I recently taught a class on a Theology of Evangelism at a local conservative seminary. It was a most enjoyable class (and one of my favorite topics) full of significant young Christian leaders. My belief is that when we lovingly proclaim the gospel of Jesus that most often, friendship happens.
As a gift to the students, I asked Kevin Palau to come to class and contribute his significant perspective to our conversation. Kevin was fantastic!
If you don’t know, Kevin is the son of renowned evangelist, Luis Palau and he is the current president of the . Among his many ministry accomplishments, he has been instrumental, if not unprecedented, in his work to build partnerships between civic/city governments and church communities.
Kevin sat relaxed in front of my class, as if we were all lounging in his living room. He is almost giddy when he talks about the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus and the work of the Palau organization over the decades and especially today.
Then he shared about his work with the City of Portland and specifically the Mayor’s office. “We just went in and told the mayor that we wanted to help. We, the evangelical church, have an incredible network of thousands and thousands of people who want to love this city. We have time, expertise and manpower. How can we help?”
According to Kevin, the Mayor and his staff were thankful and inspired by the invitation. Even Kevin was amazed by how much, over time, the city invited the faith community into partnership.
After a time of brainstorming about the most glaring needs in the city of Portland (again this was a City government generated list), seven areas of need were presented:
“Hunger, homelessness, healthcare, poorly financed public schools, foster care, human trafficking, and the environment”
With Kevin’s words still floating in the middle of the room, I thought of Jesus’ transformational commentary on the Kingdom in Matthew 25:
Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat;
I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink;
I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;
(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, “Lord, when?”
The King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
(Matthew 25:34-37, 40 NASB, format and bold mine)
Let’s line those two lists up:
|Jesus’ Words||City of Portland’s Expressed Needs|
Public Schools (most often in Portland’s poorest neighborhoods).
Environment (global food/clean water)
Human Trafficking (sex industry)
Foster Care and Poor Public Schools are often populated with children of prisoners
The City of Portland, which Huffington Post just listed as America’s Least Christian City, not only opened its doors to partnering with evangelical churches, but when they asked for help, they unknowingly asked us to fulfill Jesus’ invitation to participate in the Kingdom of God. They basically asked us to be the church.
Kevin went on to say that thousands and thousands of Portland churchgoers are today experiencing participation with God’s Kingdom like they never have before. And we have the City of Portland to thank for generously opening their doors to partnership.
Maybe Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 are as much about befriending our culture as they are about personal holiness.
Ten years ago, I was a young theology student. Unexpectedly, my friend Steve Mitchell invited me to a small dinner party. He told me that Tony Campolo would be attending. Now, there are many mixed opinions about this Activist-Theologian, but I must admit that I was a bit star-struck by the thought of spending an evening at a dinner table with Dr. Campolo. My youth pastor first introduced to his expectorating sermons as a boy and I have never forgotten his early impression on my life.
As we sat around the classic wooden table, Dr. Campolo waxed eloquent about our place in the world as the people of God. He soon turned the conversation to the topic of the poor. I sat at the far side of the table from him, just thankful for the delicious food and the rich company.
“What is your theology of the poor?” Dr. Campolo blurted out. His always dramatic tone jumped up a quantum level. “What! What is your theology of the poor?”
He had removed his glasses and he was scanning the table through squinting eyes. “You!” He thrust his glasses across the table, directly at me. “You, young theologian, what is your theology of the poor? What does your seminary teach you?”
Oh nuts! The whole table of more than a dozen people stared at me and I scanned back and forth around the rectangular space as my mind scrambled desperately for a reasonably thoughtful answer.
How about you? How would you have answered the question? What is your theology of the poor?
After an excruciating silence, I admitted to the table my ignorance, “I don’t know.”
Dr. Campolo smiled at me reassuringly. He seemed genuinely encouraged by my willingness to admit my blindness. I believe he saw it as courage, even though to me it felt like shame.
“Our theology of the poor is simple, ” Dr. Campolo shared. “We find it in the words of Jesus. When we look into the eyes of the poor, ” he paused with his hand outstretched, “When we look into the eyes of the poor, we look into the face of Jesus. It is as simple as that. What did Jesus say? Do we believe his words? ‘For as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.'”
I want to end this article with a unusual application for your consideration.
When Jesus made his famous list in Matthew 25, it always seemed fairly straightforward to me. “Hungry and Thirsty” referred to those without access to sustainable nutrition and clean water. “Sick” referred to the infirmed both in our local health systems and victims of health/environmental epidemics around the world. “Prison” refers to those incarcerated in our prison system. “Stranger” referred to the one ‘who is different’ and the immigrant, most epitomized in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
What about the “naked?” For most of my life, I just assumed that “naked” was simply a synonym for the poor (and that may very well be much of what Jesus meant.) However, the “poor” are fairly well covered in Jesus’ other categories: hungry, thirsty, etc.. What if Jesus also had something else in mind?
I imagine Jesus, as he made his list of societal pain, that as he spoke, his thoughts wandered through the streets of the Roman World. He thought of hungry urchins, desperate lepers, exhausted foreigners, and dissenters destined to prisons and to Roman crosses. What else did he see? He also saw temple prostitutes and sex slaves (also one of Jesus’ closest followers may have been a prostitute.) Who were the “naked” of the Roman World? Who are the “naked” of our society today? In many ways they are the victims of human trafficking and the sex industry, these are the same people who populate our world’s brothels, strip clubs and pornographic websites.
I know that I am not going to get any “feel good” awards for ending my article this way, but this is a specific implication that I believe we need to consider.
When Dr. Campolo talked about a theology of the poor, he said “When you look into the eyes of the poor, you are looking into the eyes of Jesus” and he justified it by simply taking Jesus’ words literally (something that every conservative Bible scholar tries to do): “As much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
I ask you, what are the implications when we apply Dr. Campolo’s words to the “naked” in our society? What are the implications when we walk down the neon-lit streets of our cities? What are the implications when we sit on a strip club barstool? AND what are the implications when we click on an exploitative website?
“When we look into the eyes of the _______, we look into the eyes of Jesus.”
“For as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”