Archbishop Oscar Romero once said, “There is a criterion for knowing whether God is close to us or far away: all those who worry about the hungry, the naked, the poor, the disappeared, the tortured, the imprisoned – about any suffering human being – are close to God.” James says, how can you claim to have faith and see someone in need and do nothing to help them. Both of these voices are reminding Christians that they have a responsibility to help the poor, the hurting, the one in need. And not just to feel sorry for them, not to simply feel compassion toward them, but to actually do something to make their situation better.
When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment without hesitation he said, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength.” He then quickly added the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” With this remark Jesus tied love of God with love of neighbor. It is impossible for one to love God with all that they have, every ounce of their being, and then fail to love their neighbors. As James said, how can we claim to have faith in God and not do something to help when we see someone in need.
Jesus even takes love of neighbor a step forward when he shares the parable of the Good Samaritan. As the story goes a lawyer had stood up wanting to justify his lifestyle so he asked Jesus, “who exactly is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the story of the Good Samaritan. In this very familiar story there are a few interesting side notes. First of all, the man who is hurt is helped not by the religiously pious but by the foreigner who is considered unclean. The religious were too busy making sure their religion stayed pure and proper to stop and help the one in need. They were so concerned with getting religion right that they missed the opportunity to love like God. Secondly, the Samaritan who stops to help asks for nothing in return. He pays for the man to be taken care of and nursed back to health, never expecting to receive his money back. It is a gift freely given. It is an example of godly love and care for the hurting. And finally, like the lawyer who tried to justify himself, those who encounter the parable are quickly reminded that one’s neighbor is anyone that is in need. Neighbor is not merely proximity, neighbor is everyone.
However, there is a fourth interesting point in this story. No one in the story changes religious views at the end. The Samaritan continues to be a Samaritan worshiping in Samaria, the Jew continues to be a Jew worshiping in Jerusalem. No one is proselytized, no one is converted. It is simply a story of radical neighborliness, an extension of the gospel without any questions asked or any expectation of repayment.
Helping the poor is not a form of evangelism. It is not a method to add more numbers to the Sunday attendance. Obviously if individuals do not know Jesus the hope is that they will come to saving faith. However, the purpose for serving the poor is not to evangelize. In fact, if no one ever comes to faith that doesn’t negate the good that was done. Churches help the poor because it is the right thing to do. Churches help the poor because it is a way of loving their neighbor. Churches help the poor because to refuse to do so is evil. When churches help the poor they are fulfilling the will of God, to bring justice to the world, to bring dignity to those who have suffered under adverse conditions, to love the forgotten and neglected.
Archbishop Romero said, the way to know one is close to God is to know are they concerned about the poor, mistreated, and destitute. Christians must help the poor. It is not an option, it is part of loving God.