I stopped giving to the poor some time ago, and I think the church should stop too. By giving to the poor, I mean acts of service that merely shift material resources in one direction – from those who have to those who have not.

Service of this kind addresses the immediate material symptoms but ignores the deprivation of relationship, opportunity and equality that surround those we seek to serve. This form of giving reinforces the social barriers of them and us’, forming Christian service as little more than good people doing kind things to poor people.

I stopped giving to the poor when I grasped the biblical posture for service requires a radical reimagination of social relationships, through the creation of Christ’s new community – the church.

Lockdowns have intensified existing divisions in our communities. As we, the church, continue to respond, let us seize the opportunity to explore the fullness of Christian service. So, how should the church serve the real, raw needs in our communities?


Parable #1: Them and us

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 – 31) has always mystified me. Jesus’ hearers are confronted with two men inhabiting both sides of a human divide: one who has, one who has not. The rich man enjoys abundance of wealth, food, clothing and company; Lazarus, poor, sick and alone, takes shelter on his doorstep and is given the daily leftovers from his overflowing feast.

Common interpretations accuse the rich man of failing to serve this man in his poverty, but this is not the case. How many of us so regularly feed and house destitute people, right on our front doorsteps? So, what is the cause of this rich man’s condemnation, and what do we learn about service in Jesus’ social story?

The rich man is anonymous, allowing Jesus’ audience to identify with him. However, Jesus gives the poor man a name, and with it an identity, a dignity, a personhood. The rich man gave to the nameless poor’ – to poverty, to homelessness – but in a detached posture, that denied and overlooked their shared humanity.

Lazarus is the name Jesus gives this man, echoing his brotherly bond with the man whose Bethany home became Jesus’ place of belonging (Luke 10:38 – 42, John 11). While in death, the rich man shows concern for five brothers, in life he failed to embrace Lazarus as brother and offer him a place of belonging. The rich man gave from the overflow of abundance but failed to give from the depths of his personhood – his table and time, his family and heart, his social connections and opportunities.

Reducing Lazarus to an objective recipient of charity, the rich man offered almsgiving without love, which in the biblical vision of service counts as empty (1 Corinthians 13:3). Jesus teaches us that service is quintessentially love for another, most fully expressed in presence and mutual friendship. May we not in our foodbanks and drop-in centres perform transactional acts of service, empty of love. May we see beyond the poverty and debt, disability and addiction, to perceive, like Lazarus, the image-bearing humanity that flourishes most fully when rooted in community and purpose.

Parable #2: Who, us?

Jesus presents a different posture of service in Matthew 25:31 – 46. In this parable, the final judgement is based on two different responses to the least of these” – the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned. The righteous inherit the kingdom, while the other group is destined for eternal condemnation.

The surprising element of this parable is how oblivious the righteous’ are to their acts of service. There is no scheduled project, no weekly programme, no sentiment of pride. The service that Jesus honours is a practical loving response to human need; it is an unforced, genuine welcome that regularly embraces those in need.

This kind of service extends well beyond basic human needs (food, water, clothes). It offers welcome, dignity and belonging through the richest yet costliest resource we own – our whole human selves. The righteous shared not only the gospel, but also their whole lives” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). In this posture, service reforms them and us’ into a new community through shared humanity, genuine love and mutual friendship.

Even more surprising is that the Son of Man identified not as those who give but in those who were fed, clothed and served. Jesus’ hearers would recognise Him as the suffering servant, despised and rejected, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53). We too remember Jesus’ servant kingship that shaped not just His death but His whole life – and that of His followers.

The righteous are declared so, not because they performed acts of service, but because of the nature of their service. Their unassuming way of life was evidence that they had the mind of Christ…who emptied Himself…even unto death” (Philippians 2:5 – 8).

Loving friendship

Translated into our 2021 communities, Jesus not only serves those living in unemployment, debt, hunger, mental ill-health, and trauma; He fully identifies as one of these people, retaining His kingship. Do we expect to encounter Jesus and His kingdom among the least of these”? Offering our whole selves in loving friendship to those on the margins becomes the place of our deepest kingdom formation. 

"The cross often makes no sense in the world, but when it is lived out in a countercultural cross-centric community, it seems to answer the heart cry of the watching world."

Jesus knew this: He repeatedly moved His disciples into the highways and byways, instructing them to bring an individual to Him. Moving towards community needs, being present with individuals requires us, like the disciples, to see faces, use names, place hands and form words to those who we had served from a distance. Walking towards Jesus together in this posture enables us to receive the mutual transformation and depth of discipleship that, perhaps, we do not expect.

In this posture, as church, our buildings, schedules and services facilitate a community of sanctuary and restoration for the whole person. We offer not only tinned food and coffee but share our educational and employment opportunity, our voices and influence. In this posture, as church, my life and yours become places of welcome and friendship. As I have shared myself – my home, table, family and heart with those in deepest need – I have experienced deepest transformation out of my materialism, consumerism and selfishness. In this posture, we see the king more clearly and enter His kingdom more fully.

The cross often makes no sense in the world, but when it is lived out in a countercultural cross-centric community, it seems to answer the heart cry of the watching world. Our culture, hungry for an alternative community shaped by justice and reconciliation, no longer asks, Is the Christian faith true? Prove it!”, but probes, Is the Christian faith authentic, does it work, is it beautiful? Show me!” When the church adopts this form of service, a new community is birthed that does not only minister to but witnesses with those we come to serve.

Christian service among our COVID-impacted communities requires us to read scripture not to but with others in raw human need, exploring afresh together: what is the good news that Jesus proclaimed (Luke 4:18 – 19) for today’s afflicted people? What does kingdom come’ look like for the single mother in food poverty, the child in the care system, the young people plagued by mental ill-health? And how must we, the church, proclaim this good news in our communities this year?

Service in kingdom come prays and acts for earthly social divisions to be remade – just as it is in heaven. Christianity impacted history, not primarily as a doctrine to believe, but as a new social order to live under. To the real human needs in their first century cities, the early church offered themselves in word and deed as people of the cross – and attracted exponential converts into their community. They made the good news known, by making the good news real in raw human need. Christian service in the biblical vision extends project to personhood and infuses programme with presence. I stopped giving to the poor some time ago, and I think the church should stop too.