"The Poor You Have Always With You"
From our earliest experiences in Lithuania we have been confronted with the extreme poverty of many people there. While things have slowly improved over the years it is clear that the changes of the early 1990's came too late for many Lithuanians. This is likely also the case in other East European countries. The majority of the people above the ages of 40-45 have found it difficult to adapt to life in a market economy. Pensions and social help pay the barest minimum. Work opportunities are scarce. Further, opportunities are certainly not abundant for those of a more marketable age. Meanwhile, all face the normal expenses life brings upon one. One sees many beggars on the streets. Also, street work, such as we do there, brings one into contact with all classes of people, including beggars. If there has ever been a visit there where I have not helped some poor person(s) financially it escapes me at this time. I always bring some of my own money (as apart from the money I raise from churches to pay my expenses) along when I go there with this in mind and helped several poor people during my most recent time there. Hopefully, the above lines have turned the reader's mind to a subject that cannot help but trouble those who contemplate it - and that from several aspects. It is our purpose in this article to discuss different Bible texts and some facts relevant to the poor and the Christian's responsibility to them in the mission field.
Our Responsibility to be Benevolent
has always shown a peculiar interest in the needy and helpless (Deut. 10:17-18; Jer. 7:6; Mk. 12:40). His people must be like him. Paul commands those in possession of wealth (which certainly speaks to most Americans) to be "rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate" (1 Tim. 6:18). Jesus gave the example of the Good Samaritan as one who behaved as a neighbor toward one in need. This Samaritan acted on behalf of the wounded man, caring for him and seeing to his needs. With regards to this man's example Jesus said that we should "Go, and do&ldots;likewise" (Lk. 10:37). General benevolence is the responsibility of all Christians (Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 5:10; Jas. 1:27). It is one thing that we can do to lay up treasure in heaven (1 Tim. 6:19). These responsibilities must be weighed against other truths and other responsibilities given to us by God.
Some Helpful Principles to Remember Concerning the Poor
will never eradicate poverty. Our title, taken from Jesus' words in Matthew 26:11, states an inescapable truth. Charitable organizations, founded in western countries to relieve the suffering of the poor in third world countries, have been operating for years. When we add to these the various efforts made to raise money for those in poverty - such as telethons, ad campaigns, promises of companies to donate a portion of the prices of their goods to the poor, the U.S. and other governments' sponsored famine relief and welfare programs, etc. - one fact has become very clear: There is not enough wealth in all the world's more prosperous countries combined to even begin to bring those in poorer nations out of poverty. Millions of people in this world will live and die impoverished regardless of all our best intentions and efforts to help. What Jesus said so long ago has been proven to be true (if anyone ever doubted it). This truth must be remembered by the foreign worker when confronted with the many sad scenes and stories of the destitute.
- The poor find ways to survive. One reason we will always have them with us is that, in spite of their pitiful state, many of the poor live long lives. There are beggars in Lithuania that we have seen for many years now. Some are obviously advanced in age. Though they seem to be in apparent danger when sitting or kneeling on the sidewalk in below-freezing temperatures, their lives go on from year to year. While their state is pitiable, many seem to not suffer the ill effects from it that we naturally fear. I have given a good number of them money and will continue to do so. However, I will never give them enough money to get them off the streets. Further, I believe there is a good possibility that many of them actually have gotten used to their life and even like it.
- We must remember our mission in foreign fields. Our compassion can easily be stirred by that poor old beggar lady we meet on the street. However, unless we are involved in an effort similar to that of Paul in Romans 15:25-29, the poor are not why we are in the mission field anymore than they are the reason that we work with local churches in America. Our mission is a spiritual one. We are to save lost souls and build up those who have come to Christ (Matt. 28:19-20). Benevolent efforts can turn us aside from more important things. Bible examples teach us that we should not just be content with good use of our time and money; we should seek the best use of it. Mary's use of the ointment to anoint Jesus was better than her selling it and giving it to the poor (Matt. 26:6-13). In the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, Mary made the better of two good choices. With regards to the good work of ministering to the poor widows at the church in Jerusalem, the apostles said, "It is not fit that we should forsake the word of God, and serve tables" (Acts 6:2). Many times since our starting to work in Lithuania one of us has told a beggar that we are not there to do social work. Were we to help everyone who came to us we would be flooded with such people! Discretion must be used which generally discourages people from looking at us like a source of social help. Much of what we say under this point applies to the work local churches in the U.S. Many churches have adopted policies similar to what we advocate herein with regards to those seeking benevolent aid. It may give us a good feeling to help poor people, but it is simply not why Jesus gave the great commission (Matt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15-16). This brings us to our next point.
- The warm, fuzzy feeling is not the best indicator of what is most needful. Like all preachers, I have sometimes had people come to me for counseling in the mission field. While this is never advertised or offered since it is not why we go to such places, some people have come to me with their problems and I have not turned them away. More than once the person has either cried or been on the verge of tears in thanking me for helping them. I remember thinking on one such occasion, "How easy it would be to do such work. In most cases, all I have to do is sit and patiently listen, offer a few words of advice and encouragement - and I get such a good feeling when it's over and the person is thanking me, like I've really done something." In truth, I have seen little or nothing come from such efforts with regards to my true mission of gospel preaching, except in cases where I have helped Christians. I only get a good feeling. Similarly, I can remember nothing of any lasting good (in a temporal sense) that has resulted from my financially helping a single lost person! Yes, it gives me a good feeling to think I have helped someone (like the time I saw a poor old lady that looked a lot like my mother shivering in the cold and stuffed a substantial amount of money into her hand). And, yes, as our first point shows, it is part of my service to God. However, it is not my mission in Lithuania.
- What form should benevolence take? Generally, the wisest form of benevolence consists of actually obtaining the goods or services needed by the supplicant. Of course, this is not always possible, especially when one has a full schedule. However, we ought to consider the power for good or evil that we put into a person's hands when we give them money (Jno. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 8:18-21).
- The proper place for giving help in benevolence. We have realized a real danger that benevolent work poses to our efforts in Lithuania. If the literature stand on the street or the assemblies of the church become known as sources of general benevolent help, it sends the wrong signal with regards to our work there. Many times I have told a person, whom I had decided to help, to meet me at a certain place after we take the literature stand down. (It is surprising how many have failed to keep such appointments!)
the poor will always be with us, we will come into contact with them from time to time. Good judgment should govern our conduct towards them. If it does not, there is a very real danger that any given preaching effort might be detoured away from its true purpose. Hopefully, this article will help good judgment to prevail when brethren deal with the poor in mission fields.
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