My office is located in one of the poorer areas in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Even as I am writing this, outside my window I can see two prostitutes standing across the street outside a hotel and a homeless man pushing a grocery cart full of cans. Confronted with scenes like this on a daily basis has made me think a lot about Jesus' call to serve the least of these. What should this look like in my life? Over the years, I have far more failures than successes when it comes to reaching out to these people.
It might not be easy, but our call to help the poor is a scriptural mandate that few would argue against. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 (ESV) says:
If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.
This is just one of many passages in the Bible that shows God's concern for the least of these.
When Expectations Meet Reality
But any person who has actually spent time serving the poor realizes that it is not for the faint of heart. I have seen many passionate, bright-eyed Christians with a "heart for the poor" burn out in a matter of months or even weeks. This happens because the poor they serve often do not respond in the way they expect. As these generous people give of their time and money, they assume that the poor people they help will be appreciative and kind. Perhaps going into this they pictured a homeless man shedding tears of gratitude for the new coat and warm sandwich he received. Instead they receive not so much as a "thank you" or "God bless you." Maybe they will even be criticized for the color of the coat or the sogginess of the sandwich. They quickly find out that some beggars can be choosers—and mean ones at that!
I experienced this firsthand recently when a homeless lady approached me and asked for money. I said that I'd buy her a meal instead. She loudly berated me in front of onlookers for this perceived insult until finally agreeing to let me buy the meal. As I walked in to the restaurant, she barked after me, "Combo number six with Dr. Pepper!" When I returned with her food, she got angry with me for bringing her the wrong dipping sauce. All in all, it was not a pleasant experience. I certainly didn't leave with that "feel-good feeling" from helping the poor.
Certainly not all of the poor are like this. I have found many to be some of the most humble and gracious people I know, but there is no getting around the fact that some just aren't like that. Many are homeless and hungry as a consequence of their own actions, and they'll squander any aid you do give them. Many will never thank you or will even speak ill of you as you give of your time and money.
So does our biblical mandate to help the poor mean that we are we to spend our lives helping out people like this? The answer is YES and without reservation. Jesus Christ calls us to help even the unrighteous poor.
Inspiration from an Unexpected Place
There are several places in Scripture we could look to see this call, but recently I found it in an unexpected place—the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Currently preaching through Genesis, I was surprised to find God's heart for the unrighteous poor even in a story full of hellfire and brimstone.
Almost everyone is familiar with this story of God raining down judgment on these cities because of their wickedness. And most people assume that the sin for which Sodom was judged was sexual immorality. This is certainly how I heard this passage taught when I was younger. But the prophet Ezekiel tells us otherwise. Ezekiel 16:49 says, "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (ESV). Sodom was judged for pride, living a life of ease, and neglecting the poor and needy. I don't know about you, but suddenly this story just became a little uncomfortable for me. Instead of casting judgment on the people of Sodom, I began to identify with them.
But how does this story give us our mandate to serve the unrighteous poor? The answer is that the neglected poor of Sodom were not considered by God to be righteous. This is why they too were judged. Remember, God told Abraham that he would spare the entire city if just 10 righteous people were to be found, but there were not even 10. They were all unrighteous—rich and poor alike. The sin of Sodom was their lack of concern for the unrighteous poor, and the result of this sin was God's judgment on both the rich and poor alike.
Recognizing Our Own Unrighteousness
I have found that helping the unrighteous poor is perhaps also the best way to remind myself of the gospel by which I am saved. I did not receive mercy because I deserved it. Jesus Christ did not give his life for me because I was a good person. No, I was his enemy and full of sin when he died for me. I never did and never will earn his grace. Grace is always unmerited. So when I see how the unrighteous poor respond with bitterness to my acts of kindness, I am reminded of my own spiritual condition. Even now, I often fail to thank God for his continuous and abundant grace towards me. Thank God for the gospel by which I am being saved!
We must see our missional living through this gospel lens. Actually, our ability to help those who don't deserve it is an indicator as to whether or not we have actually received the mercy and grace of God ourselves. As Jesus says in Luke 6:32-36:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that …. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
—Joel Brooks is the pastor of Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This article was first published on The Gospel Coalition blog; copyright 2011 by Christianity Today.