Month: April 2015

Why does God care for the poor?

From “Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Hidden Kingdom” by Rupen Das.

Why does it seem that the poor are important to God? If God’s mission is to save humanity by forgiving their sin and rebellion through Jesus Christ, why is there so much in the Bible about compassion and care of the poor, the broken, and those who live in the margins of society? Are they just ethical teachings and commands that should define society whenever possible or is compassion fundamental to the Christian faith? Why is God so concerned about a broken world?

Jürgen Moltmann writes about the crucified God. He refers to the Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s concept of the pathos of God. This pathos is not what he calls “irrational human emotions”, but describes a God who is affected by events, human actions and suffering in history. Moltmann writes, “He is affected by them because he is interested in his creation, his people…”[1] This pathos is contrasted with the apatheia of the gods that Judaism and early Christianity encountered in the religions of the ancient world. Apatheia was their inability to feel or be influenced. Centuries later the Church encountered Islam, where God is not one who knows suffering and therefore cannot relate to the problem of human suffering. For most people God remains distant and uncaring.

Bruce Fawcett, the President of Crandall University in New Brunswick, Canada illustrates how and why the poor and vulnerable affect God. He muses that suppose one of your children was severely disabled. While you would love all your children equally, you would have a special concern and love for your disabled child because of his or her inability to function fully in society and because of their dependence on others. This child’s disability and his needs would influence all your decisions and you would even write your will keeping this child in mind. The poor, similarly, are unable to function and participate fully in society as God intends all His children to, which is the reason for God’s “preferential option for the poor”.[2]

                  The Parable of the Refugee – Understanding how God felt

Imagine for a moment, refugees running away from their homes. They don’t have to be Syrian or Iraqi refugees; they could be anyone, anywhere fleeing devastation. Now picture one of the refugees returning to his devastated home. It does not look like what he had built. All that he had lovingly made is broken, destroyed or missing. Imagine his emotion, seeing the extent to which his home has been destroyed beyond recognition. Everything he had built and made with his own hands and his labour, is now destroyed and unrecognizable.

Now consider how God would have felt entering this world in the person of His Son. This world does not look like what He had created. All He had loving made is broken or destroyed, especially that which He made with His own hands and into whom He breathed His own spirit. This living being is broken and not functioning the way He intended and planned. Imagine God’s emotion at seeing the extent to which His creation has been destroyed, and feel the urgency in His mind, that this must be put right, ASAP![3]

The evidence of the pathos of God, of Him being affected by the darkness and evil that has warped His creation, is the incarnation, where God identifies Himself as Immanuel – God with us. Because of the incarnation, He understands the depth of human suffering and says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28) He answers the prayers of those who cry out to Him in desperation. “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (Jn 14:13-14)

This astounding offer not only transforms the nature of prayer but also offers insight into the character of God. Prayer then is no longer just worshiping a powerful god out of fear in order to appease him. Neither is prayer a petition to a god asking for mercy and favor, not knowing if he hears, much less answers. When the church members who were providing assistance to the Syrian refugees asked them if they could pray for them, many would comment, “You mean God would hear if I prayed. You mean He cares.” They were surprised that God would be concerned for their pain and struggles. They were encountering a God whose very nature was to “defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” He rescues the weak and the needy; 
delivers them from the hand of the wicked. (Ps.82: 2-4)

Compassion was what motivated Jesus in His ministry. The disciple Matthew having observed Jesus firsthand writes in 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” When He healed, it was because He was moved with compassion (Matt. 20:34, Mk. 1:41, 9:22) When He taught using parables, Jesus spoke about the compassion a father felt towards a rebellious son (Lk. 15:20). The Greek word is splanchnizomai and literally means, “to be moved in the inward parts.” It connotes a strong physical and emotional reaction, “a gut wrenching response.”[4] Unfortunately the word “compassion” has come to mean feeling sorry for someone or a mental attitude of pity at someone’s misfortune. The word splanchnizomai only occurs in the Gospels and is only used to describe Jesus’ reactions. “It is used…to describe the attitude of Jesus to people defined as the [multitudes] and the action that ensues from that attitude…”[5]

The pathos of God is not just a sense of sadness or an intellectual acknowledgement that there is something wrong with the world that He had created. For Jesus it was a gut wrenching reaction as He saw the lostness of people, the poor who were victims of injustice, those with crippling diseases and illness, the premature death of the young, and the abuse of the human beings He had created. Compassion is a divine attribute fundamental to God’s nature. It defines Him.

[1] Moltmann, The Crucified God, 270.

[2] Personal conversation with Bruce Fawcett. The terms “preferential option for the poor” is a term used extensively by Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez.

[3] Kalyan Das, Sermon preached at Botley Baptist Church, Oxford, UK on October 12, 2014.

[4] D. Preman Niles, From East and West: Rethinking Christian Mission (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 79.

[5] Ibid, 79.