Mercy ministry, or caring for and loving our neighbor, is a difficult thing to do. We are commanded to care for those in need and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The question “who is my neighbor” begs to be answered, though.
Jesus responds to this question in Luke 10 by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can understand from the context that Jesus isn’t saying that our neighbors are our friends, and not merely the people living next to us – that would be too easy. Our neighbor, as Tim Keller defines the word in Mercies of Ministry: The Call of the Jericho Road, is anyone in need.
I have been guilty of using excuses for not caring for those in need. But “I don’t have time” or “I don’t have the resources” or “Someone else has better gifts than me” or “Someone else will do it” are NOT valid. The Bible doesn’t just suggest that we take care of our neighbors in need, we are commanded to. 1 John 3:17, 18 says that if we see our brother in need, and close our heart to him, God’s love does not abide in us. John then tells us to not only “talk the talk” but to back our words up with actions – “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth.”
James also warns against the foolishness of just wishing well on people. In James 2:15, 16, James writes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” Sometimes wishing people well and saying that we will pray for them isn’t enough – we are called to physically meet the needs of our neighbors.
Amos 2 also teaches that ignoring the needs of the poor is comparable to sins of idolatry and adultery.
Further, in Matthew 25, Jesus describes Judgment Day, and how the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. He will turn to the sheep on his right and invite them to inherit the kingdom of God because “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” To those goats on His left, he will cast them into eternal fire because, “…as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Ministering to those in need doesn’t seem like an option in Scripture.
It is easy to judge those in need and think that they don’t deserve mercy perhaps because of poor decisions – maybe they could have been more careful and prevented these situations. I have been guilty of these very thoughts, and my eyes were opened when I considered, in this study, that I was in the same state as the traveler in need on the Jericho road. My condition in God’s eyes was that of total depravity – I could do nothing to save myself. I was in need of God’s abundant mercy and grace for salvation – but I certainly don’t deserve it because of my sinfulness.
When we think about God’s mercy and grace to us in our helpless, sinful state, how can we not show a fraction of that mercy to those in need? The parable in Matthew 18 is about a king who pardoned his servant of an astounding amount of debt. The servant then goes to one who owed him a small sum of money and throws him in jail until he repays it. God has forgiven our debt; we have the opportunity to do the same through mercy ministry.
This type of ministry isn’t supposed to be just an at-the-surface type of giving, either. 1 Timothy 6 teaches that we are to be content, and trust the Lord for provision. If we are to also give generously to the poor, how do we reconcile giving generously and trusting God? If we give just enough so that we don’t lower our standard of living, is that enough? Absolutely not! If everyone did this, everyone would adapt and justify not giving to the poor. No one would be left to care for them. Instead, the Bible teaches that we are to bear each other’s burdens – we should give until we suffer like the poor suffer. If we aren’t giving enough to be burdened ourselves, is that bearing someone else’s burden?
At the same time, we are not to give so much away that our families become a burden to others – we are to care for our families (1 Timothy 5:8, Proverbs 6:8). We must find a balance, and it includes fighting the rationalization that we are taking care of our family and thus can’t give more to mercy ministry.
We are commanded to share Christ’s love with others by both word and deed – not one or the other. In many cases ministering to others’ physical needs is a means of softening their heart to be receptive to the Gospel. Word and deeds are not totally separate ministries. Helping someone with the mindset that they need to reciprocate this generosity with hearing the Gospel is wrong. Both are means to the single end of the spread of the kingdom of God. Keller gives the example of deed and word ministry as a tree. The roots are the Gospel, which will build the kingdom of God. The two branches are word and deed ministry. If we cut out any part then we will not have a flourishing tree.
Elizabeth and I are graduate students living in Virginia Beach, and I work for a non-profit. When we compare ourselves to worldly standards, it is easy for us to fall into discontent or covetousness because we can’t “keep up with the Joneses.” But when we look at it from a Scriptural standpoint, we have been blessed far more than we could ever deserve – in our salvation, redemption, and daily provisions. We might have to get creative to show mercy to others. We are praying right now about going to Lagniappe Church in Bay St. Louis over Christmas. We both have about a week off, and want to contribute as much as we can to the work down there. There is so much more to do. Visit PrayForTheBay.com to learn more, or better yet, come with us!