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by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

July, 2012

A few weeks ago, I heard a radio preacher say these words: “. . . It is your responsibility, it is my responsibility, it is the Church’s responsibility to take care of the poor. . . .” He pastors a large church in a major southern city and his congregation applauded. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have joined the applause. The key, as usual, is context. Here are the rest of his words, on the subject of food stamps: “They want the citizens to be dependent on them, not on God and God’s people. They want the citizens to trust the government, not God. . . . What they’re trying to do is to create a society where people are dependent on them, not on God. . . . But you see, they want people to have allegiance to them and not to the living God. They want people to worship them, not the living God. They want people who are beholden to them, not to the living God.”

You can just hear the exclamation points!!! As you might guess, I disagree. I rarely comment on politics in Person-2-Person—and food stamps are nothing if not political—but I couldn’t ignore his remarks. I agree that it is our responsibility, the Church’s responsibility, to take care of the poor but I disagree with his comments about “them” and “their” motivations. The sad truth is that most people—even most Christians—don’t depend on God. The problem is not that “they” are turning people away from God but that “we” are not turning people toward God and in some cases are actively driving them away. “They” make handy scapegoats but the truth is that food stamps are necessary because the Church has failed to “Tend my sheep.” (John 21:16b ESV). (Note: Since this was written, I learned that churches and private individuals account for only 7% of all support for the poor and hungry. Government programs such as food stamps—in other words, “them”—make up the rest. We should be ashamed; I know I am.) Jesus did not say “‘For I was hungry and thirsty but “they” decided someone else should give me food and drink.’” He said “‘For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,’” (Matt. 25:42 ESV). Rather than focusing on what “they” do or don't do, it would be better to focus on what we—you and I—do and don’t do. Rhetoric, no matter how strident, will not fill empty bellies or mend broken lives.

The notion that God’s people are called to minister to the poor is not new. You can find it in the law of Moses, clear back in the book of Deuteronomy: “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, . . .Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7, 11b ESV). In plain, simple words, care for the poor.

If we believe it, then we need to do it. James told his readers, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (Jas. 4:17 ESV). We know what to do. We know why. We know who. We know when. The Psalmist wrote, “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” (Psa. 160:3 ESV). That radio preacher is right: “. . . it is the Church’s responsibility to take care of the poor. . . .” But “they” aren’t keeping us from doing it. “They” aren’t taking away our mandate. “They” aren’t heirs of the commission to “Tend my sheep.” But we are. Poverty and hunger are huge problems and we need all the help we can get. If we can’t do it alone, we shouldn’t complain when “they” have to do part of it.

We might very well be doing the same thing “they” are doing, whoever “they” might be. But while “they” might be doing it because it’s a “good idea” or simply because it’s necessary, we are doing it for different reasons. We’re doing it because God commanded it. And we’re doing it because we love God and our neighbors. Jesus told his disciples, “‘If you love me, you will obey my commandments.’” (John 14:15 ESV). And the greatest commandments are “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37b, 39b ESV). Our love in action can make the difference between “us” and “them” but we should love “them” at the same time.

“‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”’” (Matt. 25:41-45 ESV.)

Copyright © 2012 by David Phelps