We care about the poor because Jesus cares about the poor and because we were commissioned by him to preach, heal and deliver those in distress. When Jesus was anointed at Bethany with "expensive perfume made of pure nard," didn't he chide those concerned about using that money for the poor with the words, "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7)? Some may take this to suggest that Christians should not be obsessed with lifting the poor out of their poverty. "After all," they may say, "isn't God's ultimate purpose on earth to redeem a people to himself from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 7:9) and not to bring an end to hunger? Wasn't the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord upon Jesus not to feed or clothe or house the poor but to 'preach good news' to them (Luke 4:18)? Isn't his 'Great Commission' to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) and not to go and feed all nations? Why, then, should we as Christians care about the poor?"
Jesus identified himself most closely with the poor.
It is true that Jesus does not want us to worship the poor any more than he wants us to worship ourselves. However, Jesus was united with the poor in an extraordinary way. He walked and taught among them as one of them. When he sent his disciples out he stripped them of their material possessions and made them poor (Mark 6:8-13).
Even more disturbing than Jesus' personal association with the social underbelly of Palestine, was his clear statement that our treatment of the poor was identical to our treatment of him. To those who disregard people without enough food, unsafe drinking water, those who don't care for the sick and ignore foreigners (or perhaps any discriminated underclass), those who don't help the poorly clothed, the homeless and criminals serving hard time, he said something quite startling. He said, "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did not do for me" (Matthew 25:31-46).
More frightening still, Jesus connects salvation with our response to the destitute. "…For the reality of saving faith is exhibited in serving love. But those who are persistently indifferent to the plight of the needy, and so to Christ in them, will be irretrievably lost."1
God will bring judgment to his children when they ignore the poor.
"Why exactly did God destroy Sodom?" asks Ray Bakke in his book, A Theology as Big as the City (Bakke 1997: 93). According to Ezekiel, it was because they did not help the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49-50). Throughout the Old Testament and particularly in the Minor Prophets, God brings judgment on his people for two prominent sins: idolatry and callousness toward the poor, the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Idolatry is related to hard-heartedness. It is usually self-serving, and a person obsessed with self will be deaf to the cry of the poor. The book of Proverbs states it axiomatically, "If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered" (Proverbs 21:13).
Compassion for the needy is part of Christ's character and therefore a quality of the Church.
While near a town of the Samaritans, a despised ethnic minority group, Jesus looked out upon the crowds with compassion because they suffered two things—harassment and helplessness (Matthew 9:36). These are things the poor throughout the ages have had in abundance.
Another time Jesus was teaching the crowds and had compassion on them because they had not eaten for some days, saying to his disciples, "I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat" (Mark 8:2). Jesus commanded his disciples to give them something to eat.
This wellspring of concern for those in need is like a genetic trait passed down to the followers of Jesus. While the book of James is perhaps the most forthright in expressing the church's need to honor the poor and warn the rich, concern for those in need pervades the New Testament.
The ministry of Christ and his followers is a ministry of deliverance.
When Jesus sent out the disciples he gave them the following instructions, "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:6-8). Evangelicals have been pretty good at preaching the message. However, much of the disciple's activity was focused on a ministry of deliverance.
People who are poor, particularly the urban poor, face numerous places of oppression and subsequent need for deliverance. Beyond the oppressive nature of drugs, alcohol and prostitution, the urban poor often face systemic oppression such as unsympathetic bureaucracies, various forces keeping economic underclasses alive in order to serve upper classes, and ethnic discrimination. What's more, the urban poor are often both victims and victimizers of all kinds of crime.
If the church is to follow in her Master's footsteps, she will be given over to the task of seeing Jesus rescue people from oppression, thereby ushering in the "kingdom of heaven" about which they preach.
So why should Christians care about the poor? Because, as Mother Teresa put it, "in the poor, we find Jesus in distressing disguise." We care about the poor because God commands it and has promised judgment for those who disregard the cry of the poor. We care about the poor because Jesus cares about the poor and because we were commissioned by him to preach, heal and deliver those in distress.
Those who would seek to draw near to Christ, will find themselves near to the poor.
Scott Bessenecker is Director of the Global Urban Trek, an opportunity for students to consider ministry to the poorest of the poor around the world.
1The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling by John Stott