Steadfast in the City– “Mercy or Ulterior Motives”

June 14th, 2012 Post by

My friend and brother in the ministry, Matt Lorfeld, recently wrote a short, marvelous post on his church’s blog about the nature of mercy work and its possible “ulterior motives.”

As a pastor who spends most of his time with what is generally called mission and evangelism work with the homeless and very poor, I know the difficulty in speaking on the topic of mercy. Mercy is not the Gospel. Mercy, though it attends to physical needs, does not save anyone. Mercy to the poor is the church in action in one of its forms, but to think that showing mercy equals evangelism is a common error.

Mercy is not the Gospel. The Gospel is the Gospel. The Gospel is not a some kind of message of a restored economy. It is not an encouragement to environmentalism, or an argument for universal healthcare and labor unions. The Gospel is not a sandwich. The Gospel is the message of the person and work of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the promise of eternal life on account of Christ alone. A sandwich doesn’t preach this–words do. Without the preached Gospel, we are not really evangelizing anyone.

Mercy is the privilege of the church in this world, since we are charged by Our Lord to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. We do, after all, work in this world. But the forgiveness of sins must be preached. This is Pastor Lorfeld’s first point to serve as an important introduction, which brings him to the main point of the post: We have received freely in the Gospel, so freely we give in acts of mercy. We do this without threat of punishment. We show mercy without cost because God has shown mercy to us without payment. We love because God first loved us.

So why do we, Pastor Lorfeld asks, only show mercy if we can reach some quantifiable goal we ourselves have set? It’s like we’re still counting out “critical events” instead of just doing what we are privileged to do. Or, as Pastor Lorfeld points out, we feel like failures if we don’t increase the attendance in the Divine Service through mercy work. I can tell you that the poor (especially the homeless) sense this desperation in us, and have come to resent the church for this. They can see that church groups will swing in from the suburbs, pass out food, and give the impression that the whole thing is a transaction–either the poor are expected to come to their church in exchange for aid, or the people coming in are feeding the poor to salve their own consciences. Either way, we are expecting to be compensated for mercy.

So why should we show mercy? Pastor Lorfeld states: “Simply two reasons: because of the undeserved love has shown us in Jesus Christ and because our neighbor needs us…no strings attached.”

I want to expand on his observation. Not only do we love without cost, we love without appreciation, without expectation, and without the “strings.”

We aren’t always appreciated. I explain to my volunteers that you don’t know what is happening in the life of the homeless person you meet. You don’t know what kind of trauma he has experienced, or what kind of mental illness he might have, or how much he may be under the influence of drugs. For any number of reasons, he might not appreciate you–so don’t take it personally. But even at a deeper level, we don’t often show appreciation for the mercy Our Lord has shown us, but he gives again, heals again, and shows us mercy again. For us to arrogantly expect copious praise and appreciation from those to whom we show mercy smacks of bright neon-lit hypocrisy.

We also don’t show mercy expecting immediate reformation. I have one homeless man who used to live in one of the camps I served before it was demolished by the city. He lacked the things basic to a healthy life. So I supplied everything he needed to help him get back on his feet, and he saved enough money to help him get an apartment–then he spends it on a Kindle. I could be angry and refuse him any more mercy. But we have to realize, for many of the homeless, they have suffered major trauma and many have lived under years of systematic abuse; some are middle-aged but have the maturity of a teenager as a result. I am the closest thing to a parent my Kindle-owning homeless man has ever had, so I now have a new duty to help raise someone decades my senior. The birthday cake I got him for his birthday was the first he had in his entire life. I did this because it’s what a father would do. I make allowance for his mistakes for the same reason. He now has permanent housing, and though he has a lot of healing still needed, he is off the street. Mercy isn’t some kind of reciprocal transaction.

In short, we love without strings attached. Mercy is not the Gospel. Mercy is mercy and the Gospel is the Gospel. To choose one and neglect the other is inconsistent and hypocritical. Let us, rather, be known for both.


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  1. sue wilson
    June 14th, 2012 at 08:24 | #1

    Perhaps a different word would make the pastor’s efforts seem less related to the Gospel. Mercy, in the biblical sense, implies refraining from doing harm when harm is deserved.
    We do not show mercy to the poor as much as we show and demonstrate love. To say that we demontrate God’s love would be much less apt to be misinterpreted by both unbelievers and believers; thus more clearly separating the gospel of salvation from the love that God has for all people in pain and plight.

  2. Dan Sheppard
    June 14th, 2012 at 15:17 | #2

    I concur with our “charge” to generosity. In some cases however, the poor person on the street corner is there, due to their inability to manage money. Giving them money does not help them, if they buy substances to abuse. Contributions to fine organizations such as Union Gospel Missions, Salvation Army and others provides food and temp lodging, as long as an individual is substance free and showers.

    Our church’s Human Care committee provides help to those with legitimate need, but pays the gas or electric company directly. The first need is food, clothing, medical treatment perhaps, and shelter. The next perhaps, is to teach good money management skills.

  3. Joanne
    June 14th, 2012 at 21:00 | #3

    Jesus said but you did see me naked, you did see me hungry, you did see me sick, and dirty, and in prison, and you did nothing.

    What I notice is that Jesus doesn’t suggest that we need to go anywhere or look afar for these needy people.

    In your everyday vocation, the place where I have put you, there I will show you the hungry, the naked, and the sick. And there, right in your office, your car pool, your child care center, your church, your Rotarian group, your ladies’ society, there you will see me naked and in need of clothing, medicine, electricity, company, a listening ear.

    But God has not placed you where the obviously or professionally needy are. He’s placed you where everyone seems OK. You live where it is socially unacceptable to tell your neighbor that you can’t pay your electric bill this month. You would never let anyone know that you can’t afford to buy milk anymore, or gasoline.

    Unless someone listens and can see the signs of hidden need. But Lord, my neighbor never let me know that old gray sweater was her only sweater. You didn’t notice, you didn’t lister to her. I didn’t know his car was in the driveway everyday becasue he couldn’t afford the gas to go to the grocery store. Lord, I didn’t know how hungry they were.

    I’m going to make a direct suggestion, if you really want to help the needy right where God has placed you, learn to listen. A neighbor will not tell you sensitive information (I can’t afford to have my refrigerator or washing machine fixed) when you’re just making small talk. They understand you just mean to be pleasant, but you don’t really want inside information.

    Learn to listen to your neighbors and all the needs, some you could fix in a heartbeat, will come pouring out.

    You listen when you stop talking and just hear what your neighbor says and then repeat what they just said to you in your own words. They will say, “yes, and then.” You listen and repeat, not like a broken record, but like Jesus would to let your neighbor know that you heard what he said.

    You keep confidences and you always ask if you can help. “I’m headed for the grocery store, Mary, would you like to ride along with me. If she says yes, she has enought money to buy groceries, just no way to get there and back. If she says no, she may be fine or she may simply not have enought money to buy any groceries if she went there. If you’re listening to Mary you will find out.

    The repeating is called active listening and it signals that you really heard your neighbor. All the need that Jesus talked about us seeing and not helping, is right where he has put us. You might be surprised that an elderly couple in your neighborhood who don’t participate in any social programs, yet go to sleep hungry every night because of extreme shyness. Nobody sees it, but Jesus said you saw it, you saw him hungry. Listen actively right where Jesus has placed you and you will see him hungry and naked and you will be able to help, respectfully as they will allow you to help them.

    You know the ones, the ones with the obvious or not need, who will not admit they need help, or they hide their need. Hiding our need is the American Way. You have to accept that and let them control how you can help. Again, they will tell you everthing and more when you listen actively. “Um huh, so the boys took your money and only cleanedup your front yard. God will get ‘em for that, Mary.” Your grandsons can do a scout project to help someone. Tell Mary they need to do it to get their scout badges. Save her face.

    And sometime, when you become a natual active listener and actually learn to like to listen, people will tell you things that you can’t possibly help them with. Horrible things that happened to them as children. But, you know what, just keep on listening actively with no horror on your face. They need you to listen and not be repulsed by the things that broke them. You saw me in the prison of my memories and you listened to me and you let me let it out. You showed me that you heard me and still respected and cared for me.

    You saw me in prison in anguish and you heard my cry. When Lord!

  4. Carol Broome
    June 15th, 2012 at 10:27 | #4

    @Joanne #3
    There is a lot of wisdom in this, and I would like to add one additional thing.

    I live in a city that is pretty economically segregated. Nowadays we DON’T necessarily have ‘the poor’ on our actual block, even if they are in our city. It then behooves us to go and find them, to some extent, to offer the help that you describe. We shouldn’t sit back and say that God has not sent any ‘poor’ for us to help, simply because we have not run across someone like that in our front yard. As you rightly point out, there are often needy people whose needs are less than obvious. But widening our circle a bit also puts us in contact with very needy people at times.

    One church in our city is located in a downtown area with many needy people in their surrounding community. That church started feeding and clothing them in 1985, and other local churches have pitched in as well, with volunteers and in kind and financial donations. Because of that congregation’s location, they are uniquely able to channel this aid to where it is needed the most. “The poor you have always with you”–maybe not in your neighborhood, but in your community for sure.

  5. helen
    June 15th, 2012 at 11:21 | #5

    “Need” is not always dire poverty.

    Recently I took a fall and, among other things, broke a bone in my foot, which meant that I could not drive to work, to the store, to church, etc., for nearly six weeks. Because my co-workers and church members volunteered to pick me up I only lost a week of work (when I was not really fit to go). Others helped me with food and with getting to Sunday services. I even got to mid week service and Bible class because my evening “driver” went past the church and dropped me off for a member to take me home later!
    I learned a couple of things along the way. One: that more fellow employees than I realized live “in my neighborhood”. And two: that there is an unofficial ‘group’ I was not aware of at work which helps with various needs, physical, as mine, or financial emergencies (which do exist, though people don’t talk about them). I can’t repay those who helped me but I can endeavor to “pass it forward” at work and at church.

  6. Rich
    June 15th, 2012 at 13:10 | #6

    Ever notice how pastors almost never comment on posts such as this and laymen do?

  7. helen
    June 15th, 2012 at 21:56 | #7

    Pastors are better at not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing. :)

  8. Pastor Joshua Gale
    June 17th, 2012 at 07:02 | #8

    Thanks for the responses.

    I agree that there are many ways Christian mercy and love are expressed. My work with the poor is only one way, and there are many other Christian vocations fulfilled in countless situations.

  9. Neil Carlson
    June 19th, 2012 at 09:11 | #9

    Rev. Gale,
    May I have your permission to print your post in the church newsletter. In our last voter’s meeting the question was asked, “What is our procedure for handling those who come to the door asking for help?” I think the people here can learn from you.
    thanks for all you do in Philly.

  10. Pastor Joshua Gale
    June 19th, 2012 at 09:13 | #10

    Certainly, Neil. Drop me an email if I can offer further guidance.

  11. Yohannes Mengsteab
    April 28th, 2013 at 18:56 | #11

    Joshua, good conversation. However, I think you should reconsider your word “mercy”; it sounds paternalistic and is an incorrect translation. Human care or service would be more appropriate words for what you want to say. Just a suggestion.

    @Pastor Joshua Gale #8

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