James 1:27 sits at the heart of the poverty issue today which sits at the very heart of our Gospel. What sits at the heart of the poverty issue therefore is the question of what is acceptable religion before God?
James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (NIV)
Under the Old Covenant Israel was called to give a tithe of the produce of the Promised Land to the Levites, the poor, the fatherless, the widows who were all in NEED that they may eat and be satisfied (Deuteronomy 14:29). Today the church seeks to recapture the practice of collecting a tithe but what does the church do with it? In the early church giving to God was tantamount to meeting the needs of the poor, the fatherless and the widows.
What Did Jesus Say?
Matthew 25:31-46 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
In this passage we see Jesus saying that if we feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked etc we have done it to him but if we did none of those things we did not do it to him. There are those who will argue of course that when we give money to church that the church will in turn use some of this money to send missionaries abroad and to give to the poor and other charitable causes. In my experiences the main church takings (tithes and offerings) are normally treated as sacrosanct – by this I mean that most of it is used up on the administrative overheads (including salaries) and the rest kept in a bank account but very little or none of it goes to meet the needs of the poor. Instead, after the main tithes and offerings are collected we are then asked to “dig deep” into our pockets for extra funds or “love offerings” that will go to missions and fund charitable works. This was not so in the early church however. Could it be that the church is as guilty Israel was of “building their own paneled houses while the House of the Lord lies in ruins (Haggai)? Perhaps the church cannot solve the poverty problem across the world but we can certainly do more even in our immediate communities.
The Early Church Experience
In the early church all of the church takings were redistributed to meeting the needs of the whole church, including the elders who ministered over the church. This is demonstrated in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35.
Acts 2:42-47 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 4:32-35 “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
The early church did not consider their possessions as their own but had all things in common – and they laid what they had to give at the apostles’ feet who in turn redistributed so that no one lacked. Other examples of this practice are seen here
2 Corinthians 8:12-15 “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
2 Corinthians 9:1-8 “There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people. For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action. But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be. For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to say anything about you—would be ashamed of having been so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
Paul collected gifts from other churches to give to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. The early church was acting out the very commands/teachings that Jesus imparted to us such as in Matthew 19:21 where he instructed the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give it to the poor.
We also see another example here:
Luke 16:1-12 “Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
After the parable of the dishonest manager, Jesus tries to give some explanation about what he means. We should use resources generously “so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” What is Jesus referring to? Some argue that he may be referring to the poor who receive the benefits of disciples’ stewardship, while others argue that they are either angels representing God or God himself. Since the context has to do with present actions that are taken in light of the future, he is probably referring either to angels or to God here. Eternal dwellings has to do with entering into heaven.
Money cannot come with us to heaven. Its value is limited when it comes to everlasting life. So recognise its limits and use it for others, not selfishly. To gain friends by means of mammon is to use money in such a way that others appreciate you for your exercise of stewardship, your kindness and generosity.
Jesus calls mammon “unrighteous”. NIV calls it simply worldly wealth (NRSV says “dishonest wealth,”). Mammon is called unrighteous not because it is inherently evil but because of the unrighteous attitudes the pursuit of money can produce. If money were inherently unrighteous, then all uses of it would be evil. But that is not Jesus’ view. The attitude reflected here may be similar to that of 1 Timothy 6:10, where Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Money is evil because of how it brings out distorted values in people. Pursuing money can make people selfish, leading them to take advantage of others, to treat other people as objects and to be unfaithful to God. It tends to reflect an excessive attachment to the world. So it is better not to be attached to the pursuit of wealth.
Possessions are a responsibility. Their use is a test of character, values and stewardship. The one who is faithful in little is also faithful in much. So also the other way around–to be dishonest in little things is to be dishonest in much. Faithfulness with the “little thing” of money indicates how faithful we are with the big things, the true riches of our relationships to God and to others. So if we have not been trustworthy in handling possessions that produce unrighteousness, who will trust us with true riches? The true riches in this passage seem to involve future kingdom service–that is, service for God and to others. True wealth is faithfulness in serving him.
Today we have somehow redirected the purpose of our giving, as the principle of it as demonstrated in the Scriptures is not borne out in how we use it in the church today – we should be directly redistributing the funds to meet the needs of the poor. Is our religion as practiced in this way by the church today acceptable to God when pure religion and undefiled, which God accepts is defined in scripture as caring for the fatherless and the widows and keeping oneself from being defiled by the world?