In fact, contrary to what many believe, it is the rich who needs the poor and not vice versa.
Take a look at 1 John 3.17…
If anyone has a surplus of the world’s goods and sees a brother in need and does not provide for him, does the love of Christ abide in him?
This is very important. Lets break it down to see why.
The rich are those who have a surplus of the world’s goods.
The poor here are no ordinary common poor. It refers to poor Christians, our own brothers and sisters in Christ (born again).
This is an important distinction because one way the church has avoided obeying God in this passage is to just simply say, they will help all poor in general (all the poor in the world).
This is a very insidious distortion of the text because while the church can help the poor outside (in Rwanda for example), they don’t need to lift a hand to help the poor inside their church. They can continue to tell their poor inside their church that the Republican idea or Wesleyan work ethics applies: every man for himself, each person has the same opportunity to rise up out of poverty if he works hard enough.
But God has no super agenda to help the world’s poor or to get rid of poverty in the world. God knows that until sin is dealt with, poverty will persist.
But God has an agenda to get rid of poverty inside the church!!!
God wants to put the church on display, to show to the world that if they repent and follow Jesus, they can enjoy a kingdom or a Messianic community that will live out the Kingdom that will demonstrate a kind of sharing that will permanently eliminate poverty.
God said that when the Israelites enter the Promised Land, there shall be no poor among them because God will not only give them the land, the cattle, the orchards, etc. God will also bless the work of their hands. All they needed to do was to share generously with those in need.
The poor will always be with them. It is a matter of economics. Those who are weak or not so intelligent will eventually become poor and those who are strong and quick witted will prosper, over time. Thus, an automatic corrective mechanism is set in place. At every cycle of 7 years or 70 years, a shuffling of wealth will be made, to ensure that those who have gathered much did not have too much and those who have gathered little, did not lack anything.
But the overall picture was this, God wanted to put on display the church, a beautiful community where there were no poor. This is part of the cosmic contest. God is in competition with Satan to show who has the better system and to attract followers through being the best.
God has no super agenda to get rid of poverty in the world but God wants to boast of his church as a place where there are no poor (a better system than Satan’s) and this is possible only because the people there have been set free from material bondage and thus can share generously to ensure that there are no poor among them.
Therefore, the command is first and foremost to help the poor inside the community of God (brothers and sisters helping one another or what is called the ‘ALLELON” principle in the bible – help one another, forgive one another, carry one another’s burden, love one another, and so on) and not avoid the command by saying, God called the church to help the poor in general (not the poor inside the church). The church is called to be an allelon community.
Besides, there will be a big anomaly when the poor outside, become Christians through the sharing of the church and now, as a believer, he enters the church only to be told that sharing that made him a believer is not practiced among the believers.
So what makes us think that we can demonstrate God’s kingdom among the poor unbelievers outside when we know it cannot even be done among believers, inside, among those who are the best candidates to live out the kingdom (because they are born again and because they have been set free from material bondage)? If believers can’t do it, all the more the unbelievers wont.
Now back to 1 John 3.17. The interaction works this way. The rich Christian sees a fellow Christian poor, a brother or sister in Christ who is in need. What does the rich person do? He ignores the poor person. Even though he knows, he does not do anything. Even though he has the power to help, he does not do anything.
The conclusion is both harsh and radical. The question is posed in a rhetorical manner: Does the love of Christ abide in him? And the sure answer is a big, “No.”
What does it imply? It is not about salvation. It is about spirituality. It means, all our quiet time, all our devotions, all our worship, all our prayers, all our fasting…. All these are in vain. They are empty because we did not take care of our poor brother (or sister). This is harsh.
In other words, the spirituality of the rich is authenticated by the way they treat their poor brothers and sisters. It is not required for the poor Christians. This is only for the rich Christians, those with a surplus of the world’s goods.
When we translate that further, we realize that it is the rich who needs the poor in order to authenticate their spirituality. This is radical.
If they don’t care for the poor, then their spirituality is empty. Christ is not in their prayers or worship or fasting, when they flagrantly ignore the poor.
To put it bluntly, the spirituality of the rich Christians is authentic only if they take care of their poor Christian brothers and sisters.
Of course we have learned to side step this by the simple expedient of separating the rich Christians from the poor Christians. The rich Christians worship in posh subdivisions and the poor Christians worship in slums. To remedy that, the rich must work to bring the two together into one worshiping community, with rich and poor worshipping side by side. This is a sign of the true church, that the rich and poor are worshipping together. A church of exclusively rich or exclusively poor believers is not biblical.
It is not the poor Christians who need to go to the exclusive villas to worship with the rich. It is the rich Christians who need to come down to the slums to join their poor brethren because it is they who need the poor. It is they who need to authenticate their spirituality. Also, they have cars.
I was in a church in Pretoria, South Africa one time. My host, a godly man with a beautiful heart, carefully explained to me their church. The first service, very early in the morning consisted of mostly rich Christians, who were eager to go afterwards to play golf.
The second service followed consisting of not so rich who desired as much to play golf, if they could.
The third service was almost lunch time and consisted of people who could not afford to play golf.
It sounds funny when you don’t know that South Africa has one of the world’s largest gaps between rich and poor. My host pointed out to me one time, a gardener quietly working on a plot of small flowering plants in a nice home. At the corner, outside the house, were about a dozen men, standing in a line as though waiting for a bus (there are almost no buses in Pretoria and everyone just casually walks ten miles or more each day).
He told me, that those men standing, where all waiting to take over the job of that poor guy doing the gardening! That happens on a daily basis. So if you talk about golf (a very extravagant recreation) inside a country where some of the poorest in the world live, it is not funny.
Some churches get away with murder by having several services like this one. They have the poor among them but these poor might as well be thousand of miles away. They are phariahs inside their own church and they are given token welcome (in a separate service just for the poor, so the rich don’t have to see them).
I was with Tim Keller in a talk in Cape Town, South Africa and what he said shocked me too. Talking about urban mission, he said, the goal was the rich people but the church also had to reach out to the poor in order to become credible.
I am offered a lot of money by rich Chinese churches to evangelize the poor or the slums around their churches, provided I don’t bring these poor people into their churches (when they are converted). In one such slum, the poor were actually living behind the altar of the rich Chinese church. The wall behind the altar was the big divider between the rich subdivision and the squatter community.
When I report to our donors that dozens of poor people have been baptized, it hardly deserves even a ho-hum. But when a celebrity is saved, the whole world celebrates. It seems the angels in heaven rejoice only when the rich become Christians.
I know that in heaven, there will be more poor people there than rich. The church today consists of 90% poor. Something has to give somewhere.