God wants His people to live a certain way. To act a certain way. To have certain honest motivations. He wants His people to love one another, and to prove it by their actions.
The fruit of real salvation is moral and spiritual reformation, because you love God. You don’t “clean yourself up” to gain favor with God; that’s not possible. Instead, because God has already changed your heart and mind and given you spiritual life, you reform your life with His help. Part of that means you love your fellow believers.
Well-meaning Christians often cite biblical commands to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, and try to apply these to mercy ministries. Douglas Moo, a conservative commentator, is representative of this trend when he applies one of these passages (James 1:27) in a generic way to society at large. He implies James is issuing a call to mercy ministries in the context of evangelism:1
Christians whose religion is pure will imitate their Father by intervening to help the helpless. Those who suffer from want in the third world, in the inner city; those who are unemployed and penniless; those who are inadequately represented in government or in law—these are the people who should see abundant evidence of Christians’ ‘pure religion’.
This is all true, but it isn’t what James meant. That passage, and others like it, don’t teach this. Instead, they teach Christians to care for one another, to love one another, to watch out for one another. To be sure, it’s a wonderful evangelistic strategy to couple mercy ministries with Gospel proclamation. You can win a hearing for the Gospel by helping people. But, that’s not what these passages are about.
Who’s the audience?
When Jesus summarized the entire thrust of the Old Covenant law (Mk 12:28-34), He said it had two foundations:
- to love God with everything you had (Deut 6:4-5), and
- to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself (Lev 19:18).
If you look at both these citations, who was the audience? They were both addressed to Old Covenant members. They weren’t for unbelievers. They were for believers.
Regarding the first citation (Deut 6:4-5), Moses preached the Book of Deuteronomy to explain the Old Covenant to the people as they prepared to invade the Promised Land (“Moses undertook to explain this law …” Deut 1:5). As for the second, the context in Leviticus shows it was written for believers, too. But, beyond that, take a look at the context around the citation to “love your neighbor.” It tells us quite a bit:
- Israelites had to leave some of their harvest from vineyards and crops for the poor and needy in their covenant community; their believing community (Lev 19:9-10)
- They couldn’t steal or lie to one another. They also couldn’t bear false witness against one another (Lev 19:11-12)
- They couldn’t oppress or rob one another; that is, they had to compensate one another fairly. They had to pay wages on time. They couldn’t take advantage of the blind or deaf. Why? Because Yahweh is Lord, and they should fear His wrath for disobedience (Lev 19:13)
- They had to uphold justice and righteousness in legal matters (Lev 19:15)
- They couldn’t slander one another (Lev 19:16)
- They had to settle disputes among themselves, rather than let hate simmer in their hearts. There was no room for grudges or plots of vengeance; rather, they had to love one another (Lev 19:17-18).
What’s behind all this? What’s the concept undergirding all these commands? Simple: God’s people ought to love each other. They ought to care about each other. They should want to prove it by their actions. God expects His people to live His way, and part of that is to love fellow believers.
If you can understand this, then you can understand the references in the Bible to the widow, the orphan and the poor. You can understand who those commands are directed to.
Proving the point
The rest is pretty easy. Here are some representative examples from Scripture:
When Moses said this:
You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns (Deut 24:14).
he was referring to fellow covenant members; either native born Israelites or proselytes who had joined the community. He was referring to how God’s people should interact with each other. This echoes the commands from Leviticus 19.
Moses meant the same thing when he continued, and wrote this:
You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this (Deut 24:17-18).
This speaks for itself, and so does the audience.
One of the condemnations the prophet Ezekiel brought against nation of Judah was their moral wickedness; specifically, the way they mistreated one another. Ezekiel wrote:
Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you (Ezek 22:7).
You should read the entire paragraph for context, but Ezekiel’s point here is very clear. Part of their sin is their mistreatment of one another, especially those who deserve special respect – parents, proselytes who have joined the community, and the most vulnerable in the covenant society.
This was the same sentiment the Apostle John had when he wrote, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” (1 Jn 3:18). His observation was borne out of the same worldview that Ezekiel had, that Moses had, that Jesus had. God’s people should love one another, and show it.
In Zechariah’s day, as he and Haggai struggled to encourage the returned exiles to rebuild the temple, he reminded them of their father’s mistakes:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention hand turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear (Zech 7:8-11).
Before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, before the Babylonians crushed Judah, God was angry with His people for how they mistreated one another.
Even Amos, who wrote during the secular glory days of the Northern Kingdom, had the same message:
Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals— (Amos 2:6).
What does this mean? It’s difficult to nail down precisely, but it’s clear the rich and powerful in Israelite society were oppressing the vulnerable. You get the picture of them accepting bribes to sell out the righteous for silver, or for material possessions. He continued:
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted (Amos 2:7).
You get the image of those in power smashing the faces of the poor into the dirt, and turning away those who are afflicted and helpless. This is a perversion of the society God commanded the Israelites to model.
And, finally, we come to James:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (Jas 1:27).
James is talking to Christians about what their faith should look like. The fruit it ought to bear. What is the mark of a true Christian, of true religion? Well, simple! This command is really an inversion of Jesus’ summary. James says we must (1) love fellow believers, and (2) keep ourselves free from this evil world, which really means an all-consuming love for God.
What about the parable of the good Samaritan?
This is a good question. Why did Jesus give the parable? What prompted Him to employ it? He had a reason, didn’t He? Here’s the context:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25).
The 72 disciples have just returned, and given an ecstatic report of their ministry success (“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven …” Lk 10:18). Jesus rejoiced with them; “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Lk 10:23). He is glad God has revealed His plan to these simple men.
And, on the heels of this great event, the lawyer stands up and asks Jesus the question. He isn’t sincere; he wants to “put him to the test.” Jesus asks the man about the Old Covenant law, and he correctly responds by summarizing it the same way Jesus has done (Lk 10:26-28).
But, the man wants more. He’s “desiring to justify himself,” (Lk 10:29). He wants to limit his responsibilities as much as possible. He responds just like a stereotypical lawyer. Define “love.” Define “neighbor.” If he can narrow his target as much as possible, it’ll make his obligations so much easier to meet!
Think about it; would your spouse accept this kind of logic? What would you think if, at the altar on your wedding day, your husband halted the ceremony and said, “Now, I agree with all the lovey stuff, in theory. But, let’s clarify a few things. Define ‘until death.’ Define ‘love.’ Define ‘cherish.’ Let’s get this down on paper before we go any further!”
Are these the actions of a loving, would-be husband? I don’t think so! This is a guy who’s not serious. A guy who’s looking to do as little as possible. It’s the same with the lawyer. Jesus knows this; it’s why he tells the parable.
The Samaritan was a “good neighbor” because he didn’t care about legalistic qualifications, or legal definitions, or his strict scope of responsibilities. He saw a need, and he met it. That man is the good neighbor. That man fulfills the intent of the Old Covenant law, because he showed mercy.
What’s the point? The point is that a good neighbor is someone who shows mercy, not someone who seeks to do as little as possible in order to justify himself in his own mind. That’s why Jesus told the parable.
The Old and New Covenant commands to care for widows, orphans and the poor are to believers, and their primary application is to widows, orphans and the poor within the believing community. True faith and Christian religion won’t seek to minimize this responsibility or shirk it; it will prove itself by genuine mercy and kindness to fellow believers in need.
Mercy ministries to the general public are outstanding vehicles for evangelism. They just aren’t what these “justice” passages are talking about.
1 Douglas J. Moo, James, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 90.