Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Christ’s Heart for the Poor

Some notes from the Reformed Tradition on the centrality of ministry to the poor.

by Ben Hein
219 views 12 minute read

In Luke 4, Jesus declared the coming of a jubilee kingdom; a kingdom marked by liberty for captives and a prioritizing of gospel proclamation to the poor and oppressed.

This infusion of kingdom expectation with the heart of jubilee was verified by Jesus himself when John’s disciples approached him in Luke 7:

When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ ”

21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
(Luke 7:20-23)

The typical pop-evangelical response has been to only-spiritualize this passage, taking Jesus to mean that he was referencing the spiritually deaf, blind, and poor.

Historically, the Reformed tradition has not been so naïve as to be so reductionistic on Jesus’ words. Here is John Calvin (1509-1564) in his commentary on these verses:

But the Church of Christ is composed of poor men, and nothing could be farther removed from dazzling or imposing ornament. Hence many are led to despise the Gospel, because it is not embraced by many persons of eminent station and exalted rank. How perverse and unjust that opinion is, Christ shows from the very nature of the Gospel, since it was designed only for the poor and despised. Hence it follows, that it is no new occurrence, or one that ought to disturb our minds, if the Gospel is despised by all the great, who, puffed up with their wealth, have no room to spare for the grace of God.

By the poor are undoubtedly meant those whose condition is wretched and despicable, and who are held in no estimation. However mean any person may be, his poverty is so far from being a ground of despair, that it ought rather to animate him with courage to seek Christ. But let us remember that none are accounted poor but those who are really such, or, in other words, who lie low and overwhelmed by a conviction of their poverty.
(Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

Calvin was not interested in even raising the question of whether Jesus was referring to the spiritually or physically poor. Calvin rightly took Jesus at face value: the gospel ought to be principally proclaimed, and will be chiefly received, by the poor and weak in our society. In this, the rich and powerful will take offense, and the mercy of our God will be glorified.

Calvin is not alone in this within the Reformed Tradition. There are few Reformed theologians who took Christ’s prioritization of ministry to the poor as seriously – at least in thought – as the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). In his 1895 address Christ and the Needy, he said on these verses:

Add to this that Jesus referred the disciples of John the Baptist for evidence of his divine mission not only to his words but to the fact that “the gospel was preached to the poor”; and it is further put beyond all doubt that in Jesus’ appearances and in his addressing the crowds, the main feature that stands out is that he purposely, by preference and by virtue of his anointment and calling, turns in the first place to the poor and seeks the subjects for his kingdom mainly among them… O, how different things would be in Christendom if Jesus’ preaching on this point were also our preaching and if the basic principles of his Kingdom were not cut off and alienated from our society by over-spiritualization.

Kuyper is right to lament and reject how common it is that Christians spiritualize Jesus’ words rather than follow Christ’s heart in service to the poor.

Kuyper was even more direct in an earlier 1891 address, now printed for us in The Problem of Poverty. He was quick to confront the church on its greed and failure to address the poverty in society around them. In one such passage, Kuyper challenges those Christians that would hold onto their resources rather than join Christ in his stance against the rich and join the side of the poor:

But I hasten to add that a charity which knows only how to give money is not yet Christian love. You will be free of guilt only when you also give your time, your energy, and your resourcefulness to help end such abuses for good, and when you allow nothing that lies hidden in the storehouse of your Christian religion to remain unused against the cancer that is destroying the vitality of our society in such alarming ways. For, indeed, the material need is appalling; the oppression is great. You do not honor God’s Word if, in these circumstances, you ever forget how the Christ (just as his prophets before him and his apostles after him) invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed.
(Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty, 62).

In his book Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, South African theologian Craig G. Bartholomew invites the question: Could the Reformed tradition ever produce a Mother Teresa? His answer: Not unless Reformed churches take their own tradition seriously, including its acknowledgement of a “preferential option for the poor.” This is evident in Kuyper’s thought, and the Reformed tradition that he draws upon.

Kuyper was joined by his contemporary Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) in recognizing Jesus’ ministry to the poor and oppressed. While Bavinck did not write nearly as much on the subject as Kuyper, Bavinck did not hesitate to highlight the centrality of Christ’s heart for the poor. In this beautiful, extended passage from his address titled Common Grace, Bavinck incorporated Christ’s heart for the poor into a sweeping vision of Christ’s mission and kingdom. I think this is one of the most beautiful excerpts in all the Reformed tradition:

Christianity does not introduce a single substantial foreign element into the creation. It creates no new cosmos but rather makes the cosmos new. It restores what was corrupted by sin. It atones the guilty and cures what is sick; the wounded it heals. Jesus was anointed by the Father with the Holy Spirit to bring good tidings to the afflicted, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captive and the opening of prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and to comfort those who mourn (Isa. 61:1, 2). He makes the blind to see, the lame to walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised, and the gospel is preached to the poor (Matt. 11:5). Jesus was not a new lawgiver; he was not a statesman, poet, or philosopher. He was Jesus—that is, Savior. But he was that totally and perfectly, not in the narrow Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Anabaptist sense but in the full, deep, and broad Reformed sense of the word. Christ did not come just to restore the religio-ethical life of man and to leave all the rest of life undisturbed, as if the rest of life had not been corrupted by sin and had no need of restoration. No, the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the communion of the Holy Spirit extend even as far as sin has corrupted. Everything that is sinful, guilty, unclean, and full of woe is, as such and for that very reason, the object of the evangel of grace that is to be preached to every creature.

The word of God which comes to us in Christ is a word of liberation and restoration for the whole man, for his understanding and his will, for his body and his soul. Sin entered the world, and for just that reason, “God so loved the world ” This word has often been seen as a burden too heavy to bear… The gospel is not a law but good news! It came not to judge but to save. It is supernatural, because it has welled up from God’s free, generous, and rich love. It does not kill but makes alive. It does not wound but heals. It is pure grace. And this grace does not cancel nature but establishes and restores it. (emphasis mine)

While a Reformed emphasis on ministry to the poor has been largely absent from the Evangelical/US variant, the late Westminster professor Harvie Conn (1933-1999) prophetically confronted the Evangelical church for their reductionistic approach on evangelism and justice. In his fantastic book Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, Conn pulled no punches in summoning the church to a more faithful position. For example:

Who is more naïve? The liberal leaders of what we call the “Social gospel” with their passionate concern for a broken world… Or the evangelical who has given up on the world’s headaches in favor of a stripped-down form of evangelism reduced to four spiritual laws?
(Conn, Evangelism, 80).

While Conn himself may not be well-known today, one of his students has since popularized many of his ideas. Dr. Timothy Keller (1950-2023) did the church a great service in reclaiming a vision of what it looked like to preach the gospel and prioritize ministries of mercy and justice to the poor. His book Generous Justice is a helpful primer on connecting the Bible’s teaching and Reformed ethics to the many concerns of contemporary society.

While there is much from that book I could reference here, it is the ending of a paragraph from The Prodigal God which carries weight for us here:

The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.
(Keller, The Prodigal God, 15).

If we cannot say that our churches are preaching and ministering to the poor, then we must seriously question whether we are preaching the same gospel as the Savior we claim to follow.

We need to sit with that.

Indeed, our failure to follow the heart of Jesus into the margins of our society through lives of mercy and justice is an admission that we serve our idols more often than we do our Redeemer. As Kuyper said in Christ and the Needy, “Even the best Christian always retains a small chapel for mammon.”

My endeavor here has not been to get to the nuts and bolts of ministries to the poor. Instead, I have attempted to quickly show how, through a string of quotes from the Reformed tradition, the Reformed Christian must take Christ at his word and prioritize ministry to the poor. The Reformed Christian will stand on the Scriptures and their own tradition in their emphasis on ministry to the poor and discipleship toward this end in the local church.

Anyone who claims the name Reformed but rejects Christ’s heart for the poor is neither submissive to the Scriptures nor an adherent of their own tradition. If the Reformed church is known more for “theological rigor” than our ethical practice, then may our God forgive us for neglecting the weightier matters (Matthew 23:23) and bowing to our own idols.

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