I think Justin Taylor's description of this sermon ("The Gospel Demands Radical Generosity") is better than the sermon itself. There's an element of truth that David Platt is getting at in his sermon. I suspect that most Christians should be more concerned about, and should be doing more to help, the poor. But that conclusion isn't the same as equating conservative Evangelical Christians in America, Platt's primary audience, with the rich man of Luke 16. This subject could be approached from so many different angles, and there's a lot I'm ignorant about on this issue, but here are several qualifications I would add to Platt's sermon, qualifications he doesn't mention much or at all:
- The main problem with the rich man in Luke 16 is unbelief (Luke 16:31). Neglect of the poor is one symptom among others, but a symptom particularly relevant to the materialistic Pharisees mentioned in the nearby context (16:14).
- I doubt that the way the rich man dressed and ate (16:19) is comparable to what the average attender of a church like Platt's does. Yes, Americans generally have better and more clothing than a lot of other people in the world. But you can have better and more clothing without being excessive or going to the extent of excess described in Luke 16. The same is true of food, for example. Excessive and wasteful use of food is a significant problem in America, including among conservative Evangelicals, but the degree of the problem varies a lot from one individual to another, and I doubt that more than a small percentage of America lives the way the rich man in Luke 16 lived. There's a large gray area between poverty and the rich man of Luke 16. Americans are closer to the rich man. (And we're even better off than him in some ways.) But saying that Luke 16 has a secondary, significantly qualified application to people like those who attend Platt's church is different than saying that those people are the rich man. Some of Platt's comments would be more appropriate if directed at leaders of third-world nations or the executives at some corporations, not the average American Evangelical.
- Is Lazarus literally at our gate, as he was for the rich man? When Platt refers to people in other nations, sometimes thousands of miles away from us, as people at our gate, he's defining "at our gate" significantly differently than it's defined in Luke 16. The rich man didn't have to get past corrupt government officials, a corrupt military, language barriers, significant differences in cultural customs, etc. in order to get to Lazarus. Even when a Christian ministry or American government program has been set up to do such work, while being funded by the American people, much of the time and money involved has to go into getting those ministries and programs in place and keeping them going. It's not as easy as giving crumbs to a man who's literally at your gate (Luke 16:21) or helping him in some other manner.
- If Luke 16:21 is meant to suggest that the rich man didn't even give crumbs to Lazarus, then is such behavior comparable to what the average conservative Evangelical in America does? My understanding is that while Americans don't give as much money away as they should, they do give away some. And conservative Evangelicals seem to be among the most generous. Ministries to the poor are common, and they often receive a lot of attention from churches, businesses, the media, etc. Think, for example, of Salvation Army or the many radio and web ads you see for ministries helping the poor around the world. Are we truly refusing to even give away crumbs? We don't have to exaggerate a problem in order to address it. Hyperbole is acceptable at times, but let's be sure that people understand when a particular comment, like one of David Platt's, is hyperbolic at best.
- Even Americans who don't know much about politics tend to be aware of government programs like welfare. Our government spends a large amount of money on the poor, and we know it. Americans knowingly, and to some extent approvingly, provide for the poor through government programs.
- Part of the work done by our military involves helping the poor. We often provide food and water, build schools, and help with other such work in other nations, whether through our military or by other means. We don't just give financially. We also give our time, energy, and, in some cases, the lives of our soldiers in the process. Our concern for the poor often involves investing large amounts of money in rebuilding their nations and sometimes laying down our lives in service to them. This year, there will be American families who will be celebrating their first Christmas since losing a child, parent, or sibling in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example. Much of the work done by our military in those regions of the world constitutes helping the poor. What would a family of such a soldier think if you told them they were equivalent to the rich man of Luke 16?
- We're surrounded with many appeals to help the poor. How often do you see television, radio, and web ads for such ministries? How often do local Evangelical radio stations have fund raisers for such things? Even when the fund raiser is for something like the Bible League, so many of the people who receive the Bibles are poor people. Why do organizations seeking to help the poor set up stations outside of popular stores or in other such locations? Why keep setting up in such locations if nobody is even giving away their crumbs? Even if Americans don't give as much as they should, which I think is the case, I doubt that these organizations would be so numerous and would keep operating the way they do if the average American or the average Evangelical were behaving like the rich man in Luke 16.
- How many conservative Evangelical churches don't do anything to help the poor? From what I've heard from my church's leadership, it seems that they frequently are involved in things pertaining to the poor. We work with local ministries to the poor, we gather food for the poor, poor people come to us for help, etc. I suspect that the average conservative Evangelical church is frequently involved in helping the poor. Maybe we should do some things more or differently, but we are doing some things already.
- When poor people want help, do they usually go looking for a local group of atheists? They probably look for a religious or government organization to help them. They know that any help they're going to get is likely to come from professing Christian ministries or a government set up by professing Christians, one that largely reflects Christian priorities. Given how many shelters, hospitals, etc. there are that have been founded or operated by Christians, and given how widespread such things are, isn't it highly inaccurate to suggest that we refuse to even give away crumbs?
- Old Testament passages about the oppression of the poor or passages about using dishonest scales in order to steal from the poor, for example, can't be applied without qualification to Evangelicals who are only guilty of not giving as much as they should to the poor. Not helping the poor as much as you should isn't the same as oppressing the poor or stealing from them in an unqualified sense.
- Scripture distinguishes between different types of poor people. As Proverbs and Paul tell us, some poor people don't eat because they refuse to work. And many poor people, particularly in a nation like the United States, are poor partially because of something like mental illness, drugs, or alcohol. They sometimes don't want help or resist it, and they're sometimes largely blameworthy for their poverty.
- As Platt acknowledges, the poor can be helped in more ways than giving money. Giving them knowledge of important truths, developing their skills so that they can provide for themselves, spending time with them, and other such things are important. Giving to them financially is important, but so are other things. That includes apologetics, I would add. Ideas have consequences, including for the poor, both directly and indirectly.
- In some parts of a nation like the United States, you can live for many years without knowingly coming into face-to-face contact with somebody who's poor. You may know or walk or drive past people who have a relatively low income, but still have multiple pairs of clothing, a car, a television, housing, etc. They aren't in the same category as Lazarus. You could go many years, maybe even a lifetime, without meeting somebody like Lazarus face-to-face.
- We shouldn't assume that every commendable act of giving to the poor in scripture is meant to be taken as a universal commandment. Must everybody give 50% of their possessions to the poor upon their conversion to Christ (Luke 19:8-10)? Sometimes people are commended for giving their resources elsewhere instead of to the poor (Luke 21:1-4, John 12:3-8, Acts 6:1-4). Helping the poor is one good work among others, and different people are called to different fields of labor. Yes, poverty is common in the world and a frequent subject of discussion in scripture, and we should act accordingly. It should be relatively high on our list of priorities. Even those who don't do something like working for a ministry to the homeless should be helping the poor to some extent in some manner. You'd have to be unusually corrupt or unusually incompetent to avoid helping the poor altogether in a society like ours, where there are so many opportunities to help them and so many reminders to do so.
- Much of what our society has in place to help the poor, through non-governmental agencies or government programs, is a result of our Christian heritage. Those who went before us established a society in which we would be surrounded with reminders of the importance of caring for the poor and would have many opportunities available to do so. To refer to such a society, and particularly the portion of that society that most serves as salt and light, as the rich man of Luke 16 is inaccurate and slanderous.
Having said all of that, I want to repeat what I said at the beginning of this post. There is an element of truth to David Platt's sermon. And I'm glad that he's highly concerned about the poor. But qualifications like the ones above have to be kept in mind.