A certain man had two sons.
As we approach this story, we sometimes overlook the older son. In the context of this story, his actions are Jesus’ not-too-gentle zinger for the Pharisees and scribes listening in and for most folks, it is the whining, selfish older brother that actually presents the widest range for application.
As in Jesus day, so in ours, religious people are prone to keep certain people at a distance. We may have special visits to rough neighborhoods and conduct clothing or school supply giveaways which are good things in themselves, but Christ-imitating associations, we don’t have very often. To be fair, out distance is most likely due to our being uncomfortable than to religious elitism; but distance is distance regardless of why. As one who once resided in a rough neighborhood, this is a subject I’ve thought much about. To be fair, there is a need to be educated for such potential encounters because drugs, mental illness, and panhandling are no strangers to certain environments. Though wariness in today’s culture is needed across the board, some environments do require more caution than others.
How then, might we foster a climate that attracts, but also establishes certain ground rules? How might we establish a Christ-like engagement that appeals to the marginalized yet is approached for essentially spiritual reasons?
For some, and I sincerely mean this, visiting a certain “Mart” storied for its varied clientele might be a start. Being in proximity to people we are rarely if ever otherwise around can actually help some to realize that those from lower socioeconomic groups are not to be feared.
Additionally, we must understand that engaging those more unfortunate than others does not mean our congregations will be soon overrun by undesirables. Jesus has expectations for the behavior of those who would choose to follow Him that address such things. The “Such were some of you …” of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and the “… if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat,” of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 are instructive here.
As Christians, we need to view evangelism holistically. With those who need to learn and practice basic life skills, we need to assist them (see 2 Thess 3:7-9; 1 Tim 5:8; and 1 Thess 4:11). God is concerned with people living responsibly. Such skills allow families to emerge from a crippling cycle of poverty and develop the wholesome self-image that comes with living a responsible life, as well as allowing them to eventually help others.
Also, health issues including mental health are often within reach of assistance provided by various government programs that many people do not know how to access. Additionally, helping to find jobs for people who want to work and better their conditions can be very useful. Those things that many of us take for granted are not necessarily part of some people’s lives.
When we do determine to reach out to those portions of society that are disadvantaged, we need to do so wisely. It is easy to inadvertently think of some as somehow inferior (see James 2:1-7). It is equally easy to allow ourselves to be taken advantage of. However, with wisdom from God’s word, we may move ahead with confidence to broaden the scope of our outreach.
Edwin Jones in one of the ministers at the Lehman Avenue Church of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky.