The Prophet Isaiah
Isaiah, son of Amoz, lived over 2700 years ago. He was a poetic prophet who spoke of judgment and yet of hope. In Isaiah 58, the question is raised as to whether service to God consists primarily of worship or of works of love for needy people. This question has relevance to every Christian and every church in the world today. Like ancient Israel, we can easily become immune to the desperate needs in our world today. At times, we too need to be stirred from our lethargy and indifference and to seek to meet the needs of people around us – many of them facing things such as poverty, homelessness, and oppression.
Isaiah lived during a time when God’s people were very focused on their worship to God – carefully following the right religious rituals. Yet from God’s perspective they had forsaken his commands and were in a state of rebellion (see vs.1-3). The evidence of this was the fact that their engagement in religious activities was for their own benefit. Like the pagans, they were seeking to manipulate God to act in their favour. They were getting caught up in things that God had not commanded (like fasts) and were neglecting what God had commanded (compassion for the poor and needy).
The people were fasting at this time to get God’s attention and to receive a special blessing from God. Because the benefit had not come, they were complaining to God (vs.3). The prophet considered the people’s worship hypocritical because it had no noticeable effect on their daily lives. They were engaging in their worship services and their spiritual disciplines primarily for their own benefit, not for God’s.
Isaiah goes on to inform the people that their acts of worship weren’t enough to please God (vs.4-5). The kind of fasting God desired was not the kind that the people were performing at that time, but a fast that consisted in feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked (vs.10-11). The purpose of this kind of service was to relieve suffering. That was a service acceptable to God.Poverty Facts
Accurate statistics are difficult but the World Bank estimates that 1.2 billion people currently live in desperate poverty – trying to survive on one dollar or less a day. In addition to these 1.2 billion who live in almost absolute poverty, another 1.6 billion are very poor, living on two dollars or less a day. That means just a little less than half of the world’s people (2.8 billion) try to survive on two dollars a day or less [2003 statistics – World Bank Development Report]. Hunger and starvation stalk our world. Famine and disease are alive and well on planet Earth. The news is not all bad. Thankfully there has been a lot of progress in the last thirty years. Chronic undernourishment has dropped from 35% back in 1970 to 17% of the world’s population in 2002 (32 years later), in spite of rapid population growth. But there are new challenges such as AIDS, terrorism, materialism and consumerism, and the breakdown of the family.God’s Heart for the Poor and Needy
It is an interesting exercise to look through the Bible for every single reference to: poor people, to wealth and poverty, to injustice and oppression, and to what the response to all of those subjects is to be from the people of God. Here is what you will discover: There are several 1000s of verses in the Bible on the poor and God’s response to injustice. In fact it is the second most prominent theme in the Old Testament. The first is idolatry, and the two are often related. 1 in every 16 verses in the New Testament is about the poor or the subject of money. In the first three gospels (the Synoptics), it is 1 out of every 10 verses, and in the book of Luke, it is 1 out of every 7. If you took a pair of scissors and cut out each one of these verses you would end up with a “Bible full of holes” when it comes to the question of the poor. In the Bible, you will find the poor everywhere, yet the subject has not been very often found in the church. Have we in many ways cut out these verses … simply by ignoring them or paying no attention to them? Is it possible to really love the Bible, believe that we are basing our lives upon it, and yet be completely missing one of its most central themes?
“Poor” in the Scripture means low economic status usually due to calamity or some form of oppression. Of course, some people are poor because they are lazy and slothful. Revealing the poor is a prophetic task. The poor are there: in God’s heart and in Christ’s compassion. They are also all around us – if we open our eyes.
The theme of God’s heart for the poor and needy continues into the New Testament as well. Just consider Jesus’ teaching on who will inherit a place in the kingdom of God (Matt.25:31-46). It is reserved for those who feed the hungry, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoners. For Jesus, caring for the poor and outcast is the same as caring for him. In effect, Jesus is saying, “I’ll know how much you love me by how you treat them. Whatever you do for them, it’s like you’ve done it for me. And conversely, ignoring them is like ignoring me.” Does “the least of these” (vs.45) only refer to Christians who are ‘poor believers’? Even if it does, there are other parts of Jesus’ teaching that extend the meaning to both believers and unbelievers who are poor and oppressed. The story of the Good Samaritan teaches that anybody in need is our neighbour (Lk.10:29-37). Paul later says, “Therefore as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal.6:10). Poverty is not a “left-wing” political issue; it is a Christian issue.How Should We Then Live?
Sometimes we are tempted to despair or be cynical; thinking that things are hopeless and that nothing we do makes any difference. We can’t do everything but we can do something.
- Firstly, become more aware of the issues. Inform yourself. Read some good books on these topics (e.g. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider, Make Poverty Personal by Ash Barker, and The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs).
- Secondly, reflect on your own values and lifestyle. Reject advertising that seeks to seduce you into buying one luxury after another. Distinguish between necessities and luxuries. Don’t buy things just because you can afford them. Question your own lifestyle, not your neighbours. Consider simplifying your own lifestyle. Spend less and give more away.
- Thirdly, get involved. Take action. There are many reputable organisations committed to the relief of poverty and to helping the oppressed and the needy. Here are just a few of them: Compassion International, World Vision, Micah Challenge, and Opportunity International. Volunteer, help out, and make a financial donation. You can do the same locally through our own community ministry, CityLife Community Care. Don’t just give financially, get involved personally. Make time to serve Jesus through a poor and needy person.
God is not just looking for our worship or our engagement in religious activities. He is looking for our love for him demonstrated through our love for the poor and needy in our world. Ask God to fill you afresh with his compassion. Make justice, love, and mercy your priorities. Be part of the solution.Sample Discussion Questions
- The Bible refers to God’s heart for the poor and the needy frequently. Do you think that this theme is talked about enough in the church or has it been somewhat overlooked?
- The people in the time for Isaiah were caught up in their worship of God and religious observances. Is it possible for us to do the same today? How is this demonstrated?
- Discuss Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt.25:31-46). Why do you think Jesus makes care for the poor and needy THE issue by which he evaluates his followers in this story – rather than doctrine, personal holiness, or something else?
- What practical things could each person do to demonstrate a greater concern for the poor and needy in our world on a regular basis?
- What practical things could our LifeGroup do to demonstrate a greater concern for the poor and needy in our world on a regular basis?
- Read and discuss these Bible verses: Psalm 41:1-3; 140:12. Proverbs 14:31; 19:17; 21:13. Amos 5:24. James 2:15. 1 John 3:17-18.