I recently gave a talk to Bible scholars to encourage involvement in gospel outreach to the poor, elderly, and marginalised with London City Mission. We got onto the topic of “mercy ministries” and it was suggested that the “Good is the enemy of the best”, and perhaps we should be spending more time preparing sermons and less time organising foodbanks. My response was that we need to be “both and” Christians who obey the 2 GCs. We need to obey the Great Commission to preach the good news & make disciples, and we need to obey the Great Commandment to love God & love our neighbour. We then got onto the question of who we should be loving. “Surely the bulk of our love should be reserved for our fellow Christians?” This led to the question, “So who exactly is my neighbour?”, at which point I told a story.
An African student was walking along Oxford Street, after his fellowship group, on his way to his hall of residence. As he walked he was brutally assaulted. His wallet and phone were stolen, he was knifed and left half dead in a shop doorway.
Now by coincidence a vicar was walking along the road that night. He saw the body in the doorway and felt troubled but he had a sermon to write. “I need to give priority to the ministry of the word, I mustn’t be distracted by the needs of every tramp on the street”, he thought as he passed by on the other side of the road.
By further coincidence a Bible study leader was also walking down the road. “I need to look after the needs of my study group, I don’t have time to meet the needs of the world”, he thought as he walked past quickly.
A church member was also walking along the road on the way to a late night sale at Selfridge’s. He saw blood tricking from the body and thought, “Oh my goodness those awful black gangs have brought their knife crime to the heart of London” as he jumped in a taxi to to the safety of home.
Finally a Romanian gypsy spotted the body. He quickly applied pressure to the wound and did emergency first aid. He called an ambulance and accompanied the body to the hospital. There was confusion at the hospital about whether the injured man was eligible for free NHS treatment so the Romanian handed over his bank card and said, “please charge all of his treatment to me, I’ll be back tomorrow and I’ll ask my cousin for extra money if it is needed”.
After telling the story I asked the students, “Which one of these acted as a good neighbour to the African student?”.
“The Romanian gypsy”, was the unanimous opinion.
“Well we must go and do likewise”.
When we start debating the, “Who is it that I need to love?” question we are falling into the trap of the Pharisees. The question should never be, “How few people can I love?” Jesus made it clear that narrow categories need to be exploded. We are to love across cross-cultural boundaries. We are to love the Samaritan. We are to love even our enemy. The Bible shows us that Christians are not only to love fellow Christians (of course we must especially love them), but we are to love the poor, the needy, the elderly, and the foreigner in our midst. (Zech 7). The New Testament Church also didn’t just leave this love to the goodwill of individual believers. When brothers and sisters in Jerusalem suffered a famine the entire church network across the Middle East pulled together in a fund raising plan to support fellow believers (2 Cor 9).
This blog is not an exhaustive discussion of the risks and benefits of engaging in mercy ministry. There are many more issues to discuss; rice bowl Christianity, manipulation of needy people, the unconditionally of love, creation of a dependence culture,… to name but a few. I want to explode the myth that loving the needy is a competitor of the work of preaching the good news to the lost. To be unloving is to sub-Christian, and as mature believers we are called to follow the full counsel of God, 100% Christians not sub-Christians. We are called to love the needy, to bind up the wounds of the broken hearted. We are called to make disciples of all nations, and we are called to teach the full counsel of God. In God’s economy this is not an either/or decision. The good is not the enemy of the best. Wise expenditure on reaching out with love to the needy does not push out expenditure on gospel ministry. Our Father ‘has the cattle on a thousand hills’. He has plenty of time and resources to reach out with love to the elderly widow living next door and also preach the Word of God to the ends of the Earth. As we fall to our knees faced with the needs of a lost world we will be equipped with what we need to both support the needs of our famine stricken brothers and sisters in the church of Antioch and the resources to plant new churches on the council estates of Dagenham. We have a big God. He will achieve big plans.