Saving Our Souls by Feeding the Poor

by Layton Friesen

Did you know that according to Jesus, unless you feed the poor you can’t be saved? Actually, it’s even stronger. Jesus says you are saved by caring for the poor.

At first glance, that looks heretical from a Protestant perspective. We have a 500-year history of teaching that we are not saved by works, that nothing we do in obedience to God’s commands could ever contribute to our salvation. As Protestants evangelicals, and as EMCers, we have basked in the assurance of salvation that is ours when we grasp that no works save us—only the grace of God.

But! There are many passages where Jesus sure seems to teach we are saved by giving to the poor. Look at Jesus’ conversation with the young man in Matthew 19:16–22. The young man asks a question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

Look at that question. As evangelicals we would immediately know to answer: “Silly! You cannot have eternal life by doing a good deed; only believe in Jesus and receive his free grace.” But this is not what Jesus says! First, Jesus gives him a brief on the Ten Commandments, saying, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Why don’t we say that when we share the gospel with our neighbours? “You want to go to heaven when you die? Keep the Ten Commandments.”)

The young man replies, “I have kept all these. What do I still lack?” This man is clearly not playing along with the traditional Protestant conversion story. He is supposed to say, “But, Jesus, I tried to keep the commandments, but I just couldn’t do it, and now I feel so guilty!”

Jesus, however, accepts the young man’s claim. He does not accuse him of legalism. He simply says, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

This story is not a one-time blip in Jesus’ teaching. He says similar things in Matthew 6:3–4; 25:31–46; Luke 6:35; 10:25–37; 12:32–34; 14:12–14; 16:1–9, 19–31; 19:1–10.

But! How do we reconcile Christ’s teaching that we are saved by feeding the poor with Paul’s teaching on salvation by grace?

Here is how I understand it, and this gets me excited about the Anabaptist view of conversion. Jesus arrives in the world (and in your life) announcing news of great joy—forgiveness and God’s abundant life. Along with this wondrous news he pours the power of the Spirit available to all who perk up their ears and hear the good news. Yet now there awaits a response from us before conversion truly takes place. The saving response to the arrival of Jesus and his free grace, without which there is no conversion, is feeding the poor. That is what faith looks like.

Layton Friesen

Do you see the difference? Faith is not mere “belief.” The faith by which we are saved in the Anabaptist understanding is joyfully, powerfully, doing what Jesus commands. Jesus commands us to feed the poor. If we are not abundantly hospitable to the poor, we are not responding to God’s abundant gift in offering to abolish our poverty.

With God’s abundant favour to us comes the joyful question: would you imitate God’s amazing grace by giving amazing amounts of your possessions to the poor? If yes, Jesus says, you are near the Kingdom of Heaven.

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