August 3, 2016

​The Least of These

The poor will always be with us, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it.

Timothy Nixon

“Then the Lord told him, ‘I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. . . . Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt’ ” (Ex. 3:7-10, NLT).1

This passionate prose introduces us to Yahweh and His intimate concern for the welfare of His people, Israel. Notice the personal interest God takes in their dilemma. He sees their oppression and hears their cries for justice. The word “people,” here grammatically either singular or plural, suggests that God noticed the individual as well as the institutional cries of oppression and injustice of His people.2

Fundamental to God

However, God’s concern for Israel is neither exclusive nor unique. Throughout the Scriptures God demonstrates a consistent commitment to the poor and the oppressed. He identifies with them, provides for their needs, and defends them when they are mistreated. The psalmist writes, “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Ps. 140:12).

God stands with those who cannot defend themselves and serves as their advocate. God identifies with downtrodden and destitute people so intimately that He equates caring for them with caring for Him: “Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the Lord, and the Lord will fully repay them” (Prov. 19:17, CEB).3 Hundreds of texts express God’s deep concern for those who are poor, oppressed, disadvantaged and downtrodden. Ron Sider devotes nearly 200 pages of his book Cry Justice to biblical passages expressing God’s love and commitment for poor individuals.4

God expects His followers to have the same concern for oppressed persons as He does. He warned Israel to never mistreat immigrants, widows, or orphans, the most vulnerable and defenseless individuals in the Jewish community (Ex. 22:21-24). Believers were encouraged to be generous to those who were destitute and downtrodden (Deut. 15:13-15).

Jesus commanded His disciples to invite those who were poor and disabled to their homes for fellowship meals (Luke 14:12-14; Heb. 13:1-3). In the final judgment, Jesus places our service to the ‘least of these’ as evidence of our conversion (Matt. 25:34-46).

John asks this sobering question: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17).

Jesus’ Ministry to the Margins

As noted by Ellen White, Jesus directed His ministry to the outcasts and downtrodden of society: “Christ might have occupied the highest place among the teachers of the Jewish nation, but He preferred rather to take the gospel to the poor. . . . By the sea, on the mountainside, in the streets of the city, in the synagogue, His voice was heard explaining the Scriptures. Often He taught in the outer court of the temple, that the Gentiles might hear His words.”5

Announcing His ministry in Nazareth, Jesus reaffirmed the divine commitment to the oppressed established in the Old Testament. His words are penetrating and specific: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19).

Is the prophetic calling limited to foretelling the future, or does its role extend to addressing the issues of the present?

The emphasis and trajectory of Jesus’ ministry were very clear. He focused on the marginalized and oppressed of society. He identified with the plight and concerns of the disenfranchised and deprived, and ultimately was executed as one of them, railroaded through an illegal court without due process. He was sentenced without the benefit of an appeal and hastily received capital punishment.

Defending the Downtrodden

The Scriptures are clear. The Godhead actively participates in the affairs of humanity to defend the rights of those who are oppressed and downtrodden. And given “the biblical emphasis on liberation, it seems not only appropriate but necessary to define the Christian community as the community . . . which joins Jesus Christ in his fight for the liberation of humankind.”6

Unfortunately, Christians have often been hesitant to follow their Lord and imitate His actions: “Christendom has often achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder.”7 In an ironic turn, Christians have sometimes “found that it was easier to give to Caesar the things belonging to Caesar if the examination of what might belong to God were not too closely pressed.”8

Heaven may well cringe at the excuses we offer for our inactivity, when God has been so clear and specific. The numbers that represent the challenges of poverty and oppression are too great for our proper comprehension: 795 million people undernourished in 2014-2016, with 131 million of them children under the age of 5; 3.1 million children die annually because they are undernourished, with poverty being the major cause of their hunger. More than 1 billion poor people in developing countries live on $1.25 a day or less. In all, 2.2 billion people lived on less than US$2.00 a day in 2011.9

By incongruous contrast, 1 percent of the world’s population owns 50.4 percent of all household wealth.10 And while these inequities exist, millions of intellectually paralyzed Christians are seen to stand silently by, inept and immobile, unable to find any meaningful way to address, for God, the challenges of our common globe.

The paragraphs that follow cite two realities that should compel Seventh-day Adventists to respond to the global challenges of poverty and oppression presently facing the world.

A Fundamental Truth

The command of Jesus to present the gospel to every creature under heaven is “good news.” It is not a dualist message that disregards the physical body to focus on the immortal soul. It is a word of deliverance from sin and Satan that brings not only spiritual freedom but also physical and social liberation, reparation, and restoration as well.

Old Testament “good news” focused on the presence of Yahweh and His kingdom in the human experience. To this Soong-Chan Rah writes, “In Isaiah 52:7, we see the declaration of the good news. The passage (paraphrased) proclaims: ‘How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news. Announcing peace and proclaiming news of happiness, that Our God Reigns.’ Good news in the Hebrew context means the reign of God is here.”11 The gospel announces a change from human reign to divine reign and the liberation the salvation in Christ brings to every facet of our human experience. The gospel commission compels us to present the good news of ongoing salvation that changes the human condition, addresses all its ills (whether material or immaterial), and transforms lives and relationships.

A second compelling reality for Seventh-day Adventists is the church’s prophetic calling as laid out in our Fundamental Belief 13.12 Adventists may at times see this calling through too narrow a lens. What does it mean to be the “remnant church of Bible prophecy?” Is the prophetic calling limited to foretelling the future, or does its role extend to addressing the issues of the present?

The seers of the Old Testament consistently addressed the issues of their day as part of their prophetic office. That Spirit that moved ancient prophets of God now calls Adventists to be ready for God’s final work of judgment, and to awaken the world to it. Our prophetic role must and will include calling the world into account, ourselves included, for our treatment of others. It is a call to examine our humanity, our stewardship and our responsibility to our fellow human beings.

Our gospel call remains incomplete if it proclaims to others the Sabbath and sanctuary doctrines while we neglect to be God’s voice and hands for those who are poor, disadvantaged, and oppressed. Jesus’ scenario of final judgment most specifically reminds us all that our salvation will be determined, in part, by how we have treated the least of His people (Matt. 25:31-46).

Donald Hilliard notes that “the poor, needy and oppressed of the world are the objects of God’s greatest . . . concern. The Bible . . . demonstrates that God judges nations and societies according to the way they treat the poorest and neediest in their midst.”13 As the Seventh-day Adventist Church grows in understanding of the implications of Fundamental Belief 13, our neighbors on earth will be blessed by our discharge of our God-assigned prophetic role, as we show ourselves to be not just a church that foretells (visions the future) but also forth-tells (visits the present).

A Final Word

There have been those who see social issues as secular subjects that should not be mixed with religious and spiritual matters. Decades ago, when this charge was leveled against the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., responded that the struggle for civil rights was the most important religious cause of the day because it presented the nation with the opportunity to solve its greatest moral failure: racial prejudice and discrimination.14

The gross economic and social inequities that characterize our world today demonstrate that we still face a serious moral challenge. As the cries of the oppressed reach the ears of the Lord of hosts (see James 5:4), two haunting questions still rise. They are the old query of murderous Cain and the self-justifying retort from a lawyer of Jesus’ day: Who is my neighbor? Am I my brother’s keeper?

The Seventh-day Adventist Church may yet answer these important questions with a worldwide response of compassionate Christian love and service that fulfills the duty of our prophetic office, that will allow our Lord to say, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

  1. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  2. William H. C. Propp, Old Testament Exodus I-XVIII-Commentaries, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, Random House, Inc., 1964, 1998), vol. 2, p. 184.
  3. Scripture quotations marked CEB are from the Common English Bible, copyright 2011. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  4. Ronald J. Sider, Cry Justice: The Bible Speaks on Hunger and Poverty (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980).
  5. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 43.
  6. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986, 1990), p. 3.
  7. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, (New York, NY.: The New American Library, Inc., 1975), p. 3.
  8. Ibid.
  11. Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), p. 109.
  12. “The universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ, but in the last days, a time of widespread apostasy, a remnant has been called out to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. This remnant announces the arrival of the judgment hour, proclaims salvation through Christ, and heralds the approach of His second advent. This proclamation is symbolized by the three angels of Revelation 14; it coincides with the work of judgment in heaven and results in a work of repentance and reform on earth. Every believer is called to have a personal part in this worldwide witness” (Seventh-day Adventists Believe [Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005], p. 181).
  13. Donald Hilliard, Church Growth From an African American Perspective (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 2006), p. 38.
  14. Albert Raboteau, Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 2001), p. 110.

Tim Nixon is executive secretary of the Lake Region Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.