Whether you’re a Bible-reading person or not, most of us have heard reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told this parable because someone asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Although an initial glance at this question may lead us to believe it was a stupid question, I think it was actually a very intelligent question. When someone uses a word in vague terms, such as in this case when we were commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, it can be extremely helpful to clarify the intended definition of the word. In response, Jesus told a story to provide the man with his definition of a neighbor.
In the Gospels, Jesus spoke quite a bit about poor, needy, and oppressed people and the role he’s called us to play in serving them. At the onset of Jesus’s ministry, he stated:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus obviously believed he was commissioned to serve poor, needy, and oppressed people. And he called his disciples to do the same. In Matthew 25, Jesus said:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we [do all these things]?” And the King will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
It’s intriguing, though, that no one asked Jesus to define these terms for us. No one followed up by asking the question, “Who are the poor, needy, and oppressed?”
Who Is My Neighbor?
If you’re familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, do you remember the definition Jesus gave for the word “neighbor?” Was it the same definition you had of a neighbor? If you’re unfamiliar with this story, I’ll briefly share it using modern-day terms.
Let’s say you’re an avid Ohio State Buckeye fan and you’re traveling north on SR23 through Ann Arbor. As you’re going through Ann Arbor, your car breaks down along the side of the road. You pick up your cell phone to call a tow-truck, but as you try to turn it on, you realize the battery is dead. So you have no choice but to try to flag down someone to help you.
About fifteen minutes later, as you’re looking off into the distance, you see an Ohio State bus coming down the road. What are the chances of that, especially in Ann Arbor? As fellow Buckeyes, surely they’d stop to help you. But the bus driver doesn’t skip a beat and continues driving the bus right on by you. About a half hour later, you see a tow-truck with Ohio license plates coming your way. Wow! Could this really be happening? So you wave your arms in the air trying to get the tow-truck driver’s attention. But just like the bus driver, he doesn’t skip a beat and continues driving right on by.
Now you’re getting pretty discouraged. The drivers of two most-promising vehicles didn’t even pause for a moment to try to help you. Overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and paralysis, you open your car door, sit down in the seat, and put your head in your hands. A couple minutes later, you hear someone call out, “Hey, you need some help?” As you turn around, you see a rough-looking guy wearing a navy blue hoodie with a big yellow M on it standing behind your vehicle. Behind him is a beat up, rusty vehicle from the 90s which you can only assume belongs to him. Having no other choices at this point, you agree to let him help you. He calls for a tow-truck and has your vehicle towed to the nearest mechanic shop. But he’s not finished yet; he then proceeds to pay the entire repair bill for you, even after you insist that you can cover it.
In this story, which of the three people acted most like your neighbor? The Ohio State Buckeye bus driver, the Ohio license-plated-tow-truck driver, or the avid Michigan fan? I know, it hurts to say it doesn’t it? The Michigander proved to be your neighbor, even though you live in different states and cheer for archrival sports teams.
Was this the definition you were expecting? When I picture my neighbors, the first people that pop in my head are the ones who live next door and across the street from me. But that’s not the way Jesus defined neighbors. He opened up the definition to be inclusive of anyone, even of Samaritans and Michigan Wolverine fans.
If someone would’ve asked Jesus to define “poor, needy, and oppressed,” how do you think he would’ve defined it? Do you think he would’ve defined it the way we define it, or do you think he would’ve defined it differently? Although no one actually asked Jesus this question, I will take a look at a passage of the Bible which points to the definition I believe Jesus used when he discussed serving the poor, needy, and oppressed.
Who Are the Poor, Needy, and Oppressed?
When we think of poor, needy, or oppressed people, we typically think of homeless people, people in Africa with no food or water, or people who are being trafficked as slaves. Certainly these people are poor, needy, and/or oppressed. There’s no doubt about that. But if Jesus was to answer this question, I think he’d approach the question from a different angle than we approach it.
A couple years ago, a group of my friends formed a team for a day-long service project in Findlay called Backyard Mission Trip. Throughout the day, we worked on projects for two different local homeowners. The first homeowner was an elderly widow who lived by herself and struggled to get around. The second homeowner was also an elderly widow, but she was much more mobile and had two of her grandkids living with her. While recapping the day, one of my friends said he really liked helping the first homeowner because it seemed like she really needed the help. But he didn’t like helping the second homeowner because it seemed like she really didn’t need the help, not to mention that her two grandkids sat there all day watching TV while we did all the work.
A few months later, I was chatting with a friend about volunteering at Habitat for Humanity and he proceeded to tell me about an experience he had with Habitat during college. He said he was volunteering his time one Saturday to help build a Habitat home in his college town when the homeowner drove up in a really nice vehicle, much nicer than the vehicle my friend owned. You can imagine how my friend felt; he had volunteered because he wanted to help people less fortunate than him, not people who had it better than him.
I share these stories to demonstrate a common mentality we, as Americans, have towards helping poor, needy, and oppressed people. None of us want to be thought of as poor, needy, or oppressed since that’s not the American sign of success, but we’re willing to help poor, needy, and oppressed people by giving a little of our money, time, and energy to help them. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to serve people, but doesn’t our attitude convey quite a bit of arrogance? We’re basically saying, “I want to help you but I won’t allow you to help me.” We’ll give our money or volunteer our time if we think it’s being used to feed homeless people, but we won’t offer to help our neighbors across the street, our friends, or our families. This isn’t the way Jesus approached people at all.
Jesus approached everyone with loving compassion, regardless of their apparent needs. He approached the rich young ruler the same way he approached people in desperate situations: he had compassion on them. He recognized that they were “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”
His final message to the church came in the book of Revelation. At the beginning of the book, Jesus delivered individualized messages to the church in seven different cities. One such message was delivered to the church in Laodicia which is located in modern-day Turkey. At the time of this writing, the city of Laodicea was the wealthiest in the region and was known for its banking, wool, and medicine industries. In an outward sense, the people appeared to be very well off. As he said, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing...” Does that statement sound familiar? It sounds like something Americans would say. We thrive on the ideal of achieving wealth and autonomy, reaching a point where we are completely self-sufficient and don’t need anything from anyone.
Meanwhile, here’s how Jesus finished his sentence: “not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” How could Jesus say that about them? They weren’t poor; all of their basic needs were met. They weren’t blind; they could all see clearly with their eyes. They weren’t naked; they were all well-clothed. They weren’t terrible people; they were probably all pretty good citizens. Jesus wasn’t claiming that they were physically wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked; he was claiming that they were spiritually wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Physically they had it all together, but spiritually, they were bankrupt.
Based on this knowledge, how do you think Jesus would respond if someone was to pose our question to him today, “Who are the poor, needy, and oppressed?” Do you think he would define these people as the physically poor, needy, and oppressed? I don’t think so. I think he’d define these people as those who are spiritually poor, needy, and oppressed.
How Does This Definition Impact Us?
Understanding what the biblical writers meant when they talked about poor, needy, and oppressed people has completely changed the way I approach life. First, as an average American who sought to achieve great success in life, I spent many years striving to become completely self-sufficient. I never believed I was poor, needy, or oppressed. Yet, God has shown me that I fit all of those categories. I was (and still am to some degree) spiritually poor, spiritually needy, and spiritually oppressed. I was spiritually dead, but God has raised me to life in Jesus. I was spiritually oppressed by the devil, but God has set me free from it and continues to set me more and more free every day. And I am still spiritually needy in that I need God’s love, grace, and strength to make it through every day of my life. I hoped I would never have to say this and now here I am saying it: I’m a needy person.
Second, to one degree or another, everyone is spiritually poor, needy, and oppressed. Recognizing my own condition allows me to feel love and compassion for all the people around me. I no longer discriminate against serving certain people based upon whether I think they fit into my man-made categories, but choose to serve people every single day regardless of their physical condition.
Before reading this article, what was the definition you thought Jesus had of poor, needy, and oppressed people? Now that you’ve read this article, have your thoughts on it changed? Or do you think my claim is way off base? How does this definition of poor, needy, and oppressed people impact you and the way you live?