Sharing with the Needy

Dr. Brian Allison

Major League baseball has returned. The baseball players' strike and their concern about wages and benefits has generated little sympathy from the fans. When many of the baseball players make millions of dollars a year, and yet squabble about, and strive for, even more money a year, few are sympathetic to their cause. Someone has cynically remarked, "Why don't they go out and get a real job and work for a living?" Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers was interviewed this past week and was asked, "So, how have you been able to make it financially while the strike has persisted?" I could not believe it. This is a man who up until this past year had been making some six million dollars a year. Now I contrast this story with another situation. In interacting with a father and husband this past week, he said, "We are waiting for our income tax return to come so that we can look after some of our bills." What a sad contrast!

About 43 nations have been designated by the United Nations as F.P.C. (i.e., food priority countries). These 43 nations comprise about one third of the world's population. Hence, at least one third of the world's population may be considered poverty stricken. Over one billion people live on about 30 cents a day.

A great contrast exists between the rich and the poor. This contrast was vividly illustrated in a past issue of the National Observer. In this past issue, there was an article on the crowded, filthy slums of Calcutta in which some 200,000 Indians live and sleep on the streets. In this same issue, there was a list of classified advertisements, and one read as follows: "Guide to Fine Real Estate Around the World is yours...A 288 page book of fabulous homes, glamourous villas, chateaux steeped in history, ranches with huge acreage, islands floating in emerald seas, contemporary ski lodges for the sports minded..."

The prosperous, western Industrial nations also suffer from the malady of poverty. One in five people in Canada live below the poverty line. Of course, poverty is a relative thing. For instance, the poverty income level of Canada is 15 times higher than India's official poverty income level, with India's average salary being about 100 dollars a year. Something is not right. Something has gone desperately wrong, and yet this is the sad reality. Jesus said, "For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good" (Mk. 14:7). We live in a desperately needy world, and that needy world is also in our own back yard. Accordingly, we are not to be indifferent to it; we are not to be nonchalant about it; but as Christians, we are to respond to that neediness, especially to that neediness of our fellow Christians.

Believers have financial and material needs

Romans 12:13a reads, "Contributing to the needs of the saints." The passage in which this verse is found concerns brotherly love. In this verse we have a concrete expression of this brotherly love. We could translate this verse simply as: "Sharing with those saints who have needs." A false idea and teaching exists that God wants us all to be financially wealthy and materially prosperous. Some well-meaning Christians teach a 'prosperity gospel,' or a 'health and wealth gospel.' Various televangelists teach the masses that we are to expect God to bless abundantly. They say that God wants us to be financially stable; that God wants us to know the amenities, conveniences, and comforts of life; that God does not want us to suffer or be sick; that suffering and sickness come from the devil. We have the teaching that if we are not experiencing the material and financial blessings of God, then it must be because of sin, disobedience, or a lack of faith in our lives. This kind of teaching is wrong! Life is often difficult, and we need to get used to that fact. Rather than Christianity guaranteeing wealth and prosperity, Christianity means trial and tribulation (see 1 Th. 3:3). Do you have the misunderstanding that God wants you to be financially prosperous; that God wants all of us to have two cars and a cottage and a boat and to go on a vacation every year to some exotic place? God is pleased for many of His people to know the depth of privation in this life and not that of prosperity (see Hb. 11:37-40). We will always have needy believers in the Church.

So, poverty is a reality for some Christians. There are Christian brothers and sisters who need shelter; there are those who need money to buy food; there are those who will need monetary assistance in order to manage their bills. We ought not to think that God has a controversy with us, or that He is angry with us, or that He does not love us, simply because we are poor. If we have a wrong view of God, then we are going to have a misunderstanding of our faith, and thus we will have wrong expectations of God. When things go wrong in our lives, we are either going to conclude that God is against us or that we are living lives characterized by sin; and neither of these possibilities may be correct. Again, Jesus said, "The poor you always have with you."

Sharing our wealth with the needy

Now, God is indeed pleased to provide for His own. He does care about His people. He is pleased to address the financial and material needs of His people through His people. As Christians, we should be "contributing to the needs of the saints." As mentioned earlier, the word 'contributing' may be translated 'sharing.' The idea is that one does not simply give to a good cause, but rather one invites others to participate in his or her financial increase and material prosperity. So, in a very real sense, what belongs to us may also be enjoyed by others. Now, I am not advocating laziness and irresponsibility (that is, that some people are free not to work and be a parasite to others); nor I am advocating obligatory philanthropy (that is, you need to 'sell the farm' and distribute); but I am advocating that what you possess does not ultimately belong to you. What you possess really belongs to the Lord, and He has made us stewards, requiring that we faithfully minister His goods. Accordingly, we have a responsibility to minister to those who do not have. We are to share that which God has first given to us. Some may react to this statement, especially those accustomed to the 'good life,' but human reaction does not alter the truth. Living in an affluent society surely dulls our spiritual senses. We get use to comfort and convenience, and once we have wealth, we may find it hard to depart with it. Even Christians may suffer from greed and covetousness.

Do you find it hard to share your wealth? No doubt, you work hard for your money; and that which is hard to come by, we do not easily give up. We may pat ourselves on the back, thinking we have fulfilled our Christian duty, when we have given according to our ability, or when we have given that tithe, and thus our conscience is appeased for another week. We honestly complain that things are financially tight, and yet we seem to find money to go to the restaurant or to go to the theatre or to go on vacation. We are good at justifying and exonerating ourselves when the Church requires funds or when the needs of the believers are presented.

The early Christians shared their wealth

'Contributing to the needs of the saints' characterized the early Church. The early Christians experienced a radical transformation in their lives. Their whole approach to life was changed. We read, "And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common [both materially and financially]; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need" (Acts 2:44,45). A clear evidence of a radical, spiritual transformation through the Gospel is the demonstration of brotherly love – love particularly expressed through ministering to the physical needs of believers. Again, we read, "And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them...For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles' feet; and they would be distributed to each as any had need" (Acts 4:32,34,35). What would you have done if you had been a member of this early Church? Would you have sold your property and possessions? Do you think that the typical 1990's evangelical Christian would have sold his or her property and possessions? Now the Scriptures do not teach that we must sell off all our property and possessions in order to minister with the proceeds. The situation in Jerusalem may have been unusual. The occasioning element was a presented need, and one was not obligated to respond to the need. But what we should notice about these early Christians is that they were willing to sell off their property and possessions in order to minister to the need. Those who had much were willing to give to those who had little or nothing. How willing are you? No doubt, we may find many excuses why we cannot give, but that is all they are – excuses. Perfect love has no excuses.

The rationale for sharing

The Scriptures teach, "Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed" (1 Tm. 6:17-19). Christians should not spend exuberantly and extravagantly, but rather modestly and frugally. God does freely give to us all things to enjoy, but our Christian brothers and sisters should be able to also participate in that enjoyment.

Now, one of the main reasons for working is to help out the unfortunate. Ephesians 4:28 reads, "Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labour, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need." The apostle Paul practiced what he preached. He could affirm to the Ephesian elders at the end of his third missionary journey, "You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'"

Now God has a marvelous design in allowing the reality of poverty-stricken believers and in imposing this command on those who have wealth to give to those who have not. God allows this situation in order to create a sense of community and of mutual brotherly responsibility. God provides a context in which we can practically and concretely work out brotherly love. The Church is a living organism, not a collection of isolated entities; and when we support and help one another, the body is strengthened and the familial bonds are tightened.

Was the early Church experience some freak experience? Are we to respond to the needs of the believers even today? Do you know any Christian brother or sister who is in need? Our first obligation is to fellow-believers, not to some community centre, not to some interesting project in our neighbourhood. Our first responsibility is to the needy in the body of Christ. Galatians 6:10 reads, "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."