What is Christian transformational mercy ministry? For starters, Philip H. Towner defines mercy basically as “…a concept integral to an understanding of God’s dealings with humankind. In English translations … it comes to expression in phrases such as “to be merciful,” “to have mercy on” or “to show mercy toward.” The corresponding term, “merciful”, describes a quality of God and one that God requires of his people.”
Tim Keller defines mercy ministry as “…working to alleviate the burdens of another person; it is meeting their perceived needs through Gospel-driven deeds. …It incorporates all of the effects of the coming of the kingdom of God and thus is a visual, viable representation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through whom all things are redeemed, first partially in the old covenant, then really and more fully in the new covenant, and finally and completely in the kingdom to come”.
Having spent the last 40 years working with, and living among those who are burdened, I have concluded that the biblical mandate for mercy ministry is what I describe as “Christian transformational mercy ministry”. I highly recommend the work of Dr. Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor . Myers notes that the word “development” was first used in the 1950s to describe efforts to improve the well-being of the poor. He laments the absence of the spiritual component in typical development assessments. Myers does a good job of defining poverty as: deficit, entanglement, a lack of access to social power, a diminished personal and relational well-being, a disempowering system, and a lack of freedom to grow. One could readily see the complexities of those who are considered “poor”.
In every generation, God has called His people to “model” the mercy that He graciously extends to us! Like Myers, I believe that a Christian response to poverty can be based on truthfulness, righteousness, and justice. These principles are expressed as God’s people serve the “powerless”, and the “excluded” among us. For Myers, Christian transformational development is possible through real presence with the poor. This is not “drive-by” ministry. This level of presence is nothing less than what Christ Jesus modeled in His Incarnation. This is incarnational ministry, a kind which touches people in real and meaningful ways.
In the period from the Ante-Deluvian to the pre-Mosaic Era, the first objects of God’s mercy are Adam and Eve. Although this first couple had rebelled against Him, in Genesis 3:21 God, out of His immeasurable mercy, graciously provided proper clothing for the protection of His image-bearers. In His righteous judgment, God later showed great mercy to Noah and his family, while the entire human population was destroyed in the Flood, (see Gen. 5:7-8).
The OT covenant community, beginning with Moses, is a model for all the nations, for all times. In the Law, God requires social and moral righteousness from His people, (see Exodus 23:10-11; Deut. 14:28-29; 15:8-15; 24:14-22). In the Prophets mercy to the poor is represented as evidence of faith, (see Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 22:16). We also see that no mercy to the poor is evidence of covenant infidelity, (see Isaiah 3:13-15; Jeremiah 5:26-28; Amos 2:6-7). Now, in the OT, the objects of God’s mercy were the nation of Israel, and more explicitly, the Poor “among us”: widows, orphans, servants, strangers, and the Levites – those without an inheritance, the “land-less”. Meanwhile no mercy was given to the Canaanites!
With the coming of Christ Jesus, the NT Covenant Community has become a model for all people groups, for all times. Christ’s Incarnation is described a “…the most complete illustration of mercy … in Scripture”. The objects of God’s mercy are the church, (see Ephesians 2:4-5; 1 Timothy 4:10), and the Poor: widows, orphans, servants, strangers – the “powerless”, (see Luke 10: 25-37; Acts 6:1-7; James 1:27; 2:1-13). Meanwhile, no mercy was to be shown to the lazy, and indolent, (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10; 1 Peter 4:15)
So what is Christian transformational mercy ministry? Well, I believe it starts with the right attitude. Our motivation should mimic that of the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7. We are called to serve out of a deep sense of recognizing how merciful the Lord has been to us. Jesus tells us, “He who is forgiven much, loves much.” Do you realize how much the Lord has forgiven you? Another attitude that Christians are called to demonstrate is defined by Ben Aalbers. He admonishes Christians to “…stop living as though [the poor does] not exist” . Remember, poverty is defined as deficit, entanglement, a lack of access to social power, a diminished personal and relational well-being, a disempowering system, and a lack of freedom to grow.
Most importantly, in introducing His mission in Luke 4, Jesus describes the beneficiaries of His primary ministry – the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed – “outcasts” of the Mediterranean world. In Jesus’ day, the word “poor” served as a code for those of low status, those who were excluded and marginalized. The Roman Empire was divided socially, (citizens- freedmen-slaves), and culturally (Romans-Greeks-barbarians). In first century Palestine, widows, orphans, and strangers had become the most vulnerable to political and religious oppression. Jesus commanded His followers to always remember the poor, thus treating them with the level of dignity that God had always shown in every generation.
Christian transformational mercy ministry should compel us to address the diverse challenges that exist among the poor among us – “powerless”, the excluded, the marginalized, the “voiceless”, and the hopeless. And we address the challenges that these images of God face in a manner that dignifies each person in a manner that glorifies Christ. Further, this ministry is long term, expecting the Lord to transform the hearts, minds and lives of those to whom He calls His people to serve.
This task is most difficult, and is designed primarily for the covenant community, the community where the Sovereign Lord has shown great mercy. This is what the Lord has called Covenant Life to demonstrate as we begin our ministry in the Bahamas. This is not a job for the government. “When the government becomes our ‘savior’, our destruction is imminent”. (J. Russell)