What Remembering the Poor Really Means
When the apostles eventually confirmed the Lord's commission for Paul to go to the Gentiles, according to him they gave him one final admonition. "They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do" (Gal 2:10). Part and parcel of pastoral and church planting ministry is then this duty to remember the poor. Yet what does it really mean to remember them?
It is easy to associate the word remember simply with the idea of acknowledging or being aware of a circumstance. We can shake our heads sadly and muse, "Yes, it's too bad there are so many poor people in that part of town." Like the politician who famously said of the struggling, "I feel your pain" while remaining at a distance from them, we can think it sufficient to know of the existence of the plight of others and feel sorry for them. But in the Bible, to remember means something much more than bringing to mind a matter.
Like many of the commandments found in the New Testament, such as the great commandments to love God and neighbor, this call to remember the poor is an echo of Old Testament law. Israel was repeatedly commanded to care for the widows, orphans, the stranger, and the poor by providing for them. For example, in Deuteronomy 24, a chapter where God's people are encouraged to provide mercy and justice to the downtrodden, we read, "When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing" (Deut. 24:21-22). They were to remember the poor as a way of remembering their own poverty before they had been redeemed from Egypt's slavery.
This passage highlights the Biblical sense of remember. To remember the poor is to go beyond knowing about them and actively engage in helping them. For think of other "remember" commands. To remember the Sabbath Day means making it a unique day of worship and rest from labors (Ex. 20:8-11). To remember Christ's death is to engage by faith in the Lord's Supper and proclaim the gospel (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Thus, to remember the poor is not just to know about them, but to know them and find wise, practical ways to assist and encourage them.
Sometimes we can even combine our different "remembering duties" in this regard. The _Westminster Directory of Public Worship _encouraged the church to care for the poor as part of keeping the Lord's Day:
That what time is vacant, between or after the solemn meetings of the congregation in publick, be spent in reading, meditation, repetition of sermons; especially by calling their families to an account of what they have heard, and catechising of them, holy conferences, prayer for a blessing upon the publick ordinances, singing of psalms, visiting the sick, relieving the poor, and such like duties of piety, charity, and mercy, accounting the sabbath a delight.” - Of the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day
The directory also encouraged taking up a special offering when communion was being observed:
The collection for the poor is so to be ordered, that no part of the publick worship be thereby hindered.” -Of the Celebration of the Communion, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
The sense given here is that remembering the poor is not an occasional activity but wrapped up in what it means to be a Christian. Clearly the Apostle Paul saw it this way, as the record of his ministry indicates an ongoing commitment to caring for the needy (see 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9; 1 Tim. 5; Phil, for examples.).
As I reflect on this commandment, it makes me thankful that I am involved in a church where I regularly observe this duty fulfilled in practical ways. Let me share a few of those with you by way of both encouragement and example.
- A group gathered to go to a nursing home to sing and minister to the elderly yesterday afternoon.
- An elder is leading the church in a building project at the home of a widow with younger children.
- One family regularly hosts international students for Sunday meals at their home.
- One young lady, who already works during the week for a ministry to school-age children, took several hours of a Saturday recently to spend time with a girl who has lost her parents.
- A middle-aged man who suffers the affects of fetal alcohol syndrome was befriended by a family in our church at a local soup kitchen and has been made a part of their family and the church.
- A pastor regularly invites the grieving into his home to offer Scriptural encouragement.
- A poor, older gentleman with a child-like mind is greeted warmly each Sunday evening by several ladies in the church and often given small food parcels and gifts of encouragement. One family has invited him to sit with them during the service.
- A number of families are caring for their elderly parents either intensely by having them live in their home or by monitoring closely their well-being.
The underlying reason it is vital for Christians to remember the poor remains the same as it was for Israel, though with far deeper significance. In engaging the poor, we are remembering our own redemption from the slavery of sin and the grace we have received in Christ. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). Remembering the poor starts with us.