Where are the Least of These?

For the past year or so, I have been really concerned about the poor around the world. There is so much that needs to be done to help the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and those who do not have God in their lives. I have spent more on helping charitable efforts in disenfranchised countries this year than I ever have. I also traveled to Haiti following the earthquake that recently effected so many and it opened my eyes in a big way. For me, this is just the beginning. Most of us here in America go through our daily lives so focused on our careers and wealth-building that we hardly take the time to consider the poor and needy. As my focus has been changing, I’ve been sharing this passion with others. It is amazing how people excuse the need to help and justify a lack of compassion by redirecting the issue. Here is the number one thing I hear against my talk of helping less fortunate countries:

Why go over there? There are plenty of poor people in need of Christ right here in America.

So here is my short little dissertation on why going to other countries is a higher priority to me. For me, it boils down to these main points:

  1. Who did Jesus focus His ministry on? — I want to follow His steps
  2. Poor is a relative term, so who has the most need?
  3. Why are the destitute the ripest harvest?
  4. Who is my neighbor?

Who did Jesus focus His ministry on? — Plain and simply put, He went to the poor and needy. He went to the “bad” part of Israel (Galilee). If we study Jesus’ ministry closely with this focus in mind, it becomes astoundingly clear to whom He was preaching and teaching the most. Sure, He also went into the synagogues and debated with scribes, pharisees, and saducees but to very little avail. We read of a few unnamed converts from this group, plus Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, but on the whole the bulk of His followers were the poor and sick. He even proclaimed this as he began his ministry. One of His first stops was the synagogue at Nazareth where He read this from the book of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. — Luke 4:18-19

Who are the poor, then? — In America, we have a very skewed idea about poverty.
First we think that anyone who does not have a mortgage, a vehicle, or a “decent” job is poor. This usually equates to about an annual salary of $25,000 or less. This is not poor in comparison to the world’s population. Statistics show that about 60% of the world population makes less than $1,000 per year. An additional 30% make between $1,000 and $10,000 per year. That leaves a mere 10% of the entire world population that makes more than $10,000 per year! Now, considering government subsidies and the like, how many Americans actually make less than $10,000 per year? Not many. We live in an entitlement society which prevents such things. How many Americans actually make less than $1,000 per year? It would not even appear as a blip on our radar, yet 40% of the families in the rest of the world make less.

Second, we look down on those with less. We immediately assume there is something wrong with them, if they are poor. Either they’re “lazy bums” “looking for a handout” or they’re mentally incapable of being self-supportive. This is far from true about most of the world’s poor. Our wealth is largely environmental and circumstantial. We are rich because of where we were born, who we know, and the number of opportunities which come our way here in America, not because we are hard-workers. Most of the world’s population are working very hard every day just to survive while we sit back in front of our TVs and computers and call them lazy.

Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ charge to feed the hungry and take care of the needs of others in Matthew 25. He mentions the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless (strangers), naked, sick, and imprisoned.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. -Matthew 25:44-46

Notice His use of the word “least”, meaning “to the extreme”. He wants us to help those who are in the “most” need.

How many Americans are actually dying of hunger? Everyday, millions upon millions of people around the world die of hunger.
How many are dying of thirst? The lack of clean drinking water is another of the world’s largest killers, but not one of America’s.
Who are the sickest people in the world? Everyday more than 26,000 children die from preventable illnesses and over 33 million people worldwide are in the throws of an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Very few of the “least of these” are located within our borders.
Which of these people need your help the most?
The destitute are the ripest harvest — Traditionally, the church takes it’s message to those we are in regular contact with (as rich Americans). These people have very little needs, are focused on wealth and fame, and already claim some sort of Christianity (albiet most are in name only). Don’t get me wrong, these people need Jesus in their lives, but our job as evangelicals is made even more difficult by these obstacles of greed and over-indulgence. The poor are, however, desperate. If you give to their physical needs and ask nothing in return, they are then willing to hear you on spiritual matters as well. This is why the poor were flocking around Jesus and piling around Him to hear Him teach. He was healing their physical infirmities, and they trusted Him because of that. In following Jesus’ example, we can also work miraculous things in the needy’s lives by feeding them and providing clean water, shelter, and health-care for them. The field is the ripest however outside of our borders.

Who is my neighbor? — This same question was asked of Jesus when He proclaimed the two greatest commandments in Luke 10. Jesus answered by telling the story of the Good Samaritan where a man fell to bandits and was left for dead. Two very religious men of that day walked around to avoid contacting this victim, but a Samaritan (considered to be unrighteous by the Jews standards) stopped, helped the man, and left with the promise to cover any additional expenses the man needed. Jesus’ question back was:

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. — Luke 10:36-37

The answer had nothing whatsoever to do with locality. Your proximity to the issue has nothing to do with this. It is about your heart. Love and Mercy. The Samaritan had an awareness of the issue, access to the man, availability, and he had mercy. In today’s world, ask yourself if you have an awareness of these needs outside of our country which are greater than the ones within it. With the invention of world transportation, do you have access and are you available to help? If so, then you are no different than the Samaritan and ignoring the preventable deaths of 26,500 children a day is a greater offense than the two guys who walked past “him that fell among the thieves”. The question is: will you have mercy on them? Will you “go, and do thou likewise”?

Do not get me wrong. I believe we should love and assist all those who are in need. We should not ignore the needs of Americans. But to say, “do not go to the world” because there are needs in America is an uninformed statement. I believe we should make the most of the time given to us and have the largest impact on the world that we can. If we really think about this, it is pretty arrogant for us to think that the poor here need us more than those who are dying around the world. Sure there’s work to do here, but where is the greatest need? Where are the least of these? Where can we do the most good in the time allotted?

God didn’t make these borders but He made forces that transcend them; like wind, rain and waves. As a force from God maybe we should be more like the weather and go where we are needed, regardless of the borders we hold so dear.