Jesus never asked us to serve the poor.
He asked us to do something far more radical: he commanded us to seek his kingdom. It is impossible to seek the kingdom without serving the poor and seeking justice.
However, it is possible to serve the poor without seeking the kingdom. That is called humanitarianism and it leads to excellent, sacrificial and essential work. It is a good thing – but I want more than that. I want to seek the kingdom of God.
In the kingdom, it is neither adequate to lift people out of poverty today if they are to face eternal poverty, nor to introduce people to the eternal riches of Christ if they are fighting to survive today.
There is lots of ‘evangelistic’ work that neglects the context of people’s lives, and there is plenty of humanitarian work that neglects the context of eternity. I want to reject both extremes. And I want the next generation of Christians not simply to be great social workers or powerful evangelists, but to rediscover God’s holistic mission.
The gospel is diminished if all we have are words spoken without a deep involvement in people’s lives. It is diminished if, rather than seeking the kingdom of ‘justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’, we use our religion only as a safety net when things go wrong or as a comfortable gloss on a materially successful lifestyle.
The gospel is also diminished if we act without speaking, serve without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and touch people’s physical, social and emotional needs while ignoring their spiritual needs.
When we look at the example of Jesus, we see him touching people’s lives in their entirety. At the feeding of the 5,000, our Lord was just as concerned with feeding people’s bodies as he had been for feeding their spirits.
When Jesus met the woman at the well, he was challenging racial and gender prejudice, moving in the supernatural and doing what we would call evangelism. When he turned over the tables at the temple, he was re-establishing true worship, confronting an unjust economic system and defending the poor.
When the early church chose deacons to manage its social care programme, they were men who worked with signs and wonders and who were also leading people to personal salvation. The description of the first Christians in Acts chapters 2 and 4 shows a community committed to worship and prayer, teaching and miracles, all the context of powerful social care and action.