by Wolf Michalke
What’s the first thing we think of when we examine ourselves to see if our lives reflect our faith? Is it, “I’m active in my local church and contribute regularly to its ministries”? Or, “I always find opportunities to share the Gospel with my neighbors”? While these are important, they aren’t the first thing that James has in mind. In his letter to the young Christian church, James sees faith in God as being best demonstrated by a love for our neighbors. He gives details about orphans and widows (James 1:27); the hungry and needy (James 2:14-17); the rich and poor (James 2:2-4), and speaks practically on how the church should interact with them, showing a vibrant faith embodying Jesus to the world around them.
This teaching from James is a direct reflection of Jesus’s teaching to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In his haunting discussion of the final judgment, Jesus tells his faithful disciples, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25: 34-40). Jesus also highlighted the importance of taking the time to help a “neighbor” in need in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) which ended with the exhortation of “You go, and do likewise.” Without a demonstrated love of their neighbors in need, the Pharisees’ claim to love God made no sense – nor do ours.
While some of Jesus’ teachings seemed radical to his Jewish contemporaries, his emphasis on helping the needy was something they knew well. The prophets throughout the Old Testament had repeatedly warned that God would not honor their expressions of worship if they didn’t actively and intentionally help the poor and defenseless. Isaiah describes God’s priorities in chapter 58 of his book, saying, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). The prophets Zechariah (7:9-10) and Micah (6:6-8) likewise prophesy how displeased God was by their lack of compassion for the vulnerable. God had intended his people to treat their neighbors much more fairly and generously. It’s no wonder that Paul states in I Corinthians 13 that love is the most important attribute of a Christian!
While most Christians understand the importance of helping others, we often refer to it as a work of charity, meaning a good, but optional, activity. It couldn’t be a requirement—otherwise it wouldn’t be charity. Tim Keller points out in his excellent book, Generous Justice, “In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called ‘acts of righteousness,’ as in Matthew 6:1-2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law” (p.15). I highly recommend this book for an even more convicting discussion of the importance of loving our neighbors.
Will you join with me in examining your heart and actions in light of God’s command to love your neighbor? Are we clutching our worldly goods, believing we earned them and deserve to enjoy them? Or do we understand that all that we have comes from God’s grace and that he wants us to share our blessings with others? When Job examined his life, he could say “If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?” (Job 31:13-14) Can we say the same thing ourselves?
Wolf Michalke is a member of Living Hope Church.