Let’s change the subject from talking about sex, and talk about another debatable topic of Biblical ethics: care for the poor. I struggle to understand the Bible’s teaching on this issue, in many of the same ways that my colleagues on the left struggle to understand the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. It’s spooky.
Yes, I know that the Bible does teach us to care for the poor, and I accept that, in principle, just as my colleagues accept fidelity and (to some extent) chastity – in principle. But if we begin to ask the same questions about caring for the poor that my colleagues have asked about sexuality, the Bible’s teaching becomes not so clear or imperative.
The Old Testament clearly teaches care for the poor. For me, that’s good enough. But that’s not good enough for those who wish to play the home version of the game “Marcion.” If we can dismiss the Old Testament’s teachings on marriage and sexuality as outdated and non-binding, the same can be said with equal force about its teachings on the poor, or any of its other teachings. And if we say that Jesus assumed and reaffirmed the Old Testament’s teaching on the poor, the same can be said for his stance toward its teachings on sexuality. As Jesus proves in his teaching on divorce, if Jesus had disagreed with the Judaism of his day on any subject, he would have undoubtedly corrected our misunderstanding.
As for Jesus, it’s amazing how few times Jesus even suggests actually helping the poor. What he does say does not sound like a priority command. The only command he gives in all four Gospels is only in Mark 14:7, “For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do good to them.” Hardly a forceful command! Yes, his word specifically given to the Rich Young Ruler to give to the poor does require him to sell all that he has; if we must take one of these literally, why not the other?
More troubling to me is Jesus’ line from the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to everyone who asks from you” (Matthew 5:42). Everyone?? I do not know anyone who takes this teaching strictly literally. To do so would quickly become a bottomless pit. Even “bleeding hearts” don’t give to addicts who are looking for a fix, or to those who won’t help themselves, or those who don’t need it. Nor should they. Perhaps Jesus is using hyperbole here. But that is always a risky conclusion to resort to, for fear that we can dismiss any command of Jesus the same way.
What about Jesus’ parables? The Good Samaritan comes the closest to commanding us to give sacrificially to the poor (“Go and do likewise”), although one could argue that this fictional story holds up an exceptional or ideal response. This parable was intended to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” raised by the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule applies. So, do my neighbors have the right to expect me to help with their cell phone bills, which I would never expect them to do for me?
But what about the parable of the Sheep and the Goats? As argued by Ladd, J. R. Michaels, France, Carson, Blomberg, and others, Jesus originally told this parable to declare that the world will be judged based on how they have treated his followers (“my brothers/sisters”), not the poor or rejected as a whole. Whatever unbelievers have done to Jesus’ followers, they have done to him. An unbeliever in a Chinese prison who feeds his/her Christian cellmate would appear to qualify as an example.
The understanding that Jesus comes to us in the face of the poor and needy whoever they are (a la Mother Teresa) is a relatively late development (post-Enlightenment), as shown in the historical survey in Sherman Gray’s dissertation The Least of My Brothers. And certainly all of us have seen a long line of panhandlers and abusive needy people where we could say, if that’s the face of Jesus, then atheism begins to look extremely attractive. No, not every poor person is the face of Jesus. I believe that Jesus never intended his words to be understood that way. Could it be that God now expects us to understand it that way? Could be, but that’s more of a leap of faith than to believe that God created us to be heterosexual and monogamous.
I know it’s popular to dismiss the apostles as inferior to the red-letter teachings of Jesus. But actually, the apostles do a clearer job making Jesus’ teaching more explicit for the rest of us. James asks, What good is the faith that says to a destitute person, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” without giving the person what they need? (Jas 2:15-16) Likewise, 1 John 3:17 asks how God’s love can abide in someone who sees a fellow believer in need but sends them away empty.
But now it’s time to hit the Context button. Look at this issue in context. What we consider “poor” in 21st century America is a far cry from the poverty that Jesus and his apostles were talking about. What is God’s authoritative poverty index? Read Robert Rector’s article about “Plugged-In Poverty.” Today’s poor in the developed world have a standard of living that would have made Caesar green with envy: 63.7% of our poor have cable TV, 54.5% have a cell phone, but only 1.3% of our children suffered “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns,” according to the USDA.
Perhaps I sound like W. C. Fields reading the Bible “looking for loopholes.” Such is also what it looks like when I see those who reject the historic understanding of the Bible on sex. Let me make it clear, I do believe that the Bible does command us to care tangibly for the poor. I struggle to obey, and I try not to make excuses to avoid doing so. I have no intention of scrupling that command. I would prefer that we accept both the Bible’s teachings about sex and about poverty as equally authoritative.
What I’ve tried to do here is to remove anyone’s grounds for being overly dogmatic about how one cares for the poor. I do not believe that God commands us to vote for knee-jerk increases in government spending because of God’s mandate to care for the poor. I do not believe “the poor” should be used as a weapon to mug the nation out of trillions of dollars that will not go to the poor. God’s imperative of love remains what it is: a love that led the early church to sell themselves literally into slavery to use the money to feed fellow believers who were genuinely destitute.
By the way, if we want to talk about love, you won’t find the term “agape” in all of Mark and only once in Luke, you won’t find the verb “agapao” anywhere in Mark, and you won’t find either the noun or the verb in all of the book of Acts. The New Testament is all about love? But that’s another blog…
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill and as adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill.