Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Does the Gospel Demand Social Action?

It has become quite popular for Christians to speak and write on social action as if it is commanded by God and/or implied in the gospel. And while I would argue strongly that God's people are to be given to the good works that God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Ep 2:10), I am not convinced that such a practice equals the kind of social action sometimes expected. I hear of congregations trading in their worship and learning gatherings for handing out blankets, serving soup, or cleaning their city streets. And while there is good in each of these, I wonder if this kind of service should be given prominence.

Jesus tells us in Mt 25 that He does have an expectation of us that we be people who, in His name, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, show hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the incarcerated. And while such love is beautiful when shown to anyone, Jesus says that it is especially expected among those who share a common experience of grace in the gospel. He calls them brothers of Mine (v40; cf Ga 6:10 -- . . . let us do good to all people, and especially those of the household of faith). For this reason I have led our church to stop trying to meet all of the needs requests we receive and instead to do more for our own.

As I read the Gospels, and into Acts and beyond, it appears to me that the early church, commissioned by Jesus and led by the Apostles, had little interest in "bettering their communities", but great interest in making disciples of them. At the end of the day, if we've improved lives through social action, but have not made disciples of Christ, is God pleased? Doing good because it is good to do is of some value. We are to reflect God's character as His image bearers. When we are aware of a need we can meet it is good and godly to do so (Lk 10:30-37); and expected if the needy is one of God's children (1 Jn 3:16-18). But that's not our ultimate concern. The work of the Christian is to make disciples (followers, learners) of Jesus Christ, God the Son. 

It's interesting to me to notice that following the parable of the Good Samaritan we read of a visit Jesus makes to the home of Martha and Mary. Apparently Martha wants to put forth her best effort in showing Jesus hospitality, in doing good to Him. That's noble. But what if her zeal to honor Jesus ends up dishonoring Him, because of misplaced values? Because of trying to do too much? Jesus says to Martha that she is worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is needed (Lk 10:41-42). I understand this to mean that Jesus would prefer a simple meal with a good spirit than an elaborate meal with a worried and bothered one. Martha, He seems to say, sandwiches would have been fine.

Now don't get me wrong. Jesus is not against elaborate forms of celebration, worship, hospitality, etc. There are instances in which He applauds them, even expects them [For example Ex 25ff (the construction of the Tabernacle); and Mk 14:1-11 where Jesus rewards a woman for anointing Him with all of the very costly perfume, not just some of it so that the rest could be sold and money gained to meet the needs of the poor, which was suggested by another; and Lk 15:11-32 (the parable of the gracious father)]. Yes indeed, our Lord practiced and taught grand generosity and sacrificial giving. Just consider the cross. But we have no record of Him feeding all of the hungry, for example. He could have. But He didn't. As a matter of fact, there were times when Jesus withdrew from multitudes of needy people to be about other business like prayer, and teaching His disciples, and resting (For example Mt 14 & 15, Mk 6). 

There was no contradiction or confusion within Jesus. He worked long hard days giving Himself away to the multitudes and to His disciples. But neither did He have a problem walking away from needy people. Apparently faith in the Father means trusting Him with those we cannot help, or chose not to help. And when Jesus commended the Good Samaritan for his sacrificial service in the rescue and recovery of the robbed and beaten man found on the Jericho Road, He did not command that the Samaritan plant the Jericho Road Social Justice Society.

There is a sense in which following Jesus is incredibly complicated and difficult. But there is another sense also, of its simplicity and ease. I mean, what is it that Jesus asks of us but to love God with all and to love our neighbors like we love ourselves, and like He loves us? So, in loving God and in Jesus' name be good to people, especially the church. Show kindness and be helpful when you have opportunity. Meet the needs you can meet, even when it means you go without something and/or are inconvenienced. But don't become overwhelmed with the expectations of anyone not named Jesus. Learn to say "No". Learn to walk away. Learn that Christ has not called you, the individual, to meet all of the needs and make all of the disciples; but to be one among many called the Church. And learn to quit some things. Believe Jesus when He says that He prefers happy to begrudging service; that an anxious and bothered spirit is not the price to be paid for meaningful good deeds. But neither should we avoid all service that is demanding, complicated and costly. It gets a bit tricky for us fallen creatures. So we should stay close to Jesus in the Gospels, and trust Him to teach us, and to forgive us when we screw it all up. He's good that way.

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