I had walked past them on my way into the church, and, as I left, I heard them before I saw them: two homeless men were heckling churchgoers as they uncomfortably brushed past, averting their eyes as if hoping the men might believe that they hadn’t heard their taunts. “There you go again, you Christians. You say you follow Jesus, but you can never spare change to buy a man dinner!” For the hecklers, the scene was a courtroom, and the defendants – parishioners of All Souls Church in London – were guilty.
The challenge these homeless men posed to the authenticity of the Christian faith is universal. Even if we grant that giving to aggressive panhandlers is imprudent, many who call themselves Christians are still guilty. On average, they give away a mere 2–3% of their income.1 That this behavior is unbiblical seems beyond question:2 “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 Jn. 3:17)
John assumes that a radical love of one’s neighbor will necessarily proceed from a genuine love of God. In fact, he strongly implies that anyone who refuses to give to his needy brother is not a Christian. Jesus states this explicitly in his story about the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46). According to it, Jesus will later judge those who call themselves Christians by whether or not they cared for the “least of these.”
Imagine the scene: Christ is seated on the throne, and a line of churchgoers wraps around the courthouse, all waiting their turn before the Judge. The first defendant is brought in, and the prosecution calls its first witnesses: two homeless men. “Do you recognize this churchgoer?” “Yes, I was hungry, and he walked right past me.” And on it goes, witness after witness. A verdict is reached: guilty. “But your Honor, when did I see you in prison and not visit you? When were you hungry and I didn’t feed you?” “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me… Away from me, you evildoers” (Matt. 25:45; 7:23).
These are Jesus’s own words, and this story, twice repeated in the Gospel of Matthew, is at the center of his message. As 21st-century Christians, we emphasize faith and seem to think that all talk about works is passé. It is not.
We eschew talk of works because we think such talk undermines the gospel of grace, but we forget that Jesus himself told us to judge others by their fruits because a good tree cannot bear bad fruit (Matt. 7:18). The connection between what one believes and what one does is inextricable. Jonathan Edwards used an analogy to make this point: if a man truly believes that a foreign king has sent for him, asking him to be his heir, he will leave his home to go to that country. If he does not act, he has not believed.3 To believe in something means to venture on it.
Jesus makes it clear that the Christian will (not should, but will) be happy to give up his wealth to follow Christ. He tells his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matt. 13:44). An uninformed observer would consider this man mad, but his behavior is in fact quite rational.
The apostle Paul embodies this: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). In the preceding verses, Paul has recited all of his pre-conversion accomplishments, status, and power. Yet in the face of an encounter with Christ, all this is less than nothing to him.
Thus, the idea that we would hoard our possessions while at the same time truly believing in Christ is unfathomable. The question posed by the homeless men is one we should ask ourselves: if we cling to our wealth when so many are in need, how can we be followers of Christ?