Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Losing sight of the least of these

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25: 40)

It is hard for me to understand exactly what is going on in the culture of the New Testament events. I was born in America in the heyday of the Era of Big Government. I was born into a nation where the New Deal and the Great Society were already in place, where the safety net of government assistance was already in place and I grew up in a nation where those major economic security policies (Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, welfare, unemployment benefits, food stamps, public housing) have never been seriously questioned or challenged. So the idea of a society with no social safety net is hard to imagine. We have poor people in America and we have homeless people but we also have a vast network of governmental and private, non-profit agencies that seek to assist them. The poor widow, the abandoned orphan in the first century had no such support, no case workers, no assistance from the government. Even in our comfortable and secure society, there are still plenty of people who are in need all around us. We are called to take the love of Christ to them, in Word yes, but in deed also. Somehow that priority doesn't seem to have the appropriate urgency, our priorities as the church seem somewhat at odds with what Jesus said were His priorities.

We go to conferences with the best speakers to soak up their wisdom (and perhaps bask in their celebrity). We work to control and impact the centers of influence: political leaders who beg us for votes and promise us a return to “traditional American values” in return, business leaders who don’t dare cross us by having employees say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, legal defense funds to argue before the secular courts of the lands to defend our “rights”. We go to seminars and read books about “financial freedom” when we already know what the Bible teaches about money:

7 Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
9 lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
(Proverbs 30: 7-9)

That seems pretty simple. Our desire should be for our daily bread, we should pray that we have enough to not be tempted to steal for our food and not have so much that we start to think that we have supplanted God by our success. The blessing of contentment, while contrary to the American dream of “more and better”, is far too rare. I don’t need a book or seminar to tell me that, God already made that abundantly clear.

Jesus seemed particularly disinterested in the powers that be, the centers of influence that run society. He spent time among those on the fringe: lepers, the blind, the diseased. He wasn’t very interested in the powerful except to rebuke them for their unfaithfulness and pride. His concern was for the least of these. In Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus gives us a vivid depiction of the sort of righteousness that will mark His elect: care for the hungry, the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner. Winning the culture wars weren’t on His proverbial radar. He didn’t seem to have any interest in building up local churches to compete for resources and members with other local churches. Seeing His people achieve financial security and independence wasn’t high on the priority list. Christ and His disciples alike are recorded as being deeply concerned with the proclamation of the Gospel and caring for those in need, the widow and the orphan, the poor in general.

All of that brings me back to the original thought. Why have we lost this vision that seems so clear in Scripture? Did we ever really have it in the first place? In place of Kingdom work, defined as preaching the Gospel to the lost (not sermonizing the saved) and caring for the poor, we have our own kingdom building. In place of “On this rock I will build my church”, we have “In this building we will build our church”. It seems the more complicated and involved we make our local church groups, the more myopic we become. The world out there becomes blurry because we are so concerned with events in our church: conferences, programs, pot luck dinners, seasonal celebrations, budgets and business meetings. It is not difficult to get so caught up in the week to week functioning of your local church that you forget to look around and see the needs of the least among us. Not every church group is like this, some churches have a real focus on the needs in their community. In fact the smaller and less complex the gathering, the more likely it seems that a heart for the least among us will be found. This is yet another reason that, all else being equal, the simpler the church gathering, the better. It is far too easy for the local church to lose sight of our priorities when the local church itself becomes our main priority. We are not called to serve and support the local church, the local church is only useful insofar as it aids us in serving and supporting others.

Does your local gathering of the church have the heart of Christ for the least among us? Before you answer that, take a look at your church budget. What percentage of it goes to programs, building debt and maintenance, clerical salaries, denomination hierarchies? 50%? 75%? I don’t have a firm figure in mind, but if you are spending half of the money you collect to keep the doors open, the lights on and the preacher preaching I have to ask if you have the same heart for the least among us that Jesus has. Every line item, every penny in a budget needs to be held up to discernment and the question must be asked. Is this a priority that Jesus would share? An honest assessment may surprise and disturb you.

Jesus Christ had a heart for the least among us. So did Paul and all of the apostles. So did the first Christians. We need to recover that heart in our day and to get our priorities in order. If we don’t we will find ourselves under the same condemnation of the religious people of the first century.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23)

1 comment:

Alan Knox said...


You asked, "Why have we lost this vision that seems so clear in Scripture? Did we ever really have it in the first place?"

I can tell you that the early Christians had this vision. Many pagan Romans complained because the Christians were caring for people better than they were. One pagan writer (I don't remember who now), said that the Christians were event taking care of pagan orphans and widows.

I guess we've come a long way since those "primitive" days of the church. We can now serve God by attending conferences and worship services.