I was recently published in the Christian Post where I argued that Christians should live simply, generously and sustainably to address global hunger. Three million children die annually, while the rest of the world has much more food than we need (and throw away large portions of it).
I didn’t expect much opposition to what I wrote, but it turns out that in some evangelical circles, feeding the hungry is a sensitive topic.
Jeff Maples at Reformation Charlotte wrote a passionate response in which he, among other things, calls me a heretic and say that I preach a demonic message that might lead to me losing my salvation. Let’s see if he has any Biblical support for these accusations:
Evangelicals are lining up at the door trying to make the case that Jesus is all about a socialistic government that makes everyone equal. One of the stupidest articles I’ve seen in a long time is an article recently published at the Christian Post by Micael Grenholm titled How would Jesus respond to global hunger? In the article, while he doesn’t use the word “socialism,” Grenholm argues that Jesus taught a form of socialism based on the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31￼.
Maples is right about me not mentioning socialism. I also don’t mention governments. How Maples reaches the conclusion that my point with the article is that “Jesus is all about a socialistic government” is therefore quite a mystery.
In fact, the topic of the article is extreme poverty and malnutrition in the developing world, directed at a Western (primarily American) audience. Since a global government doesn’t exist, Maples must be assuming that I want to install a socialist world government – without me actually mentioning it. You can’t blame him for having an inactive imagination.
Of Lazarus and the rich man, Maples writes,
Nobody in the history of the Church, no serious commentator, has ever walked away from this passage believing that it taught socialism or that even the reason for the rich man entering Hades was because he ignored the needs of Lazarus outside of his gate. That is simply not the point of this passage. The point of this passage is to open our eyes to the seriousness of our spiritual state before God and the urgency to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Leaving aside the red herring of socialism, which I didn’t mention or argue for in the first place, is Maples right in his assertion that no serious commentator in the history of the church has ever thought that the rich man went to Hades because he ignores Lazarus?
Of course not.
Matthew Henry writes in his extensive commentary on Luke 16:
Yet we need not call it a history of a particular occurrence, but it is matter of fact that is true every day […] that rich epicures, who live in luxury, and are unmerciful to the poor, die, and go into a state of insupportable torment, which is the more grievous and terrible to them because of the sensual lives they lived: and that there is no gaining any relief from their torments. […]
[F]easting ourselves and our friends, and, at the same time, forgetting the distresses of the poor and afflicted, are very provoking to God and damning to the soul. The sin of this rich man was not so much his dress or his diet, but his providing only for himself.
“It links agony or comfort after death with how we treat the less fortunate around us, much like Matthew links eternal life and punishment with how we treat the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison (25:31-46).”
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges comments on verse 21 by saying:
The incident [of the dogs] is only added to give in one touch the abjectness of his misery, and therefore to enhance the rich man’s neglect. The fault of Dives was callous selfishness.
And Craig Keener writes in The IVP Bible Background Commentary (2nd edition):
“[T]he only crime Jesus attributes to [the rich man], is that he let Lazarus starve to death when he could have prevented it.” (p. 224).
To be fair, there are other commentators that seem to agree with Maples’ stance, that the rich man went to Hades completely unrelated to how he treated Lazarus. But claiming that no commentator agrees with my reading is simply ignorant. Furthermore, I think my reading has better support from the actual text.
Maples thinks that “[t]he point of this passage is […] to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.” While I do believe that this is what brings Lazarus and everyone else to salvation, we must note that the text does not mention that Lazarus believed in Jesus Christ and so this is not the point of the passage.
I believe he did, but I can’t claim that Jesus said so and that his main point concerned the different faiths of Lazarus and the rich man. The thing he instead stresses is the different economic statuses of the two persons and their relationship to one another.
The context of the passage is that he tells this to the Pharisees “who love money” (v. 14). The contrast between Lazarus’ poverty and the rich man’s wealth isn’t irrelevant background information that Jesus tells us for no reason whatsoever. Rather, while the story might have other points as well, one clear point is that the rich man ignoring Lazarus so that he died was sinful and wrong.
Grenholm argues that the main cause of their misery is poverty […] This is simply false, unbiblical, and even outright heresy. The cause of misery is not poverty — poverty is a product of sin. The main cause of misery is sin and the only way to eradicate misery is the gospel. Social justice is not the gospel, it’s heresy, and those, like Grenholm, who continue to perpetuate it are far more in danger of losing their souls to Hades than a rich man. Why? Because Jesus himself said that “with God, all things are possible” (Mark 10:27￼) — even a rich man entering the Kingdom of God.
In debates and discussion, it’s always important to read your opponent generously. One’s criticism of their opinion becomes more relevant and sharp if one gives them the benefit of the doubt and abstain from assuming opinions that aren’t expressed and refuse to take quotes out of context.
I’m afraid that Maples doesn’t seem to value this principle. By quoting one sentence out of context, he not only makes it sound like I don’t believe in the reality of sin and its role as the root of all misery, he goes on to say that I promote heresy and therefore might lose my soul.
But I’m not questioning sin. I’m pointing out that the reason why some people starve to death or die by lack of access to clean water is not that there isn’t enough food and water in the world: it’s because they’re poor. I wrote:
“These people do not lack proper food and water because there isn’t enough food and water in the world… The main cause of their misery is poverty.”
Yes, poverty, in turn, is caused by us living in a sinful and fallen world, but in order to explain why some people watch their three-year-old children die due to hunger and others never witness such tragedies, we need to pinpoint poverty as a line of difference. It’s not like only hungry people sin while people who are better off are sinless.
Of course, I don’t think Maples’ point is that poor people are more sinful than rich people. I don’t want to read him unfairly. I think his point is that sin is at the root of all problems, and I agree with that. It’s very unfortunate that he mistakingly thinks I disagree with him on this point and thus falsely brand me as a dangerous heretic.
Grenholm continues to argue that “the richest one percent of the world’s population have twice as much money than 6.9 billion people” and “if everybody lived like the average American, we would need four planets.” This argumentation is more than theological liberalism — it’s demonic. It’s twisting the Word of God to create something that God never taught.
This passage doesn’t make much sense to me. All I do is quoting economic facts of the world, and Maples’ calls it demonic and claim that I twist the Word of God. I missed the part in the Bible where it says that we definitely cannot refer to research by Oxfam and WWF. If Maples has other numbers that contradict these claims, he’s free to show them. But claiming that it’s not just theologically liberal but demonic that I refer to contemporary research is quite frankly absurd.
I’m speculating now, but I suspect that what Maples finds so grotesque is that I suggest that this inequality is a problem and that we should adjust it by promoting economic equality. I think this is what he finds liberal, demonic and twisting of the Word. But it’s not. The early church fathers can’t be accused of being theologically liberal, and yet they thought that economic equality was a good thing:
“Share everything with your brother. Do not say, ‘It is private property.’ If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last.” – The Didache, c. 90 AD, (Did. 4:8)
“We who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need.” – Justin Martyr, 100-165 AD (1st Apology 14)
“We who share one mind and soul obviously have no misgivings about community of goods.” – Tertullian, 160-225 AD (Apology, 39)
“All things belong to God, who is our Father and Father of all things. We are all the same family: all of us are brothers and sisters. And among brethren it is best and most equal that all inherit equal portions.” – Gregory of Nyssa, 330-395 AD
Maples is free to disagree with this view, but he can’t call it liberal or demonic. Neither is it twisting the Scriptures. The New Testament frequently portray economic equality is a good thing:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11)
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had… there were no needy persons among them. (Acts 4:32, 34)
“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality” (2 Cor 8:13-14)
Maples might have his reasons to argue that these passages shouldn’t be applied to all scenarios and all times etc. Fine. But he can’t accuse me for “twisting the Word of God” for taking these passages at face value and promote a world that looks more like the Jerusalem church than the Lazarus-dying-outside-a-rich-man’s-home situation.
Jesus did not come to create equality or institute social justice. The Scriptures do teach a man deserves his wages for his work, however (1 timothy 5:18). But the Scriptures also teach that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23￼). In fact, the only wages any of us deserve is death. But, thankfully, Jesus did not come to give us the wages we deserve — he came to pay the wages for us.
When the apostles started practicing community of goods in Jerusalem – something other churches continuted doing for hundreds of years according to several church fathers – they were clearly inspired by Jesus’ command in Luke 12:33. Jesus taught a lot about economics, including that people shouldn’t store up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19) and that his disciples should give up their own economic resources and families in order to enjoy a greater family with communal resources (Matthew 19:29).
Jesus also brought salvation from death so that we can enjoy eternal life with him. His ethical message and his salvific message are not opposed to each other.
This isn’t to say that we should not be concerned with the poor and the hungry. We should. Jesus clearly does care about these people. But our mission as a church is not to send the world to Hell on a full belly, it’s to take the gospel of saving grace to the ends of the world.
Jesus did not come to address “global inequality,” — we’re already equally depraved in the eyes of God. Instead, he came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10￼) and to be the bread of life (John 6:35￼) and then sent his disciples out to feed His sheep with that bread (John 21:17￼).
Before you read this, you might have got the impression that Maples doesn’t want us to care for the poor at all but only preach the Gospel and ignore people’s physical needs. That’s not the case. He does think it’s important to help the poor – he just doesn’t want us to forget to also preach the Gospel.
I agree. Before Maples branded me as a demonic heretic, he might have been interested to know that the church I’m pastoring evangelizes on the street every week, and we support a pastoral leadership training program in Nepal that equips church leaders to preach the Gospel.
I’m no enemy to sharing the good news. I just think we should do that while also making sure that rich people share their stuff with poor people so that less people starve to death, just like in the early church. Good deeds like that will strengthen our message, as Jesus himself said: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).
Micael Grenholm is a Swedish pastor, author, and editor for PCPJ.
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