From a Lifestyle of Isolationism to Personal EngagementArticle / Produced by TOW Project
The temptation of those who have much to become isolated from those who have little is very real. High-fenced houses, air-conditioned cars, a circle of friends limited to our own socio-economic group, and a church similarly restricted—all these conspire to keep the well-to-do trapped in their own wealthy enclaves. Those who have little are effectively banished from their world.
This means wealthy people often have minimal or no relationship with those who struggle financially—either at home or abroad. Their understanding of the circumstances of those who lack basic provision is severely limited by the geographic and social distance.
As noted earlier, the people of Israel were specifically commanded to care for widows, orphans (fatherless) and foreigners. In an agrarian society these groups were particularly vulnerable because they had no access to land or means of income. These same factors made them prone to isolation. To care for them, the people of Israel would first have to engage with them personally. God himself is described by the Psalms as relating personally to them as the “father of orphans and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5).
This same hospitality—the welcoming of “strangers”—is fundamental to following Jesus. Two key gospel passages—Luke 14:12-14 (inviting the poor to your banquet) and Matthew 25:31-46 (God’s judgment of the peoples)—shape the distinction between conventional and Christian hospitality. Conventional hospitality is shown to friends and family. Christian hospitality extends to the poor and “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), the people who “cannot repay you” (Luke 14:14) or “invite you in return” (Luke 14:12). Jesus emphasizes the dimension of personal relationship in this case, when he states, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Though the context indicates that Jesus is referring primarily to his disciples (“members of my family”) there is no reason to suggest that disciples should not also take the same attitude to those who are not Christians. After all, Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” and before we ourselves were members of his family.
When those who have much get to know those who have little, perspectives can change. Hearing their stories, seeing their struggles first-hand, realizing that there is much to learn from them and also that we all have much in common—these all reshape our minds and hearts. God himself took on human flesh to draw close to us personally as a human (Philippians 2:6-8), and because of this he is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). If God thinks it worthwhile to encounter we who are poor and weak compared to him, should we not follow his example and encounter those who are poor and weak compared to us? The poor are no longer just faceless numbers. They become real people with real needs and real lives.
It is important for Christians to think generously about how such hospitality is given. While giving and investing money are essential means of expressing hospitality, more personal and closer-to-home expressions are also important. Within every community there are many types of strangers, as we have seen. The problem is that for many people in well-paying jobs, living in well-to-do neighbourhoods, mixing in affluent friendship groups, and worshipping in prosperous church congregations, connecting with the poor is not likely to be a part of everyday life. Building personal relationships will require intentionally moving out of accustomed circles and into uncomfortable situations. It may even require geographic travel or relocation. And if it is to be genuine Christian hospitality, as such it will need to avoid paternalism (which disempowers others by doing for them what they can do for themselves) and seek to minimize power imbalances. This may particularly be a challenge for those who experience financial success, and for whom status and success are the predominant currencies of self-worth. It is hard to shed the prestige and privileges of power when our instinct is to fix problems from afar rather than to encounter people in the midst of their struggles.
One of the biblical characters who models this kind of personal engagement with the poor is Job. Job’s life intersected with the poor of his district on a regular basis. He was not isolated from them but lived in close proximity to his servants, widows, the fatherless and the stranger/foreigner.
The stranger has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler. (Job 31:32)
I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper…I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy…I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger. (Job 29:12-13, 15-16)
Job knew his poor neighbors, treated them as equals, felt a deep compassion for them and cared for them using his political and financial resources.