In his book, Ministries of Mercy, Timothy Keller exhorts believers not only to do good works to believers and non-believers alike, but also to actively seek out opportunities to help people. It is a challenging read.
He points to the example of the Good Samaritan recorded in Luke 10:30-37:
“The compassion which the good Samaritan showed was full-bodied, leading him to meet a variety of needs. It provided friendship and advocacy, emergency medical treatment, transportation, a hefty financial subsidy and even a follow-up visit… we have nothing less than an order from our Lord in the most categorical of terms, ‘go and do likewise.’ ”
Our primary duty after loving God is to love our neighbour, and this should not be just “something we get to if there is time or money in the budget, after we are satisfied with our educational and evangelistic ministries”. He argues that the good Samaritan parable “shatters that set of priorities”.
The question ‘who is my neighbour?’ is addressed early on his book. Jesus shows that anyone in need is our neighbour. Keller looks at various case studies of different needy individuals and examines the social and economic reasons for their poverty. In his chapter A call to mercy he states quite clearly that “mercy is not optional”.
“We must meet the needs of others with all the speed, eagerness, energy and joy with which we meet our own.”
“Did Christ minister the word to unbelievers, but only confine His healing and miraculous ministry to the community of believers? No, He fed the multitude.” Jesus didn’t distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor and nor should we. “Our mercy must not only be given to those who reach some standard of worthiness.”
Furthermore, “the example of God’s grace indicates that we should not passively sit and wait for the needy to beg. Rather, we should study, find and meet basic human needs”, according to our resources and opportunity. While we should give our aid wisely, generously and graciously we also need to keep in mind that our help should be with the aim of getting the person/s back on their feet and able to provide for themselves. And also to ultimately help them spiritually. “Our mercy must have as its goal the rehabilitation of the whole person”.
He makes the point strongly that evangelism and social concern “constitute a whole that should not be divided…they are inseparable.”
In seeking to address peoples concerns that relief only go to the “deserving poor”, Keller talks about how completely undeserving of God’s grace we all were and how Jesus lavished His love on us.
“Christ knew that 1000s would trample His blood under their feet; that most would despise it….yet He gave His own blood…if you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and undeserving…Remember His own word, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” ”
Furthermore, when we serve the poor God is honoured.
In the second part of his book, Timothy writes; “Every Christian family must develop its own ministry of mercy by looking at the needs closest to it and meeting them through loving deeds and a spirit of encouragement”. He’s speaking here of a duty of care to family members; “the family needs to ‘look in close’ before it ‘looks afar’ ”. Believers are to watch out for needs and to seek to meet them “out of their own pockets and out of their own hearts” not waiting for a formal church programme to be established before they act generously.
Also, Christians are to look out for opportunities for good deeds in the community. Keller addresses the importance of motivating the congregation and how this should be achieved. As people who are proactive in seeking to discover the needs of individuals and of the community we ought to:
“find out the existing services, speak to those with the finger on the pulse of a community, isolate the most important needs…now ask does your church have gifts, skills or other resources that seem to match up with certain needs?”
He reminds us “the church is the light of the world,” and has the power to transform a community. It must “think big” and not “shrink back from looking squarely at all the possibilities.”
He explores how mercy ministries often promotes church growth and how they are sometimes the only ‘bridge’ between church and the ‘unchurched’. He points out that mercy ministries must grow at the pace of the church. He shows how this can be achieved in practice.
“Most churches are surrounded by the growing needs of the unemployed, the underemployed, new immigration population, singles, divorced persons, unwed mothers, the elderly, prisoners, the dying, sick and disabled. Poverty is on the rise, the percentage of the elderly in our society is exploding…Do we want to reach these new neighbours with the gospel? Then we must give our faith active expression through deeds of compassion coupled with evangelism and discipleship.”
“The church of Jesus Christ must squarely face its responsibility for the neighbour lying in the road.”