Social Justice and the Body of Christ

Dealing with poverty, and more importantly the poor or those in need, often sharply divides people from differing political parties. While conservatives receive criticism for their lack of compassion and realization of the importance of welfare systems, liberals are often caricatured as enablers and people who squander money on the lazy. While both pictures are slightly dramatized, the underlying sentiment remains—debates about helping the needy cause strife. Looking at what the Bible says about poverty alleviation provides us with three basic, yet important lessons.

“One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?” “I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” …But afterward Jesus found him in the Temple and told him, “Now you are well; so stop sinning, or something even worse may happen to you.” John 5:3-8, 14 (NLT)

This passage is particularly striking because Jesus chose to heal this man’s physical ailment before talking about his spiritual sickness. The first lesson we learn from Jesus in John 5 is that sometimes people require assistance meeting their physical and/or material needs, which are often necessary to meet before spiritual needs are even addressed.

A common misperception of scripture is that poverty is unsolvable and therefore attempted efforts at its amelioration are wasted. As Mary pours perfumes over Jesus’ feet in Matthew 26, the disciples protest because they believe Mary’s actions wasted money that could have been used to help the poor. Jesus chastises them by saying, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (Matthew 26:11 NLT) This phrase has been interpreted as Jesus’ approval to forsake efforts aimed at poverty alleviation in the name of solely evangelizing. It seems that many Christians are preoccupied with winning souls and ignore the material needs of others. On the other side of the debate, many young Christians today get swept up in messages of social justice and completely remove the gospel message from their humanitarian efforts.

Both mindsets are unbiblical. In John 5, Jesus shows that the way to someone’s salvation can often be found through the provision of his or her immediate needs. Providing for other’s physical needs should always be linked to providing for their spiritual ones.

The second lesson we learn from Christ’s service to the needy is that people will not always thank you for your generosity—and that’s okay. John 5 tells of Jesus healing ten lepers and only one coming back to thank him for it. If we serve people only to expect gratitude and our desired outcomes, we will quickly end up bitter and feeling like we are being taken advantage of. If we discount the importance of the onewho does give glory to God for their healing, we miss out on possibly introducing one more person to the hope of the gospel.

The third lesson is simple, but often overlooked: God deeply cares about the poor. In the Old Testament, God set up an elaborate poverty alleviation system where the poor were allowed to bring less expensive offerings before God, the Israelites were to leave the outskirts of their fields unplowed to provide for the poor, and every seventh year the Israelites were instructed not to cultivate their land so that the poor could harvest whatever grew.

God had a system in place to provide for those who could not provide for themselves, but He knew a system alone was insufficient. In the New Testament, Jesus commands us to face poverty on a deeply personal level. Towards the end of Matthew 25, Jesus discusses the final judgment and references those who did not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners. He says those who did not participate in the activities listed above will experience eternal damnation. That striking language points to the gravity with which Jesus treats poverty alleviation and the personal responsibility followers of Christ have to care for the needy.

It is overly simplistic only to complain about the entitlement system in our country and resent its beneficiaries. It is equally simplistic to think a system alone will ever truly bring about change and help those in need find hope. The Bible instructs us to be participants of a reasonable and generous welfare system, but also to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of the poor.

This goes undone by many Christians because we don’t properly see ourselves as part of the problem of poverty. In response to a newspaper’s post of the question “What is wrong with the world?” Catholic theologian G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Dear Sirs: I am…” Unless we, like Chesterton, acknowledge that our brokenness and sin is part of the problem leading to poverty, disease, and suffering, we will not be motivated to play a role in the solution.

—Cristina Martinez graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Anthropology and a certificate in Values and Public Life.  She has won a fellowship award to start a mentoring program in Philadelphia for those aging out of foster care.