“For the poor always ye have with you.”
There is a problem that keeps nagging me from time to time. It is one which undoubtedly interests and concerns many others. And since you are a deacon in the church of Jesus Christ, it is of special concern to you. I am referring to the matter of Christian giving.
We both are well aware that this is an integral part of our stewardship as members of God’s church. It is intimately connected with our place in the communion of saints. And it is also an essential part of our Sunday worship. I am thinking, for example, of what our Heidelberg Catechism says about keeping the Sabbath of the Lord, our God. Just to refresh your memory, I shall quote the first part of it: “First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear his word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the name of the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.” The underscoring, of course, has been added. But our fathers did maintain that contributing to the relief of the poor is a part of our keeping Sabbath here on earth. And it is evidently for that reason that most churches, if not all, collect for the Benevolence Fund every Sunday.
As you will agree, this is in full harmony with Scripture. Even in the old dispensation when Israel dwelt in the “land flowing with milk and honey” there were always the poor among them, and these poor might not be neglected. Thus we read, for example, in Deuteronomy 15:11, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy in thy land.” Evidently the Lord Jesus had this in mind when He said, “For the poor always ye have with you.” And I am sure that He did not say this in a tone of voice that would imply that this is just another burden laid upon a church already taxed to the limit with financial obligations. He fully realized how beneficial it is for us to have needy persons among us, so that we can give expression to the mercies of Christ as we experience them in our own hearts. Thus Paul quotes Jesus as saying that, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The implication is that it is also blessed to receive, since we receive out of the hand of Christ through His church, but it is still more blessed to be the hand of Christ extended to the needy. For then we know that if we have done it unto one of the least of His brethren, we have done it unto Him.
There are also laws of Moses in regard to tithing. Every third year a tithe had to be given “to the Levite, to the sojourner, to the fatherless, and to the widow.” (Deut. 14:28, 29; Deut. 26:12). Now I know that we are no longer under the law of Moses in the sense that the Jews were in the old dispensation, not even in regard to tithing. Yet this sets me to wondering whether the Lord is not laying down a sound rule for us to follow freely and spontaneously whenever the question arises in our souls as to how much we should give to kingdom causes. In these days of income tax returns we have quite an accurate record of our annual receipts and expenditures, and even of our gifts, contributions, donations to charity, et cetera. Maybe the tithe does have significance for us even yet today.
There were many more laws in regard to the poor and needy, such as allowing them to glean the fields, and similar laws. The Lord did not want the poor to go begging. And therefore the beggar at the temple gate (Acts 3) must have been a sad commentary on the spiritual condition of the Jews of that time.
When we turn to the new testament we find many references to the care of the poor and distressed. Without attempting to refer to all of them, let me just skim over a few.
We are told that one of Jesus’ disciples carried the purse for the entire group. Likely the contents of this purse was supplemented by gifts from the more affluent of Jesus followers. The twelve may have used its contents to buy food and other necessities as they traveled from place to place. But what I want to refer to is the fact that when Judas was sent out during the last Supper, some of the disciples, still suspecting nothing, thought that Jesus had sent him out to give something to the poor. John 13:29. This is interesting, because it must mean that it was a common practice to go out at the time of the Passover feast to bring some special gift to some needy family. This was likely an expression of their thankfulness even while they were partaking of the slain lamb and the unleavened bread. Could this be the origin of our Eucharist or thank offering at the Lord’s Supper? You know, as a child I often wondered about that offering. It was almost as if the congregation was asked to pay for the elements that were used at the Supper, and I didn’t fancy that at all. But now I realize that this thank offering is intended for the poor, and that it is an expression of what we feel in our hearts: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.”
Acts 6 speaks of the institution of the office of deacons for the particular purpose of caring for the poor. Acts 11:29 speaks of sending relief to the brethren which dwelt in Judea. In I Corinthians 16:1, Paul urges the church to lay in store for their fellow saints, each as the Lord has prospered them. And, as you well know, these examples could be multiplied many times.
The point I want to make right now is that giving is an essential part of our stewardship as well as of our public worship. We can have no disagreement on that score.
Now my problem is not that I have a complaint against our church members that they are not good stewards. Many outside of our churches often express amazement at the amount of money our people bring up for various kingdom causes. There is the church budget, our annual-synodical assessment (I don’t like the word, particularly when it applies to giving to needy churches, student aid, etc.), and various other offerings that are received in the church. Then there is the tuition for the instruction of our children, which is no small amount for some families. I think it can be said, at least in general, that our people are liberal givers and do give as the need requires.
But my problem is this. First, that we seem to live in a time which contradicts the word of Jesus: “For ye have always the poor with you.” Many of our churches have a surplus in the Benevolence Fund. Many draw from that fund only rarely. The result is that our weekly offerings for this particular fund amounts to a bit of small change and possibly a few dollar bills. And when we present our thank offering at the Lord’s Supper, one blushes to think that this is supposed to demonstrate our thanks to God for all His benefits.
No, the problem is more serious than that. We have deacons who are called of Christ and represent Him as our merciful High Priest. And yet they complain that they have nothing to do! That is what troubles me, doesn’t it you?
I do not know whether I can come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem, but it already relieves me to tell you about it. Maybe you have some suggestions. And I may write you about this again some time. Awaiting your reply,
Yours in the Lord,