Rev. Houck is pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, Illinois.
Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.
The Jerusalem council did not lord it over the apostle Paul and give him all kinds of orders. They did, however, ask him for one thing: that he would remember the poor of the churches of Jerusalem and Judea. There had been a great famine which devastated the people. Paul and Barnabas had already brought money from the church of Antioch to help relieve that great need. But there had been and still was much persecution of the church by the Jews, which left the churches of Jerusalem and Judea in great need. Thus there was a request for continued financial help for the relief of the poor in the church.
This is a situation which the church will always face, for the poor are always with us. That was true in the days of Moses. We read, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land…” (Deut. 15:11). That was true in the days of Christ. He said, “For ye have the poor always with you…” (Matt. 26:11). We live in a very affluent society. Generally speaking, we have much more than people in other lands. But there are still poor people in our midst and always will be.
God gives these needy families for a reason. We read, “I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord” (Zeph. 3:12). God leaves an afflicted and poor people in the church to remind us of the fact that we are to trust in Him and not upon our own strength and resources. That fact obligates us to take care of the poor. James, Peter, John, and the other leaders of the church of Jerusalem understood that. That is why the one thing they requested of Paul was that he remember the poor. The apostle Paul also knew that. He proclaims, “…the same which I also was forward to do.” The words “was forward to do” mean “to exert oneself, endeavour, give diligence.” The apostle exerted himself. He was very diligent in remembering the poor. He saw to it that the Gentile churches which he established took collections for them.
That is our calling too. God requires us to remember the poor with the same zeal as did the apostle Paul. We may not neglect them. God says in Deuteronomy 15:7, “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren … thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother.”
What does it mean to remember the poor? First of all, it means that we have a good attitude toward them. “The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends” (Prov. 14:20). The poor are often despised, not because of any evil in them, but just because they are poor. We may not do that. We may not be hard, cold, and indifferent toward the poor. Our calling is to have mercy and compassion for them.
Out of that attitude of mercy we are to treat them well in general. We are not to oppress them or be hard on them. We are to show kindness to them. That is not always done. Sometimes favoritism is shown to the rich because they have money. That is not right. The poor are to be treated just like everyone else, in spite of their poverty.
Out of that attitude of mercy we are also to give them financial and material help so that they have what they need to live. “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt. 19:21). We are not to be so attached to our money that we will not give help to the poor when we ought to, especially if we have been given much. It may be that the Lord gives us more than others just so that we can help the needy. Even if we are not well off, we have an obligation to the poor. Our money and possessions should not mean more to us than keeping Christ’s command to care for the needy.
This obligation relates especially to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. It is not that we may not give to the relief of unbelievers. If we have neighbors who are poor, this is part of our calling to love them and show kindness to them. But we are especially to care for the poor of the church. Thus we read, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). We are to do good to the household of faith because this is a manifestation of our love of the brethren. We all belong to Christ, therefore we are to care for each other.
There is also an obligation which the poor have in this matter. They are not to be ashamed or afraid of accepting the help which is offered to them. Sometimes we are proud. We don’t want the help of others. We don’t want anyone to know our needs. This is wrong. No one who has true needs ought to be afraid or ashamed to make his needs known. The very fact that God commands us to care for the poor implies that the poor are not to be ashamed or afraid. Receiving help is to be a blessing. It is to be a means of receiving the mercy of Christ.
Besides that, we have God as our example. He has in His heart a very soft spot for the poor. God is merciful and compassionate to the poor among His people. He takes care of them and helps them in their needs. We read, “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him” (Ps. 12:5). The Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy. He fights against all who oppress them. Since God so cares for the poor and needy, ought not we have the same compassion and give of our prosperity to help them?
There are two basic means of giving to the poor. First of all, we are to give to the poor through the official benevolence collections of the church. This is the way the apostle Paul had the Gentile believers give. We read, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come” (I Cor. 16:1-2). Here the apostle gives instructions to the church of Corinth to take collections on the Lord’s Day.
Thus we have the principle that the church is to take benevolence collections on the Lord’s Day in the worship service. The fact that these collections are to be taken during the worship service means that they are acts of worship. We give not to a poor person, but to God. While we give to God, we worship Him and thank Him for what He has given to us.
When we give to the poor by giving to the benevolence collections, we also support the office of the deacon. For the deacons have the special calling to collect and distribute the alms. The advantage of this method is that the deacons go to the poor as representatives of Christ, with the mercy of Christ. The poor are made to see that this money is not from a person or even the church, but from Christ. It is a manifestation of Christ’s compassion and love for them.
It is also proper for individual believers to give directly to the poor. There are many passages of Scripture which indicate this. “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (I John 3:17). If we truly love God, we ought to be willing to give to our poor brother in his need. “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:15-17). True faith, faith that is not dead, will manifest itself in giving to the brother in his need.
There are several characteristics of proper giving. First of all, we are not to give grudgingly or of necessity. “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (II Cor. 9:7). When we give of necessity, we give because we have to. We know that it is our calling, but we would rather not give. We feel forced into giving. When we give grudgingly we give in sorrow, pain, grief, or annoyance. We weep within ourselves because we have lost some of our money. This kind of giving is not truly giving, even though we put money in the collection plate.
Rather we are to give cheerfully and from the heart. Even though we know that giving is required by the Lord and is therefore something which we ought to do, we do it because we want to. We do it because we love our Lord. It does not cause us pain. We are happy about it and rejoice in the opportunity to show our love of God.
In the third place we ought to give liberally. “…Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land” (Deut. 15:11). We are not to open our hand just enough to let out a little. We are to open wide our hands. We are to give to him in abundance. Our generosity ought to be based upon the Lord’s generosity to us. He was so liberal in His giving to us that He gave His only begotten Son. We may not be stingy. Remember the words of II Corinthians 9:6, “But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.”
Finally, we are to give to the poor without ostentation. We are not to show off when we give, or boast in how much we give. We read, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:1-4). The Pharisees sought after the glory of man, so they gave their gifts in the streets where all could see them. They even had their servants blow trumpets to let the people know that they were going to give. We may not give that way. We are to give for God’s glory and not our own. Therefore, we ought to give in secret.
Whether we faithfully give or neglect our calling, there will be certain consequences. We read, “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard” (Prov. 21:13). If we do not hear the cry of the poor and help them, God will not hear our cry for help. He will be just as hard and unconcerned as we are. “Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail…. The Lord hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works…. Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? and it shall rise up wholly as a flood; and it shall be cast out and drowned, as by the flood of Egypt” (Amos 8:4, 5, 8). This is the judgment which the Lord brings upon a congregation that swallows up the needy. He sends a flood, as it were, which will destroy that people and bring them to mourning.
That is because the refusal to care for the needy is a reproach of the Lord. “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker…” (Prov. 17:5). If we mock the poor by not helping them in their need, by that action we also mock God who made the poor and gave them to the church.
Not only that, our punishment is great because by neglecting the poor we neglect Christ. Jesus said, “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an
hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matt. 25:41-45). By neglecting the poor we reveal that we are not true children of God. We are only hypocrites as the Pharisees were.
On the other hand, if we are faithful in this calling, there is a reward for us. There is a reward for us as individuals. Jesus said to the rich man that if he would sell all that he had and give it to the poor he would have treasures in heaven. That is true of us too. We may not have much on earth, but we will have a whole treasure chest full of jewels in heaven. We will have all the spiritual blessings and gifts given to us by Jesus Christ. However, we do not have to wait for heaven to be rewarded for giving to the poor. We have a reward here and now. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The poor receive a wonderful blessing by receiving the mercies of Christ, but those who give receive even more of a blessing.
The same is true of the church as a whole. The congregation which helps the poor will also be richly blessed of the Lord. When a congregation helps the needy in her own midst, there is manifested the communion of the saints and the brotherly love which exists among all the members. There is unity, peace, and contentment, for God’s mercies are seen in her midst. When a congregation helps other congregations who have needy people, the unity of the body of Christ is manifested. The congregations are made to feel more and more that they belong to that one spiritual body to which all of God’s people belong. That is a great reward.