He had compassion on them: Christ’s attitude toward the poor

The most distinctive teaching about Christianity is that God stepped out of the divine and entered into the human experience totally and completely. In the process, Jesus showed the world that human beings can be holy by their practical compassion for the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, the outcasts, and the foreigners.

The Gospels reveal the compelling truth that Jesus was touched by human needs and responded to them by acts of mercy. Often, He called attention to the needs and concerns of the poor and despised. He had a particular interest in reaching out to them and sharing the good news of salvation. But Jesus also responded to their physical needs, frequently before addressing spiritual needs. He challenged those who had means to look after the poor as their duty. He said they provide us an opportunity for doing good; they are a test of our fitness for the kingdom (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Jesus’ concern for the poor

Jesus’ empathy for the poor is revealed again and again in the New Testament. He told the story of a rich man who thought he had a crisis because he had inadequate storage for his crops. His concern was expressed in a statement of anxiety: “‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops’” (Luke 12:17).* While this prosperous man was contemplating building bigger barns to store his abundant crop, he seemed completely oblivious to the needs of the poor. But Jesus pointed to the real crisis in his life: selfishness and greed. He could have solved his problem by simply recognizing his duty to the poor. He needed to learn the lesson that Jesus so clearly taught: We are blessed to be a blessing to others; we are privileged to serve others. Jesus called the man a fool, and He taught where true wisdom lies—in helping those in need.

Another example of Jesus’ deep concern for the poor is His dialogue with the rich young ruler. This man was not only economically powerful, but he had religious and political influence as well. Evidently, his wealth and influence did not satisfy the deep longings of his heart. So he approached Jesus with a sincere intent to seek eternal life. Jesus seemed to have a serious interest in him and, in answer to his question, told him: “‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.…Then come, follow me.’” But this requirement for discipleship was too demanding—at least so he thought. It was too high a price to pay to follow Jesus. So this rich young ruler “went away sad” (Mark 10:21, 22).

Among the many lessons we may draw from this story, at least one is clear: Jesus repeatedly demonstrated concern for the poor. They seemed always to be on His mind, a part of His conversation. He began His public ministry by reading what the prophet Isaiah had foretold about the Messiah: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovering of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’” (Luke 4:18, 19).

Jesus was conscious that His messiahship included caring for the poor and needy. For instance, when John was languishing in prison and doubts began to arise in His mind about Jesus and His claim to messiahship, he sent some of his disciples to check out Jesus. On meeting Jesus they asked Him: “‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” Jesus’ response was simple. “‘Go back and report to John,’” he replied, “‘what you hear and see. 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’” (Matthew 11:3-5). Jesus’ works of compassion testified of His messiahship.

The followers of Christ must show by their works how they fulfill their responsibility to the poor and needy; not by lofty words concerning poverty, but by ordinary deeds that ease their suffering and pain. In other words, our duty to the poor goes beyond what we say to embrace what we do. In fact, “true worship consists in working together with Christ. Prayers, exhortations, and talk are cheap fruits, which are frequently tied on; but fruits that are manifested in good works, in caring for the needy, the fatherless, and widows are genuine, and grow naturally upon a good tree.”1

Love in action

The Apostle John says: “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).

“Many,” wrote Ellen White, “can be reached only through acts of disinterested kindness. Their physical wants must first be relieved. As they see evidence of our unselfish love, it will be easier for them to believe in the love of Christ.”2 While it may be true that the church or the individual Christian cannot eliminate poverty and sickness from this planet, we are to fulfil our Christian duty and social responsibility to the less fortunate by being responsive to the effects of poverty, sickness, and injustice in people’s lives. The Bible affirms that improving the conditions of the poor involves religious, social, and economic changes.

Viv Grigg was speaking in a subdued and almost reverential tone to a group of 20 visionary young adults of college and university age about the challenge of poverty and how young Christians should relate to this challenge as an opportunity for reflecting the compassion, care, and concern of Jesus. “Poverty,” said Viv, “is the issue of our time. And among the specters of poverty, few can match the sprawling megacities of the Third World. Urban migration is the largest mass migration in the world today. Rural dwellers are swarming into these megacities whose population doubles every ten years. By the year 2000 one-third of the world’s population will live in these cities, and 40 percent will live in slum and squatted areas.”3

Viv then proceeded to challenge that group of idealistic youth to embrace their social responsibility as a call from God. He encouraged them to consider where they might have started and the journey they have traveled; how in their own background and experience they may have personally encountered poverty or are related to people they knew as poor. He then told them that since they were not victims of poverty and injustice, they should take seriously their position of privilege and work for the less fortunate. They were blessed so they in turn could bless the world, and particularly the suffering world.

Speaking with deep conviction, Viv concluded his meeting with this appeal: “God is calling, looking for men and women who will hear His voice and speak His message to people in these cities. God wants to break us down to be grains of wheat that die to ourselves and give our lives to the poor.”4

Moving beyond words

“‘I have compassion on these people, they…have nothing to eat,’” said Jesus (Mark 8:2). The persistent challenge poverty presents to Christ’s followers is to move beyond speaking the truth about love, compassion, and concern, to living the truth in deeds of compassion and acts of kindness. We must find concrete ways to relieve the burdens of the poor and needy. We must see them as people with whom we are all one in God. We cannot truly “praise God from whom all blessings flow” and ignore the reality of a world of human suffering and misery. God’s blessings must flow through us in ways that will make a difference in the life of those in need.

The Apostle James said, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).

That is a call to action. Ellen White’s reminder is appropriate: “Many who profess His name have lost sight of the fact that Christians are to represent Christ. Unless there is practical self-sacrifice for the good of others, in the family circle, in the neighborhood, in the church, and wherever we may be, then whatever our profession we are not Christians.…When we see human beings in distress, whether through affliction or through sin, we shall never say, This does not concern me.”5

The most public face God puts before us, the picture of God that greets us everywhere in Scripture, is that of a compassionate and caring God who always exercises a preferential option for the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. We have the assurance from Scripture and Ellen White that more people will be persuaded to follow Christ by our kindness, compassion, and commitment to the needs of those who are homeless, hungry, and naked than by our lofty ideas about proper doctrines, which do not touch peoples lives in practical ways (see Isaiah 58; Matthew 25:31-46; James 2).

The gospel and social responsibility

The linkage between the gospel and social responsibility is clearly represented in Christ’s ministry and in both Old and New Testaments. Where the ravages of poverty, injustice, and oppression are clearly present, the Word of God insists that a faith that speaks only to the spiritual needs of the people but fails to demonstrate its compassion through practical help will be viewed as false worship (see Isaiah 58). Indeed, as Gandhi once said, “We must live in our lives the change we want to see in the world.”

A truly believing Christ-follower cannot treat with equanimity the material inequalities and the manifestation of power and privilege that wound so many and lead to the spiritual impoverishment of others. The gospel invites the Christ-follower and the church into solidarity with all who suffer, in order that together we might receive, embody, and share the good news of Jesus in ways that enhance life for all. As Cheryl Sanders puts it, “The kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world is a realm where all are filled and fed and free. One is qualified to enter that kingdom by exercising good stewardship of life itself, by ministering life out of the abundance one receives as a divine trust from God. And the gospel declares that eternal life is the reward of those who cherish life. Those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and incarcerated become identified with the inbreeding of God’s kingdom in this world and move with God in the realm of human affairs. To disobey this biblical mandate is to deny allegiance to the kingdom and the King.”6

In light of the frightening stories of hungry children around the world, the Christians cannot say, “This does not concern us.” We cannot be defensive in dealing with the persistent challenge of poverty. It is not a government program or problem. A generation ago, the U.S. federal and state government had taken over most social-welfare programs, and the idealists of the nation believed that the war on poverty could be won by tax-supported civil servants. But something was missing, something that was essential to success, and something that government workers and programs could never provide—faith. Faith in God proved to be essential to programs that were successful in getting people off drugs and alcohol, and out of a life of poverty.

Our society has tried to depersonalize poverty by talking in terms of programs and organizations and structures. But poverty is personal. It is people who are poor. These are the people that Jesus talked about over and over in His teaching and preaching. He had compassion on them and challenged us to see it as our duty to be a blessing to them. As such, a Christ-follower cannot exclude himself or herself from involvement in this human predicament. We cannot claim that it is not our fault that these people are poor. We may discover that they live in poverty because some of us live in comfort. Poverty is a human crisis. And for those who are blessed and privileged, to ignore it constitutes a contradiction between confession and conduct.

The church and the Christ-follower must answer the question “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” The suffering of our fellow human beings causes us pain. We may try to hide it, deny it, cover it up, or reason it away, but still the suffering and pain of others cannot leave us completely unmoved. Our Christian faith reinforces that. How can I call myself a Christ-follower when I do not care for my fellow humans? How can I represent the reign of God and not care deeply and practically about the people who are included in His kingdom?

In the Word of God, the Christ-follower’s social responsibility to the poor and needy is not secondary to preaching the gospel, nor is it optional. It is very much an integral part of the whole gospel story. For truly we see in the face of the poor the face of Christ: “‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40).

“We need not go to Nazareth, to Capernaum, or to Bethany, in order to walk in the steps of Jesus. We shall find His footprints beside the sickbed, in the hovels of poverty, in the crowded alleys of the great cities and in every place where there are human hearts in need of consolation. In doing as Jesus did when on earth, we shall walk in His steps.”8

Walter Douglas (Ph.D., McMaster University) chairs the Church History Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and directs the Institute of Diversity and Multiculturalism at Andrews University. His mailing address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A.

*All Bible quotations are from the New International Version, unless noted otherwise.

Notes and references

  1. Ellen G. White, The Signs of the Times (February 17, 1887).
  2. __________, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), 6:83.
  3. Jenni M. Graig, Servants Among the Poor (Manila, Philippines: OMF Literature, 1998), p. 27.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn.), p. 504.
  6. Cheryl Sanders, Ministry at the Margins, p. 28.
  7. Ellen G. White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (January 20, 1903).
  8. __________, The Desire of Ages, p. 640.