The Gospel and Justice for the Poor

The degree to wich you help and care for the poor reveals the degree to which you understand the gospel.  That may be hard for some of us to accept, but Jesus made a pretty strong connection between the two. How well you understand the grace you’ve been given is revealed in how you give it.

In Matthew 25 Jesus gives us some startling words. He says:

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’  41 “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.  42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  43 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.’  44 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?’  45 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.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:34-46)

If you help the poor and needy, the naked and destitute, then it is evidence that you understand the gospel. It’s not that the passage supports a sort of works-based-salvation. Good deeds don’t lead to salvation, but salvation does lead to good deeds. In other words, justice gives evidence that you are a child of God (if you’ve turned to Jesus for salvation). In Micah chapter 1 and chapter 3 we find God furious with his people because while they claim to be His, they refuse to demonstrate justice. For that God is going to destroy them. You can’t claim the one without being willing to practice the other.

How we do justice is important too, though. The gospel affects our view of justice for the poor. Tim Keller has been incredibly helpful on this point. Keller has highlighted for me, better than anyone else the ways in which the gospel changes our more common, natural, sinful, views of justice for those in need. He begins by noting that in Jesus’ own terminology we are all called “poor.”

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers to us as “poor in spirit,” and this is what he says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). So what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Nearly all commentators agree that the idea here is that man is spiritually bankrupt. He has nothing to offer God in regards to his spiritual state, he is destitute. In this case, however, God helps man. God gives man unbelievable charity and rescues him out of this place of spiritual poverty. This is foundational for our view of the poor. Regardless of your financial status, your home, your job, etc. you were, if you are a Christian, at one time a “poor” person. God has changed your status. Keller then shifts our focus to how this connects us with the materially poor in our backyard.

First, if you say I am not going to help the poor. If you insist that the poor need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and work harder at getting out of this mess, then, Keller says, you do not understand the gospel. The gospel does not teach us that in our spiritual poverty we needed to just pull ourselves up by our boot straps and work harder. It doesn’t tell us we need to get ourselves out of this mess. The gospel says, you were poor and God came and rescued you.

Second, if you say, “Okay, I will help the poor. But I am only going to help those who deserve it. I am only going to help those who didn’t have any part in the mess that they find themselves in now,” then you say this you do not understand the gospel. After all, as Keller says, if God was only going to help those who deserved his help then he could have saved himself a trip. None of us deserved to be saved, and all of us had a part in creating the mess of sin that we find ourselves in. The gospel teaches us that we are to love and help those who don’t deserve it. Christ died for the “ungodly.” While we were yet sinners, he died to save us. The gospel isn’t about who gets what they deserve, it’s about helping those in need when they don’t deserve it. That’s what Jesus did for us.

Lastly, if you say you will help the poor, but only so long as it doesn’t cost you anything, then you do not understand the gospel. You might think you can just throw money at a problem, and that you can and will help so long as you don’t have to get your hands dirty. There are lots of charities that will do the work for you. And while I am not against charities, that’s not the same thing as saying you are helping the poor and needy. The gospel doesn’t let us off that easy. After all, Jesus didn’t just come and get his hands dirty in our rescue. He got his body bloodied. Jesus was made a complete mess for us. Helping the poor means we must be willing to sacrifice and get messy too. That’s what the gospel teaches us.

Helping the poor does relate to our understanding of the gospel. It’s only a shame that in more recent history the church has put social justice up on a shelf and left it there as some liberal agenda idea. It’s a Biblical idea. The very heart of the gospel reveals that God loves to care for those who are “poor.” If we call ourselves his followers we must be willing to care for the poor too.


  1. Yes, shame on the church, and we ARE the church, this topic tears at my heart because I know how miserably I fail at it. After reading this blog I reread part of Mother Teresa’s interview with Time magazine where she said, “You must make them feel loved (the poor) and wanted. They are Jesus for me. I believe in that much more than doing big things for them.” and when I wonder how to do that she said something else that I try not to forget, “But it is His work. I think God wants to show His greatness by using our nothingness”. …and I can only pray that my heart is broken for what breaks His…and then that I can be His hands and feet in my own ‘nothingness’…Thanks for this ‘ouchy’ reminder.

  2. As a Christian and a voting U.S. citizen, it is my opinion that we need to be very careful about the idea of leaving social welfare “as some liberal agenda idea.” Yes, grace should be extended to the poor by the church and by every person who calls him/herself a Christian. And what happens when so many of us make the wrong choice? Should the poor suffer? Or should the government intervene? I think that God can act through government programs. That may sound radical, liberal, etc. To me it’s similar to saying that God can act through a physician. The physician is not the healer, Jesus is. But the physician has the tools, resources, education, infrastructure, to deliver a treatment that would have been unavailable otherwise.

    1. Jo,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. I am of the persuasion that a both/and response is necessary. It includes governmental and individual responses. The Old Testament certainly didn’t have a problem with making connections between social reform and governmental resources…therefore, neither do I.

  3. In Mt. 25, who would Jesus’ disciples have identified with in the story? Where are they in the story? Based on Mt. 10 and Jesus’ instructions to go out on mission with little or nothing, and depend on hospitality from others, where even one who gives them a cup of cold water will receive a reward, I think they saw themselves in the “least of these my brothers.” After all, Jesus in Mt. 12 tells them it is those who do the will of his Father who are his brothers and sisters. If so, the story is an encouragement to continue their mission even to all the nations (as the climax of Mt. commissions them), despite their poverty and hardships, because the final judgment of the nations depends on how they responded to them and their mission.

    Similarly, the parallel beatitude to Mt.’s “poor in spirit” is in Lk. 6, where Jesus tells his disciples: blessed are you poor (disciples), for yours is the kingdom of God. It’s the disciples who have left behind their businesses to follow this poor Lord around, always dependent on hospitality. While most interpret poor in spirit as you do above, as spiritual poverty, it is also possible to translate it the “poor in the Spirit.” There is an “article” (the word “the”) before the word for spirit, and in the five uses of “spirit” so far in Mt., they all refer to the Holy Spirit. This translation would also fit in better with Lk. 6 (and with Lk.’s emphasis on the Spirit).

    You mention the sacrifice necessary in helping the poor. The sacrifice Jesus talks about in Mt. 6 is to sell treasures on earth in order to have treasures in heaven. The call to discipleship includes a conversion away from serving “mammon” through a downward mobility in the direction of poverty. By selling and giving to the poor, one not only helps other poor people; one becomes less rich and more poor as well. Those in Jesus’ new kingdom of heaven are not those in spiritual poverty, but those who are poor disciples, who are in the Spirit and thus have the fruit of the Spirit (like love, kindness, and goodness toward those in greatest need).

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