Is there a connection between God’s people demonstrating compassion and welcoming the poor and broken into their midst and caring for them, and God manifesting his presence?
Why does it seem that in so many places in Scripture the poor and those who live on the margins of society are so important to God?
Is it his way of communicating something about who he is and what his kingdom is like?
Is it possible that something profound changes when people in the name of Christ are willing to step out of their comfort zone and self-centeredness and put their time, money, reputation and resources on the line by sacrificially helping those who are broken and poor, and then introducing them to the king of the Kingdom of God?
One of the more intriguing passages in the Bible is Galatians 2, which describes the controversy between Paul and Peter in the city of Antioch sometime before 49 A.D.
The disagreement was on whether Gentiles could become followers of Jesus Christ without also keeping the Jewish laws.
This was the first major theological conflict among the followers of Christ and almost split the early church.
As the two leaders and their followers resolved the issues, the decision was as Paul describes in Galatians 2:9. “They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.”
The next verse seems almost out of place in the light of what precedes it. It would seem to have nothing to do with the theological discussion and is almost an afterthought.
Verse 10 states, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.”
The idea of care of the poor and compassion was so important to what they believed it meant to be a follower of Christ, they wanted to make sure that as Paul and Barnabas shared the gospel among the Gentiles, that this expression of their faith was not lost.
While the agreement was that the Gentiles did not have to keep the Jewish laws, the care for the poor was one practice that was to be continued.
For the leaders of the early church, the care for those on the margins of society was as much at the core of the Christian faith and its expression, as the understanding of God’s redemptive act in human history through Jesus Christ because the acts of compassion in the midst of everyday life demonstrated that God is redeemer.
Caring for those who are not part of the mainstreams of society because of their poverty, brokenness and rejection is a prophetic act.
It physically illustrates more clearly than anything else God’s concern for those who are not part of his kingdom because of the evil that has broken them and the darkness that holds them in bondage.
It is a prophetic act also because caring for the poor shows what the Kingdom of God is really like – where the weak, the vulnerable and the broken are not discarded but are valued; a place where people, regardless of who they are, find a place.
It speaks about the value and worth of each person in the Kingdom of God.
While it is easy to accept the fact that God is compassionate and therefore redeemer, it has never been clear as to how the church should live out this truth.
The church has often struggled with how it should relate to society and be prophetic within the culture and the community in which it is located.
Is its message one of deliverance from this world and its problems, as one would rescue people from a burning building, or is it one of engagement with the problems and issues of society till there is change? Or is there another alternative?
How the church has related to society has varied throughout history.
JÃ¼rgen Moltmann, the German theologian at the University of Tubingen, describes the struggle between identity and relevance that the church in every generation and in every country faces in his book, “The Crucified God.”
The struggle is for the church to constantly define and protect its identity, which is often defined by its history, in the midst of competing and changing values in the surrounding culture, and threats from the political context.
Unfortunately, this causes the church to be inward looking and thereby losing its relevance.
However, the process of remaining true to what it means to be a people of God and followers of Christ, while engaging with the community and finding ways to be relevant, will change the church.
Rupen Das is consultant for mission and development at the European Baptist Federation based in Amsterdam, on temporary assignment from Canadian Baptist Ministries. His writings can be found on his blog.
Editor’s note: This column is an excerpt from Das’ book, “Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom,” published by Langham Global Library, an imprint of Langham Partnership. It is available here.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.”