Jesus, the Gospel, and the Poor

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From the Mosaic covenant to the promises of the gospel, the Bible is continually pointing to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the needy, and the oppressed.

The Old Testament reveals several significant, surprising facts about God’s attitude toward the poor. We read that the Lord especially loves the poor and does not forget them. God’s anointed one “delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Psalm 72:12–13). The Lord “does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Psalm 9:12). God has been “a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress” (Isaiah 25:4).

But what of Jesus and the poor? Did Jesus play down the Old Testament emphasis, or did he affirm it? Several facts about Jesus’ attitude toward the poor can be discerned in the Gospels.

1. Jesus made the preaching of the gospel to the poor a validation of his own ministry. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). And he cited Isaiah 61 to show by what marks his gospel could be known. He plainly said that it was his practice and conscious intent to preach his gospel especially to the poor. (Compare Matthew 11:1–6.)

2. Jesus believed the poor were more ready and able to understand and accept his gospel. An amazing thing, and how different from common attitudes in the church today! On one occasion Jesus prayed, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will” (Matthew 11:25–26). Here Jesus indicated that “the wise and understanding”—the sophisticated, the educated, those of higher social status—find the gospel difficult to accept, a stumbling block, while “babes”—those of little sophistication and understanding—are quick to grasp the meaning of, and accept, the good news. Clearly the poor are in the latter category. “While he was Lord of the whole world, he preferred children and ignorant persons to the wise,” said John Calvin (Commentary on Luke).

3. Jesus specifically directed the gospel call to the poor. He said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Despite the almost universal tendency to spiritualize these words, by the context it seems clear that Jesus was speaking, in the first place, literally. Jesus’ call was preeminently to the poor—those who, of all people, are the most wearied and burdened, not only spiritually but also from long hours of physical labor and the various oppressions known only to the poor. To these—not exclusively, but preeminently—Jesus was speaking. Walter Rauschenbusch was right when he said, “The fundamental sympathies of Jesus were with the poor and oppressed.” (Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century)

4. On several occasions Jesus recommended showing partiality to the poor. (See, for example, Matthew 19:21; Luke 12:33; 14:12–14.) In this he was in complete harmony with the spirit of God’s revelation in the Old Testament. In short, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, demonstrated the same attitude toward the poor that God revealed in the Old Testament. Though the Savior of all men, he looked with special compassion upon the poor. He purposely took the gospel to the poor, and specifically called attention to what he was doing.

This is, in summary, the biblical evidence. That there is biblical evidence for God’s particular concern for the poor is obvious if one takes the trouble to look for it.

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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