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    Biblical Studies Journal Volume 1, Number 6

    May 15, 1997

    Relieving The Needy And Suffering


    All men have not been created equal with regard to parentage, educational potential and financial possibilities. Because this is true and because some must necessarily lean on others, the church will forever be helping those who have become impoverished, the needy.

    There is a biblical mandate to relieve the distress of those who are impoverished.

    Christ As Our Example

    The judgment scene of Matthew 25 pictures the gathering of all nations before the Lord and the subsequent division of the good from the evil. Those condemned to everlasting punishment were the ones guilty of failing to relieve the impoverishment of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned. It is not possible to be a follower of Christ, on the one hand, and totally neglect the impoverished people of this world, on the other.

    This is true because compassion compels us to help those who are less fortunate than we. One cannot long follow in the footsteps of Jesus without realizing that He was a man of compassion. Some nine passages in the synoptic gospels speak of His having compassion on people: Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 5:19; 6:34; 8:2; Luke 7:13. The word translated "compassion" literally means "to be moved as to one's inwards, to be moved with compassion, to yearn with compassion" (W.E. Vine). This was so much a part of the life of Christ that it would seem only fitting that His people would likewise be a people of compassion.

    Beyond the example of our Lord, there are passages which spell out the mandate for assisting those who are in need. Paul was rather clear when he said, "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink" (Romans 12:20). For what possible motive could such a directive as that have been made? Simple human need -hunger, thirst!

    In another setting, Paul admonished the Ephesians: "Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need" (Ephesians 4:28). Nothing is said in this passage about his "taking care of the needs or wants of his family" (such is spelled out in other passages: I Timothy 5:8), but rather the purpose of the work here is to have some means whereby he can relieve the impoverished.

    Still again, Paul directed in Galatians 6:10, "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith" This passage offers insight into several questions, not the least of which is the matter of motive.

    Benevolence and Evangelism

    Should a Christian give to the needy out of the compassion of his heart or with a view to evangelism - the saving of the souls of those to whom he gives? If some happy blend of these two motives could be achieved, many would rejoice. To be sure, there is not one among us who would not be happy to convince, convert and baptize every indigent soul whom he ever encounters. Dare we say, however, that we have a responsibility to a man's body, as well as well as to his soul? Dare we say that we have a responsibility to meet a man's physical needs, whether or not we can meet his spiritual needs?

    We do not make an attempt to evangelize every store clerk we meet, every gasoline station attendant, every postal clerk with whom we do business. Is there an incumbency suddenly thrust upon us to require a hearing of the Gospel before we will feed a man's empty stomach? Must we feel guilty for having done the latter without having done the former?

    The answer to our questions must necessarily lie within the Scriptures. Paul had spent some five chapters in Galatians telling these people that they were not under the works of the Law of Moses and, yet, there were works that the Christian must accomplish. He had said in Galatians 2:9, 10 that James, Peter and John had admonished him and Barnabas to "remember the poor" and he indicated that they were already determined to do that. He is saying now in Galatians 6:10, "while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men." Did you catch the key? "while we have opportunity."

    If an opportunity presents itself for us to reach lost souls, then by all means take advantage of that opportunity. On the other hand, if an opportunity presents itself to "do good," to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, then by all means take advantage of that opportunity. It does not necessarily follow that those two opportunities will always present themselves in the same person.

    Jesus fed hungry people and healed sick bodies without any guarantees that the recipients of His mercy would hear His message. One of the by-products of His healing ministry was that the multitudes "glorified the God of Israel" (Matthew 15:31), but His reason for doing what He did was the "compassion" that He felt for them (Matthew 15:32).

    Do Good to All

    Another question, answered in Galatians 6:10, is this, "Can Christians only help Christians?" Paul makes it clear in this text that sinners, as well as saints, are suitable recipients of our benevolence. He says, "let us do good unto all men." That excludes no one, sinner or saint! Is he addressing this to individual Christians or to the church as a whole? He tells us in Galatians 1:2, "to the churches of Galatia."

    In I Corinthians 16:1, Paul speaks of a collection "for the saints." Does this mean "saints only" are to be the recipients? If indeed it does, then why would the same writer, speaking to the same people, say that it was "to them and to all " (2 Corinthians 9:12, 13)? It should also be noted that after Paul spoke of the collection "for the saints" in I Corinthians 16:1, he speaks in verse 15 of the same chapter of those who "have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints." If indeed this means "saints only," then are Christians prohibited from doing good to anyone who is not a "saint"? If indeed they are, then Galatians 6:10, "do good unto all men," would stand in contradistinction to I Corinthians 16:15.

    We need to be careful in making "for the saints" mean "for the saints only." In I Timothy 5:10, the worthy widows are those who have "shown hospitality to strangers" and "washed the saints' feet." Would they have sinned by washing the strangers' feet? In Hebrews 6:10, does "ministering to the saints" mean "saints only"? Does the "assembling together" (Hebrews 10:25) prohibit the presence of those who are not saints? Would we dare prohibit non-Christians from using our restroom facilities and our drinking fountains, knowing that the water must be paid for by the church?

    On the positive side, let us remember that Paul instructed the Thessalonians to "abound in love for one another, and for all men" (I Thessalonians 3:12). Again, he said, "See than no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men" (I Thessalonians 5:15).

    When God's people can restore among themselves that kind of thinking which truly wants to "do good unto all men," the opportunities for such work will be everywhere evident. We will make mistakes in relieving the impoverished, but the very act of doing our best will truly identify us as children of Him who freely gives to all men.

    Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE
    (c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by THE LOCKMAN FOUNDATION. Used by permission.

    (c) 1997 The Fishinger & Kenny Roads Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.

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