In the first two chapters of Galatians, Paul summarizes the story of his life. And what an amazing story it is. In his early years, Paul had persecuted the church of God, but then Jesus revealed Himself to Paul on the road to Damascus, commissioned him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and appointed him as an apostle.
Paul "did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19). All the same, he "did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me" (Gal. 1:16-1?). On the contrary, he traveled around from place to place, preaching the gospel; and for many years, he did not even set eyes on most of the other apostles. "I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ; but only, they kept hearing, `He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.' And they were glorifying God because of me" (Gal. 1:22-24).
"Then," says Paul, "after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem" (Gal. 2:1); and in Jerusalem he went privately to "those who were of reputation" within the church, and "submitted to them the gospel which I preach" (Gal. 2:2). I doubt whether we can fully appreciate how thrilling that moment must have been. Here were two groups of people who both claimed to have received, independently, a message which came directly from God. They had been hearing about each other for many years; but there had been virtually no direct contact between them. Now for the first time they were able to sit down and compare these two independent "messages from God." Would there be any similarity between the two messages? And if so, how much similarity would there be? Even Paul says that he was afraid that, when he compared his gospel with the gospel preached by the Jerusalem apostles, he would discover "that I might be running, or had run, in vain" (Gal. 2:2). But, of course, his fears were groundless. The gospel which the Jerusalem apostles were preaching to the Jews, and the gospel which Paul was independently preaching to the Gentiles, were one and the same.
No doubt, whatever their fears, Peter and John and James and Paul had expected and hoped to find that they were preaching the same gospel. But can you imagine how they felt, whey. they finally found it out for certain? Can you imagine how much they must have been strengthened and encouraged in their faith, by knowing that other people had been, quite independently, preaching the same thing?
Well, if they felt that way, what did they do while they were together? i)id they spend their time comparing notes on the "things hard to understand" within the gospel? Or speculating about the things which God had not revealed to them at all? Did they talk about the precise way in which God and man were interrelated in Jesus, or the details of the mechanism by which the death of Jesus saved people from their sins, or the exact span of time left before the return of Christ?
We do not have a full record of the apostles' conversation on that occasion. But we can be sure that subjects like the ones which I have listed were not uppermost in their minds as they talked together. "Those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me," says Paul. "They only asked us to remember the poor - the very thing I also was eager to do" (Gal. 2:6,10).
That seems, perhaps, a very mundane and unglamourous topic for all these exalted apostles to be discussing. After all, their principal function as servants of Christ was the proclamation of the gospel, not the relief of the poor. The Jerusalem apostles could have brushed aside the subject by saying, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to worry about the poor" - but no, that was exactly what they were concerned about. And Paul could have brushed aside the subject by saying, "Christ did not send me to worry about the poor, but to preach the gospel" -but no, that was "the very thing I also was eager to do."
The apostles could have constructed far more plausible excuses for neglecting the poor, than most of us can. Yet they did not construct those excuses. And neither should we. If it was important for the apostles, of all people, to "remember the poor," then surely it is important for us to do so too.
Yet too often we find ourselves making excuses - much flimsier excuses than the apostles could have made. Too often we find ourselves wanting to do other things, and trying to justify doing what we really want to do, rather than inconveniencing ourselves by assisting the poor.
Let us look at four of those excuses.
(1) "There are no poor people nowadays." Brethren, I do not know what the situation in America is like. But in Australia, even in very modern, affluent, highly-civilized, technologically-sophisticated large cities, there are still many people living in conditions of dire poverty and physical discomfort. And perhaps that is particularly so at the present time, with the current worldwide economic difficulties. Within the past year, I have seen men aged thirty-five or forty, employed in the same jobs for twenty years, who have lost their jobs when the business collapsed financially and who have then failed to find other jobs, because they have been competing against unemployed people half their age. I have seen women with small children, living in dingy unfurnished flats, who have been able to scrape together just enough money each week to afford either (a) the bare minimum of household furnishings necessary for hygienic living; or (b) transport to the nearest cheap shops; but not both. In many of these flats, the dishes must be washed before a meal as well as afterwards, because rats have crawled all over them between meals. I have seen a woman with five children (trying to escape and hide from a drunken and violent husband who injured the children regularly), forced to live in a single room with fourteen other people.
"The poor," Jesus said, "you have with you always" (Matt. 26:11); and many centuries earlier, God had said the same thing to the children of Israel: "The poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, `You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land"' (Deut. 15:11).
Brethren, the sad truth is this. If we do not meet with poor people in our home towns, too often that is not because there are no poor people there, but rather because we ourselves are too well-to-do and too materially comfortable to come in contact with the poor people who are living within a mile of us.
(2) " I cannot spare the money. " This may sometimes be true. The widow who put all she owned into the treasury (Mark 12:41-44) would not have had much money to give to other people as poor as herself. But more often, we feel that we cannot spare the money because we are too attached to it, and to the comforts which it can buy. That was never Paul's attitude. "If we have food and covering," he said, "with these we shall be content" (1 Tim. 6:8).
"Whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth" (1 Jn. 3:17-18).
(3) "Most poor people do not deserve to be helped" This, again, may sometimes be true. But what if it is? Did any of us deserve to be helped by God, when we were spiritually poor?
Moses repeatedly exhorted the Israelites to look after the underprivileged people. And the same reason for doing so occurs again and again. "You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing" (Deut. 24:18; 10:17-19; Lev. 19:34).
God gives His sunshine and rain to righteous and unrighteous people alike, "expecting nothing in return" (Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35). He even gave His Son to die for the sins of "the whole world," including many people who would never accept Him (1 Jn. 2:2).
I do not mean that we should supply people with materials to continue sinning. If people are poor because they are spending their money on alcohol or gambling, I do not mean that we should give them more money to be spent in the same way. But we can still give them our time, our encouragement and our love, our help to stop drinking or gambling, our assistance with practical problems.
There is an old Marx Brothers movie which shows Harpo Marx strolling casually along a street. Suddenly an unkept, grubby-looking, obviously alcoholic beggar approaches him and says in a slurred, gravely voice: "Say, buddy, could you help me out? I'd like to get a cup of coffee." Harpo looks at him, reaches down into his pocket, and produces a steaming hot, brimful cup of coffee (complete with saucer), which he gives to the beggar.
That is what our giving should be like. We may not always be able to give people what they want, but we can always gives them what they need.
(4) "The church is doing things to help poor Christians, " Maybe so. But where does that leave the poor nonChristians? Each one of us, individually, has a responsibility in that area which no church can ever have.
Let me take an example. The church has a responsibility to care for "widows indeed" - widows who are faithful Christians, who are in need of (say) food or clothing or shelter, and who have no other means of support (1 Tim. 5:3-16). But what about all the widows who do not meet these criteria? What about widows who have not fixed their hope on God, widows who do not have a reputation for good works, widows who are gossips or busybodies? The teaching of the Bible is plain: such widows are not to be assisted by the church. But should we let them starve to death, simply because the church must not assist them?
I cannot expect the church to take over tasks which God has allocated to me as an individual Christian. The church must provide material help for saints in need, in order that all the members may function together within the body in the way that God planned (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:4). But my individual responsibility as a Christian is far more extensive than that. "While we have opportunity," every Christian is supposed to "do good to all men," and not only "to those who are of the household of the faith," although obviously he will be "especially" concerned about needy Christians (Gal. 6:10). As we have already seen, every Christian is supposed to do good to people who do not deserve his assistance (Luke 6:33).
If the only needy people being helped in my area are those Christians who receive assistance from the local congregation, I am failing in my individual responsibilities.
The apostle Paul - "often without food, in cold and exposure" though he was, laboring continually at his special task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles - was nevertheless "eager" to "remember the poor." What excuse can we offer, when he offered none?
Truth Magazine XXIII: 32, pp. 522-523