Soon after arriving with our church’s mission team at Turtle Shores, a Christian mission and retreat center in Belize, I had an interesting conversation with Sarah Bradbury, one of the resident missionaries who worked alongside us.
Sarah told me that she had been doing a lot of reading in the Bible about the poor and asked me about my understanding of what the Bible says about our obligations to the poor.
While she knew that we were supposed to help the poor, she wondered if the Bible set limits as to how much we were supposed to help.
Normally, when someone asks me a question like that, they are trying to figure out the bare minimum they have to do to be biblical and yet still keep as much of their own wealth as possible, but that wasn’t the case here.
Sarah and her husband, Mark, had already given up much in order to come to Belize and serve the poor – more than most would be willing to give up.
Rather, I sensed two things.
First, she has seen firsthand how only giving money to the poor can actually do them harm. The help has to be strategic; it has to be respectful of the dignity of the poor, and it cannot foster dependency.
Second, there was recognition of the magnitude of the task. Sarah and Mark had already given up so much, and yet the village of Gales Point, located on Belize’s Southern Lagoon, was still beset with a deep poverty.
If she and Mark gave up much more, they would be as poor as the rest of the village and would require the very help that they came to render.
I told her that part of the problem was how we think and talk about the poor, specifically, how we keep calling them “the poor.” By doing so, we define them as “not us.” They are the “other” and we are the “us;” they are “the poor” and we are the “not poor.”
However you define those people who are part of your “us,” we always take care of “us.” My wife, Pam, is part of my “us,” as is my daughter, Angela, and my son, Austin.
I can’t imagine putting a limit on how much I am willing to come to the aid of any of them. If they need me, I’m there. This is not the case for anyone who is not a part of my “us.”
For example, I’ve always felt it was my obligation to provide for my children’s education to the best of my ability, but I don’t feel the same obligation to someone else’s children.
While most of us are willing to help someone who is not part of our “us,” there is a limit to how much we feel obligated to help someone who is “other.” In other words, it comes down to community – who is part of our community and who is not.
The poor referred to in the Old Testament were almost all Israelites, and the prophetic condemnation we read is toward Israelites who were rich, powerful or both. They were condemned for not taking care of some of their own community, for treating their fellow Israelites as “others.”
Then Jesus took the concept of community and expands it. In Jesus’ view, there are no “others,” only “us.”
So, he told the story of two Israelites who treat their fellow Israelite – robbed and lying unconscious on the side of the road – as an “other” toward whom there are limits to their willingness to give aid, while the ultimate “other,” a Samaritan, treats the beaten Israelite as an “us.”
And then Jesus asked, “Who is my mother and my brothers?” In other words, who is my “us”?
Jesus answered, saying, everyone who does the will of God is part of his “us.”
In another parable, Jesus said that when you’ve helped the poor, the sick and the imprisoned – all terms of “otherness” – you’ve helped Jesus himself.
And since we all want Jesus to be part of our “us,” what Jesus has done is declare that all these are part of our community, of our “us,” as well.
In the Kingdom of God, there are no “others,” there is only “us” – and we all know enough to take care of everyone who is an “us,” right?
Editor’s note: A second article offering further reflections on the importance of community in light of his recent trip to Gales Point, Belize, will appear tomorrow.
Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.