"Compassion for the
poor and needy is at the heart of the Christian gospel"
Read 2 Cor 8:1-15
A little quiz, if you like.
I’m talking about a quite sizeable city. The population are suffering on several levels. There have been several years of crop failures in that area of the country, placing an extra burden on an impoverished people already overburdened by heavy taxation. To add to their woes there is also an influx of returning exiles coming back to their home country after years of persecution. It is difficult enough for the existing population to feed themselves without the added burden of extra mouths to feed and care for. Many are dying for lack of adequate food, particularly the old and vulnerable, and the situation is getting desperate.
A church hears of the deepening crisis and send two of their leaders to the city with what aid they could provide, and following this visit a more general fund-raising effort is initiated throughout the nearby regions, with churches particularly being encouraged to give as much as they are able.
Where are we? Jerusalem
When? Somewhere between AD44-46
Who are the Church Leaders? Paul and Barnabas
You can read about it at the end of Acts 11.
Nothing changes though, does it? Two thousand and six years on there is still a continuing call for help to feed the starving or displaced in the world, and often the situation has got almost out of control before aid finally manages to relieve the situation.
Don’t tell me that the Bible is not relevant to every generation!
Charitable giving was integral to the lives of the Jewish people and this carried on in the lives of the early Christians. The annual feast of Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from destruction in the wake of a plot by Haman, a story recorded in the Book of Esther. Part of the celebration is a command to give to the poor. However poor a person is, they are required to find someone in need and give a gift of food.
So compassion for the poor, and those in need is at the very heart of the Christian message. At the very beginnings of the Church in Acts we find examples of sacrificial giving. Acts 2:44 tells us that believers were selling their possessions and goods in order to give to anyone in need.
Interestingly it also tells us that as they gave of their possessions, God blessed them with added numbers who were being saved. Maybe a few churches today could try that one!
These of course are not the best of times that we face as a
nation. The news is full of austerity measures, Euro crisis,
national debt and calls to divert funds from foreign aid to
those who need help in this country. It’s a difficult one,
isn’t it? We probably all know people who have been affected
by the economic downslide - either losing jobs, having hours
cut or losing some of their benefits.
What should our priorities be?
Let’s see what Paul has to say, because, once again nothing changes. Corinth might have been doing OK, but that was not necessarily the case elsewhere.
Let’s turn to 2 Corinthians 8 and have a look at Paul’s approach to fund-raising.
He pulls no punches in his letter to the fellowship. He goes straight for the jugular by comparing the giving of other churches, and even the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus, with the attitude of the Corinthian churches who seem to have been full of good intentions (according to verse 10), but who had failed to take those intentions through to completeness.
That’s a very human failing, isn’t it? Always intending to do something but just not getting around to it. Hands up all who have been guilty of that!
Look at Jesus, says Paul, if you want to know what it means to really give. It’s not about words, it’s about actions, and it’s about the willingness by which you act.
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that
though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so
that you through his poverty might become rich." (verse 9)
What does Paul mean?
Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t begin on the Cross. It didn’t begin with his birth. It began with the willingness to set aside his heavenly glory and come down to earth as a vulnerable child who, let’s not forget, as well as being born in the humble surroundings of a stable also spent his early days in exile. While he was still a child I’m guessing he knew what it was to be poor and in need.
You want a good example of what true giving is, says Paul, then look no further than the Macedonian churches. They had almost nothing and yet these Christians amazed Paul not only by the level of their generosity but also by their willingness to give. In fact it was more than that. They begged Paul to allow them to be partners in his charitable work, which suggests that he had told them previously not to be too bothered as he knew their financial situation was poor. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear! There was a need, they could help!
They gave of themselves first in service to God, Paul tells
us, and then in service to those in need. We have a
couple of examples of what Paul means. There’s Aristarchus
of Thessalonica who was on Paul’s last mission to Rome (Acts
Paul was under arrest by then, so Aristarchus must have gone as his slave – a real act of self-giving. Then there’s Epaphroditus. When Paul was in prison he came to him with a gift from Philipi and in prison became very ill. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says of Epaphroditus, "He nearly died for the work of Christ."
That’s real giving, says Paul, that gives of self as well as resources. The example of Jesus, the example of the Macedonian Christians. Sacrificial giving includes a part of the giver. It’s the gift to a loved one that asks for nothing in return, but within it expresses the love and concern of the giver.
It’s the gift that is given because the heart sees a need and says give and do not count the cost. That’s the gift that is blessed by God.
Paul closes this little entreaty to give by talking about equality:
"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality..." (verses 13,14)
You see, in God’s eyes all are equal. Can I remind you that "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28)
What that means is that you are no more or less loved by God than the African family scratching a living from parched earth with little hope of a harvest this year, or the young children orphaned through AIDS growing up into an uncertain future with little chance of education or employment.
How equal are we now? This from the ‘Share the World's Resources’ website:
"The incidence of hunger
is more widespread than ever before in human history,
surpassing 1 billion people in 2009 despite the record
harvests of food being reaped in recent years. At least 1.4
billion people live in extreme poverty, a number equivalent
to more than four times the population of the United States.
One out of every five people does not have access to clean
drinking water. More than a billion people lack access to
basic health care services, while over a billion people –
the majority of them women – lack a basic education. Every
week, more than 115,000 people move into a slum somewhere in
Africa, Asia or Latin America. Every day, around 50,000
people die needlessly as a result of being denied the
essentials of life....
...For decades, 20 percent of the world population have controlled 80 percent of the economy and resources. By 2008, more than half of the world’s assets were owned by the richest 2 percent of adults, while the bottom half of the world adult population owned only 1 percent of wealth. The vast discrepancies in living standards between the Global North and South, which provides no basis for a stable and secure future, can only be redressed through a more equitable distribution of resources at the international level..."
What did Paul say God’s goal was? Equality!
How can he achieve this? Through human beings like you and I who, even if we can’t travel to trouble spots and help out ourselves, can empower others to do what needs to be done.
And it’s not just about handing out food parcels. More importantly it’s about empowering people in the developing or Third World to start their own businesses, learn how to employ agricultural techniques that will sustain them for the future, or simply to educate the generation who are growing up and who will be the future of those countries. It can also mean standing up for the downtrodden and campaigning for justice.
It’s the giving of money yes, but it’s also the giving of knowledge and skills, of accepting that all are equal in God’s eyes, and that we have a responsibility to all of God’s children. As I said at the start, compassion for the poor and needy is at the heart of the Christian gospel – there is no get out clause!
We are called, like the Macedonian Churches to become
partners in Christ's compassion to the poor and needy
majority in this world.