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When Helping Hurts
How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor ... and Yourself
By Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Cheryl Dunlop
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2009 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
All rights reserved.
Why Did JESUS Come to Earth?
Why did Jesus come to earth? Most Christians have a ready answer to this question. However, there are actually nuanced differences in how Christians think about this most basic issue, and those small differences can have dramatic consequences for all endeavors, including how the church responds to the plight of the poor. Let's examine how Jesus Himself understood His mission.
Jesus' earthly ministry began one Sabbath day in a synagogue in Nazareth. Week in and week out, Jews gathered in this synagogue to worship under the chafing yoke of the Roman Empire. Aware of Old Testament prophecy, these worshippers were longing for God to send the promised Messiah who would restore the kingdom to Israel, reigning on David's throne forever. But centuries had gone by with no Messiah, and the Romans were running the show. Hope was probably in short supply. It is in this context that the son of a carpenter from that very town stood up and was handed a scroll from the prophet Isaiah.
Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." ... The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:17-21)
A shiver must have gone down the spine of the worshippers that day. Isaiah had prophesied that a King was coming who would usher in a kingdom unlike anything the world had ever seen. Could it be that Isaiah's prophecies were really about to come true? Could it really be that a kingdom whose domain would increase without end was about to begin (Isa. 9:7)? Was it really possible that justice, peace, and righteousness were about to be established forever? Would this King really bring healing to the parched soil, the feeble hands, the shaky knees, the fearful hearts, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mute, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the sinful souls, and would proclaim the year of jubilee for the poor (Isa. 35:1-6; 53:5; 61:1-2)? Jesus' answer to all these questions was a resounding "yes," declaring, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
In the same chapter Jesus summarized His ministry as follows, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent" (Luke 4:43). The mission of Jesus was and is to preach the good news of the kingdom of God, to say to one and all, "I am the King of kings and Lord of lords, and I am using My power to fix everything that sin has ruined." As pastor and theologian Tim Keller states, "The kingdom is the renewal of the whole world through the entrance of supernatural forces. As things are brought back under Christ's rule and authority, they are restored to health, beauty, and freedom."
Of course there is both a "now" and a "not yet" to the kingdom. The full manifestation of the kingdom will not occur until there is a new heaven and a new earth. Only then will every tear be wiped from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). But two thousand years ago, Jesus clearly stated that there is a "now" to the kingdom, saying, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).
A FULLER ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
We have asked thousands of evangelical Christians in numerous contexts this most basic question—why did Jesus come to earth?—and fewer than 1 percent of respondents say anything even remotely close to the answer that Jesus Himself gave. Instead, the vast majority of people say something like "Jesus came to die on the cross to save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven." While this answer is true, saving souls is only a subset of the comprehensive healing of the entire cosmos that Jesus' kingdom brings and that was the centerpiece of His message.
Contrast the response of most evangelicals with the following passage concerning the nature and work of Jesus Christ:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15-20)
In this passage Jesus Christ is described as the Creator, Sustainer, and Reconciler of everything. Yes, Jesus died for our souls, but He also died to reconcile—that is, to put into right relationship—all that He created. This is what we sing every year in the Christmas carol, "He comes to make His blessings known far as the curse is found." The curse is cosmic in scope, bringing decay, brokenness, and death to every speck of the universe. But as King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus is making all things new! This is the good news of the gospel.
When she was three years old, my daughter Anna bowed her head one night and prayed, "Dear Jesus, please come back soon, because we have lots of owies, and they hurt." I got all choked up listening to her, for she had captured the essence of the comprehensive healing of the kingdom and was longing for this healing to happen to her. She was praying—in three-year-old language—"Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10 KJV). Yes, come quickly Lord Jesus, for we do have lots of owies, and they really hurt.
Is Jesus Really the Messiah?
Jesus claimed to be the promised King, but how do we know His claims were true? This question has perplexed everyone from the lepers of Jesus' day to the greatest minds of the twenty-first century. But it is a bit surprising that at the end of his life, John the Baptist himself was still uncertain about the authenticity of Jesus. John had spent his entire career eating locusts and wild honey, wearing strange clothes, hanging out in the desert, and preaching to one and all that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the King who would reign on David's throne. But now John found himself in Herod's prison about to have his head chopped off. He was likely thinking to himself, If Jesus is really the Messiah, surely He would start the coup against King Herod before I, his secretary of state, get executed! But there was no coup attempt, and John understandably developed some doubt.
So John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Luke 7:19). There are so many ways that Jesus could have answered this question. He could have pointed out that His birth in Bethlehem from the line of David was consistent with prophecies about the Messiah. Or Jesus could have referred to His remarkable knowledge of the Scriptures and to His unparalleled teaching abilities. Or Jesus could have reminded John that they had both witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove and had heard God the Father say, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). If this latter event couldn't convince John, it would seem that nothing could! But Jesus chose not to point to any of these signs. John was already aware of these and apparently needed something else to comfort him. So Jesus said:
Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me. (Luke 7:22-23)
In essence, Jesus was saying to John, "John, you have not run the race in vain. I am the promised Messiah. And you can be sure because of what your disciples are both hearing Me say and seeing Me do. I am preaching the good news of the kingdom, and I am showing the good news of the kingdom, just as Isaiah said I would."
How useless it would have been if Jesus had only used words and not deeds to declare the kingdom. Imagine reading the story in Luke 18:35-43 about the blind beggar who was sitting along the roadside. Learning that Jesus was walking by, he called out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" What if Jesus had said, "I am the fulfillment of all prophecy. I am the King of kings and Lord of lords. I have all the power in heaven and earth. I could heal you today of your blindness, but I only care about your soul. Believe in Me"? Who would have believed that Jesus was the promised King if He had not given any evidence to prove it? As Peter stated at Pentecost, "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). Jesus' deeds were essential to proving that He truly was the promised Messiah. Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom, and He showed the good news of the kingdom.
What Would Jesus Do?
In his book The Last Days: A Son's Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of the New South, Charles Marsh describes growing up in Laurel, Mississippi, during the 1960s. Racial tensions were high as the federal government sought to end segregation. Civil rights workers, many of whom came from the North, poured into the region, seeking to end centuries of discrimination against African Americans. Charles's father was the well-known pastor of First Baptist Church in Laurel and was a pillar of the community. Beloved for his outstanding preaching and godly living, Reverend Marsh was to his parishioners the model Christian.
Also living in Laurel, Mississippi, was Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, who terrorized African Americans throughout the region. Bowers was suspected of plotting at least nine murders of African Americans and civil rights workers, seventy-five bombings of African-American churches, and numerous beatings and physical assaults.
How did Reverend Marsh, the model Christian, respond to this situation? Charles explains:
There is no doubt my father loathed the Klan when he thought about them at all. In his heart of hearts, he considered slavery a sin, racisms like Germany's or South Africa's an offense to the faith, and he taught me as much in occasional pronouncements on Southern history over homework assignments. "There is no justification for what we did to the Negro. It was an evil thing and we were wrong." Nevertheless, the work of the Lord lay elsewhere. "Be faithful in church attendance, for your presence can, if nothing else, show that you are on God's side when the doors of the Church are opened," he advised in the church bulletin. Of course, packing the pews is one of any minister's fantasies—there's always the wish to grow, grow, grow. But the daily installments of Mississippi burning, the crushing poverty of the town's Negro inhabitants, the rituals of white supremacy, the smell of terror pervading the streets like Masonite's stench, did not figure into his sermons or in our dinner-table conversations or in the talk of the church. These were, to a good Baptist preacher like him, finally matters of politics, having little or nothing to do with the spiritual geography of a pilgrim's journey to paradise. Unwanted annoyances? Yes. Sad evidences of our human failings? Certainly. But all of these would be rectified in some eschatological future— "when we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be."
Reverend Marsh had reduced Christianity to a personal piety that was devoid of a social concern emanating from a kingdom perspective. He believed Christianity consisted in keeping one's soul pure by avoiding alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity, and by helping others to keep their souls pure too. There was little "now" of the kingdom for Reverend Marsh, apart from the saving of souls. For Reverend Marsh, James 1:27 said, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: ... to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Somehow, he overlooked the phrase that pure and faultless religion includes "look[ing] after orphans and widows in their distress."
While Reverend Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched in Mississippi through the plotting of Sam Bowers. Less dramatic but even more pervasive was the entire social, political, and economic system designed to keep African Americans in their place. What would King Jesus do in this situation? Would He simply evangelize the African Americans, saying, "I have heard your cries for help, but your earthly plight is of no concern to Me. Believe in Me, and I will transport your soul to heaven someday. In the meantime, abstain from alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity"? Is this how Jesus responded to the blind beggar who pleaded for mercy?
Reverend Marsh did play a role in the civil rights movement, but it was not to "seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, [or] plead the case of the widow" (Isa. 1:17). Instead, he focused his attention and energies on the lack of personal piety and unbelief of some of the civil rights workers. This culminated in his writing a famous sermon, "The Sorrow of Selma," in which he lambasted the civil rights workers, calling them "unbathed beatniks," "immoral kooks," and "sign-carrying degenerates" who were hypocrites for not believing in God.
In one sense, Reverend Marsh was right. Many of the civil rights protestors longed for the peace, justice, and righteousness of the kingdom, but they did not want to bend the knee to the King Himself, which is a prerequisite for enjoying the full benefits of the kingdom. In contrast, Reverend Marsh embraced King Jesus, but he did not understand the fullness of Christ's kingdom and its implications for the injustices in his community. Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways. Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King. The church needs a Christ-centered, fully orbed, kingdom perspective to correctly answer the question: "What would Jesus do?"
What Is the Task of the Church?
The task of God's people is rooted in Christ's mission. Simply stated, Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom in word and indeed, so the church must do the same. And as we have seen, Jesus particularly delighted in spreading the good news among the hurting, the weak, and the poor. Hence, it is not surprising that throughout history God's people have been commanded to follow their King's footsteps into places of brokenness.
In the Old Testament, God's chosen people, the nation of Israel, were to point forward to the coming King by foreshadowing what He would be like (Matt. 5:17; John 5:37-39, 45-46; Col. 2:16-17). Israel was to be a sneak preview of the coming attraction: King Jesus. Like any sneak preview, Israel was to give viewers an idea of what the main event would be like and to make viewers want to see the main event. When people looked at Israel, they were supposed to say to themselves, "Wow! These people are really different. I can't wait to meet their King. He must really be something special." Hence, since King Jesus would bring good news for the poor, it is not surprising that God wanted Israel to care for the poor as well.
In fact, God gave Moses numerous commands instructing Israel to care for the poor. The Sabbath guaranteed a day of rest for the slave and alien (Ex. 23:10-12). The Sabbath year canceled debts for Israelites, allowed the poor to glean from the fields, and set slaves free as well as equipping the slaves to be productive (Deut. 15:1-18). The Jubilee year emphasized liberty; it released slaves and returned land to its original owners (Lev.25:8-55). Other laws about debt, tithing, and gleaning ensured that the poor would be cared for each day of the year (Lev. 25:35-38; Deut. 14:28-29; Lev. 19:9-10). The commands were so extensive that they were designed to achieve the ultimate goal of eradicating poverty among God's people: "There should be no poor among you," God declared (Deut. 15:4).
Excerpted from When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Cheryl Dunlop. Copyright © 2009 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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