What I knew about Jonathan Edwards came from local evangelical churches that wanted to experience more of God, or of the Holy Spirit. What I did not realize until recently is that he had very strong words to say about a Christian’s responsibility to the poor.
Jonathan Edwards was a pastor of a church in Massachussetts in the early 1700s. He is mostly known in relation to the Awakening, or the Revival of the church in the eastern US at that time. My questions in relation to Christians wanting to “experience more of God”, or “revival” is for what purpose? To me, it would only be more overwhelming to understand more of God’s heart for the many victims of abuse and violence around the world. It turns out that Jonathan Edwards also had strong words for our responsibility to our neighbours.
In his book, “Generous Justice”, Timothy Keller brings up this sermon given by Jonathan Edwards in March of 1732. The verses in the Bible that he introduces his message is from Deuteronomy 15: 7-11, specifically verse 7 “If there is any poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard hearted or tight fisted toward your poor brother.” We have to remember the context of this passage. God had promised the best piece of real estate in the cross roads of the then known world to the people of Israel. All the nations around Israel would be traveling through Israel on the various trading routes of the time. God wanted his people to be an example to all the nations.
Here are some quotes from Jonathan Edward’s sermon on “The Duty of Charity to the Poor”
“Tis the most absolute and indispensible duty of a people of God to give bountifully and willingly for the supply of the wants of the needy”
“Men are exceedingly apt to make objections against such duties,..God said…beware that you have not one objecting thought against it, arising from a backwardness to liberality.”
“Jesus said in Matt 26:11, “the poor you always have with you”. This is to cut off the excuse that uncharitable persons would be ready to make for not giving, that they could non find nobody to give to, that they saw none who needed.”
“We are commanded, therefore, to give our poor neighbour what is sufficient for his need.”
“This is a duty to which God’s people are under very strict obligation. It is not merely a commendable thing for a man to be kind and bountiful to the poor, but our bounden duty, as much a duty as it is to pray, or to attend public worship,….And the neglect of it brings great guilt upon any person.”
“we should love our neighbours as ourselves; for men are made in the image of God, and on this account are worthy of our love…we have the same nature,…like desires of good, like needs, like aversion to misery,…”
“consider how much God hath done for us, how greatly he hath loved us, what he hath given us, when we were so unworthy, and when he could have no addition to his happiness by us.”
“What would become of us, if Christ…had been as ready to excuse himself from dying for us, as men commonly are to excuse themselves from charity to their neighbour?”
“Your money and your goods are not your own. They are only committed to you as stewards, to be used for him who committed them to you.”
“Many persons are ready to look upon what is bestowed for charitable uses as lost. But we ought not to look upon it as lost, because it benefits those who we ought to love as ourselves.”
“It is easy with God to make up to men what they give in charity. Many but little consider how their prosperity or ill success in their outward affairs depends on Providence…how easy is it with God to increase their substance, by suitable seasons, or by health and strength, by giving them fair opportunities for promoting their interest in their dealings with men,…”
“Consider what a shifting, changing, uncertain world you live in, and how often it hath so happened, that men have been reduced from the greatest prosperity to the greatest adversity, and how often the children of the rich have been reduced to pinching want.”
“If providence should so order it, that you or your children should be brought into the same circumstances, would you make light of them (the poor) then? Would you not think that your case was such that needed the kindness of your neighbours? Would you not think that they ought to be ready to help you?”
“Giving to the needy is like laying up against winter, or against a time of calamity. It is the best way of laying up for yourselves, and for your children.”
“Showing mercy to the poor does as much belong to the appointed way of seeking salvation, as any other duty whatever.”
“If you expected to meet with no trouble in the world, because you gave to the poor, you mistook the matter. Though there be many and great promises made to the liberal, yet God has nowhere promised, that they shall not find this world a world of trouble.”
“How can you tell what blessings God hath yet in reserve for you if you do but continue in well doing?”
“Some may object against charity in that they are not obliged to give them anything, for though they be needy, they are not in extremity….this is not agreeable to the rule of loving our neighbour as ourselves. That rule implies that our love towards our neighbour should work in the same manner, and express itself in the same ways, as our love towards ourselves.”
“Some may object against charity..because he is an ill sort of person. He deserves not that people should be kind to him. He is of an ill temper, of an ungrateful spirit and particularly because he hath not deserved well of them, but has treated them ill, has ben injurious to them, and even now entertains an ill spirit against them……. we are obliged to the rules of God’s word… that of loving our neighbour as ourselves….we are commanded to love one another as Christ hath loved us.”
“Christ denied himself to help us, though we are not able to recompense him, so should we be willing to layout ourselves to help our neighbour, freely expecting nothing again.”
“Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving any good, but deserving only to be hated and treated with indignation, so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving”
“We are particularly required to be kind to the unthankful and to the evil. We are obliged, not only to be kind to them that are so to us, but to them that hate, and that despitefully use us.”
“Some may object concerning a particular person that they do not certainly know whether he be an object of charity or not….they know not whether he be in want as he pretends, or if they know this, they know not how he came to be in want, whether it were not by his own idleness, or prodigality….we are commanded to be kind to strangers whom we know not, nor their circumstances”
“Some may say they are not obliged to give to the poor till they ask…..we shall do them a greater kindness by inquiring into their circumstances, and relieving them, without putting them upon begging.”
“If they are come to want by a vicious idleness and prodigality, yet we are not thereby excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices…If they continue not in those vices, the rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them. If we do otherwise, we shall act in a manner very contrary to the rule of loving one another as Christ has loved us.”
“He has brought himself to want by his own fault – in reply, it must be consider what you mean by his fault. If you mean a want of a natural faculty to manage affairs to advantage, that is to be considered as his calamity. Such a faculty is a gift that God bestows on some, and not on others…you ought to be thankful that God hath given you such a gift, which he hath denied to the person in question. And it will be a very suitable way for you to show your thankfulness, and help those to who that gift is denied, and let them share the benefit of it with you.”
“the law makes provision for the poor, and obliges the respective towns in which they live to provide for them…..I do not suppose that it was ever the design of the law, requiring the various towns to support their own poor, to cut off all occasion for Christian charity”
Jonathan Edwards makes very strong statements about our obligation to the poor. It makes us think about our own community, and our own personal involvement in Circles of Care. Does our obligation to help the poor mean that help can be demanded of us by the poor? What does mutual respect and dignity mean for us in our community? How can we work to build a community that we all can be proud of?