The Micah Challenge campaign had a good year in 2005. It called on governments for more and better aid, trade justice and debt relief for the poor countries in our world. While many churches have enthusiastically supported the campaign, it is fair to say that global poverty is still not a high priority in most of our churches.
In a recent Web article in Christianity Today, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, confessed that he was previously unaware of the fact that there are over 2,000 scriptural references to the poor. This kind of oversight explains why issues of aid, trade and debt are not high in the pastor’s priorities.
In Deuteronomy we find frequent references to the need to look after the fatherless, resident foreigners and widows. Indeed it is said that cursed is anyone who withholds justice from them (27:19). The Law of Moses also contains detailed instructions for debt release in the Sabbath and Jubilee years (Lev 25; Dt 15).
But doesn’t the church have more important priorities, despite the numerous scriptural references to the poor?
Traditionally, evangelicals have held that evangelism and holy living have the highest priorities in the local church. Preaching the gospel and holy living should always be of utmost importance in the message of the church. But this does not mean that doing justice and showing mercy to the poor are secondary. I would argue that they are in fact integral parts of the church’s mission.
Let’s first look at holy living. The moral ideals of God are ultimately based on the Law of Moses. But it should be noted that the Law was given in the context of the Exodus story, where God rescued Israel from Egypt.
In Deuteronomy Moses repeatedly asks Israel to remember that God took them out of the land of slavery. This reminder is found immediately before the Ten Commandments, and is repeated at the fourth commandment.
Israel was living as a displaced people in Egypt because of a famine. As second-class residents in this foreign land they became slaves of an oppressive regime. They experienced forced infanticide and harsh labor. Now as freed people of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, they were given the Law so that they might walk in his ways.
The first commandment states that Israel should worship no other gods. Israel’s allegiance should be for Yahweh alone. This has huge ethical implications, because the ways of Yahweh are nothing like those of the Egyptians, who held allegiance to other gods.
Previously Israel was marginalized. Now in Yahweh’s community the poor should no longer be disadvantaged. Previously justice was denied from Israel. Now no one should withhold justice from the poor.
We find that the Law that forbids promiscuity also disallows injustice against the poor. The Law that disallows coveting also demands cancellation of debt and releasing of slaves. The Law is not so much about personal holiness but compassion and relationship. Indeed, regulations regarding adultery and covetousness are in fact about right interpersonal relationships. Holy living for God’s people has everything to do with loving one’s fellow human beings as Yahweh would.
Hence showing mercy and doing justice for the poor are integral parts of holy living. If holy living is a priority in the church’s teaching, so is serving the poor. As John Wesley aptly put it, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”
What about evangelism? The answer lies in the fact that Law-observance has immense missiological significance. Respected Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright convincingly argues for the missiological dimension of the Law in his commentary on Deuteronomy.
Highlighting 4:6-8 as a key text, he says, “If Israel would be shaped and characterized by the laws and institutions of the Sinai covenant, then they would be a highly visible exemplar to the nations both as to the nature of the God they worshipped and as to the quality of social justice embodied in their community.”
If we understand the role of the Law in this way, it is not surprising that the mission of Jesus–who has come to fulfill the Law and not to abolish it–was to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4:18).
The healing of lepers and the release of the woman suffering from hemorrhage are much more than physical healing. Dining with Zaccheus and allowing a sinful woman to wipe his feet are not simply about Jesus’ gracious acts of forgiveness.
In the social-religious context of ancient Palestine, these people were on the margins of the society because of their religious uncleanness and sinful status. They were well and truly the poor in the land.
Jesus’ healing and forgiveness did not only restore their physical health and relationship with God, it also removed their stigma as unclean sinners and hence lifted them up from their marginalized social status. Indeed, in the case of physical healing, their economic hardship would also be over because they were now able to work.
Thus the gospel is all-encompassing. No wonder Jesus’ mission is about proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor”–a reference to the Jubilee regulations in the Law.
Surely the priorities of the church include evangelism and holy living, but serving the poor should also be a high priority, never an optional extra. More and better aid, fair international trade rules and debt relief are all about doing justice to the poor, and hence are integral parts of the church’s mission.
Siu Fung Wu works with World Vision Australia. This article appeared in “Soundings,” a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, a Baptist school in Sydney, edited by Rod Benson.