesus heightens His listeners’ visceral response by portraying the rich man as indulging his opulent lifestyle with a cold and callous indifference to sick, hungry, and poor Lazarus, who sat by the rich man’s gate each day. The rich man sees Lazarus, but only with his eyes and not with his heart. Even the dogs that roam the streets have more compassion for the poor man than the rich man does; they lick Lazarus’s oozing sores to bring temporary relief. But the rich man remains indifferent. (Lk 16:19-31)
To heighten the intrinsic value of the poor man, Jesus gives a name to this poor beggar, which is very unique within His parabolic teaching. In the midst of his ongoing suffering, Lazarus exhibits a gentle and patient soul, while the rich man reflects a prideful, self-absorbed, unrepentant heart. With this heart-tugging story, Jesus attempts to get the attention of the cold-hearted pharisaical religious leaders, who have bought into false conclusions that material wealth signify God’s blessing and material impoverishment serves as a rightful punishment for sin.
New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey makes the compelling case that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus teaches several heart-changing themes, including the corrupting potential of material wealth.
Wealth, be it little or much, is not condemned in Scripture. What is criticized is the failure to see that all material possessions belong to God. We are merely stewards of his treasures.
The parable reflects the corrupting, blinding potential of wealth and is critical of the socially irresponsible wealthy. The rich man used his resources for his own self-indulgent living. He cared nothing about his God, his staff or the needy in his community.
Jesus also highlighted sacrificial generosity toward the poor, showcasing the giving of a humble widow, who gave all the money she had to the work of the temple. Indeed, Jesus identifies so closely with the materially impoverished that He says when we care for the poor, it is as if we are caring for Him.
Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the New Testament writers continue to amplify God’s heart for the poor. One of the compelling evidences of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was how the gospel opened hearts and hands to those who were materially needy. Not out of coercion or forced distribution, but out of generous hearts of neighborly love, the early church met many material needs. “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). The New Testament writer James captures the early church’s heart for the marginalized and vulnerable, emphasizing that true Christian faith has at its heart concern for the poor: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27).
The apostle Paul’s concern for the poor was consistently on his heart and often on his tongue. In his farewell address, Paul urged the Ephesian elders to work hard, stay generous, and be eager to help the economically vulnerable. Defending his apostolic gospel mission to the Gentile world, Paul affirms his eagerness to care for the poor. While Paul preached and planted churches, he also took up monetary offerings to care for the materially impoverished in the Jerusalem church (Rom 15:25-28). Paul’s earnest appeal for generous giving to those who are underresourced, particularly to members of other local churches, suggests the goodness of striving for economic equity for all.
Paul does not advocate a coercive ecclesiastical or government redistribution of income or wealth, but rather seems to suggest that people who have been transformed by the gospel should embrace wise efforts to encourage less economic disparity and more economic equality. Writing to a financially advantaged church at Corinth, Paul says, “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness, your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness” (2 Cor 8:13-14). In a time of increasing wealth disparity, both within the church and outside the church, Paul’s words should be carefully pondered. How should the principle of equity or fairness inform our lifestyles, philanthropic efforts, and public policy? How does equity and fairness play a role in our free-market economy as we seek the flourishing of all people?
When we take a closer look at the extensive biblical teaching that calls for open hearts and hands toward the materially underresourced, we realize God’s heart for the poor is expressed not merely in acts of benevolent charity but also in providing opportunity for work and productive engagement in the economy. Whether the poor are part of a local faith community or not, in common grace we are called to empower, strengthen, and protect the vulnerable in society.
Tom Nelson will be one of the featured speakers at the Made to Flourish CG2017 Conference on Friday, October 13. The conference will be live streamed to local sites throughout the United States. The theme for this year’s conference is churches for the common good, and features other speakers such as Andy Crouch and Amy Sherman.
To hear more from Tom, and find out about this upcoming conference, visit Made to Floursh.org.