Set Free … that is why we care

Love, care, showing compassion, taking care of, and providing shelter are inextricably par t of being a Christi an. In our 2017 celebration of Reformation, we are once again reminded in which theological beliefs these life virtues are embedded and from which place we live being of service for God and our neighbour – the place of freedom.

The Good News

The Reformation on was not a time in history during which believers invented something new. It was a ti me when, in a specific context, people listened anew to the Good News of the Gospel. One of the essential truths that the Reformers once again discovered in the Scripture is that we are free in Christ. Our freedom is then the place from which we serve God and our neighbour.

Why do I take care of others?

In the time of Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic Church and other Reformers put themselves through a lot of trouble for the poor. The giving of alms was deeply embedded in the ecclesiastical institute and society. We must remember that the feudal type of society (rich landowners and poor subfarmers) of the sixteenth-century Europe, as well as incidents like natural disasters, plagues and wars, placed the great majority on the periphery of society. They were dependent on these alms. But, behind these alms, was a certain motive that had become part of the religious atmosphere of the day. The giving of alms was woven into a theological frame that declared that it contributed towards salvation. You would be rewarded. It was, as it were, an investment in the hereafter. Beggars were helped because, inside the bigger religious scheme of things, this help helped the giver to earn more points for salvation.

It is precisely in the sphere of motives that the Reformers found a different perspective in Scripture: I do not help to be rewarded. I give because I am free to serve and because I can see the image of God in others. This became the actual motivation.

Is it not true that, when we are concerned with ourselves, we overlook those around us? We can be focused on ourselves in different ways: Disgruntled with circumstances, comparing ourselves to others or thinking in our secret heart that we are not good enough. We can think that we will be found lacking by God or by our neighbour. Actually, we can only care if we look away from ourselves and focus on God and others. Calvin wrote: “This freedom means that we can be assured that our attempts will be ‘approved by our most merciful Father, however small, rude, and imperfect these may be.” (Institute 3.19.5)

To care then becomes one of the faces of this holy freedom. There are many words that can be replaced by “care”. We love, have compassion, we are merciful, we console, we serve, we help. However, it also involves firm action and compiling means and arrangements to ensure the service.

A community chest

Luther, for example, established a Beutelordnung in 1521. This was an order for a common purse – a community chest – wherein the church, guilds and other fraternities put money, which was then used to help those in need. Begging was, for example, not just accepted as a given. People were encouraged to work, and only those who could not look aft er themselves, were helped. Interest-free loans were given to people of poor descent who wanted to carry on a trade, and they went through trouble to send poor children to school. Luther’s theological motivation was that all good things  flow from Christ so that it could again flow from us to those who need it.

The beauty of God’s image in my neighbour

John Calvin had a heart for refugees. Sometimes we forget that he was a French refugee and served a community of refugees in Genève – people who, on account of their Protestant beliefs, could not return to their country of birth. In his writings, Calvin also proved to have a good insight into human nature. He knew that we become weary of doing good and that doing good cost effort. Yet, he reminds his audience that we do good because we recognize Christ’s image in the other: “The Lord enjoins us to do good to all without exception, though the greater part, if estimated by their own merit, are most unworthy of it. But Scripture subjoins a most excellent reason, when it tells us that we are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all,and to which we owe all honour and love. But in those who are of the household of faith, the same rule is to be more carefully observed, inasmuch as that image is renewed and restored in them by the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whoever be the man that is presented to you as needing your assistance, you have no ground for declining to give it to him. [Institutes 3.7.6] He puts a lot of effort to portray the stranger as someone who might annoy you. However, when we see the image of God in him of her “the image, by its beauty and worthiness, attracts us to love and embrace them.”

Concrete service

The Reformation helps us to make the grace-message of freedom and salvation the place from where we serve. The goodness of God flows through us to the other;  Caring is not an obligation or something to be rewarded. It is exactly in our brokenness that we find freedom in Christ. That is why the Protestant tradition has always taken education and the founding of social organisations seriously. We set up programs, people and buildings to relieve distress. This concrete service is born of a composure and freedom that is rooted in the certainty of God’s goodness and Christ’s forgiveness.

Thoughts for reflection

1. Read Ephesians 2:1-10. See how Paul reminds his audience that their status was that of dead people, that God, by his mercy, saved them. That is why we can do the good works that God created us to do (verse 10) as free people. Think about caring as part of your congregation’s “intention”.
2. What is the concrete social distress in your neighbourhood? How does the lens of freedom and service help you to think anew about, and to react to this?
3. Why do we struggle to see God’s image in people?
4. What is the place from which you serve? A place of freedom, or of guilt and obligation?
5. Pray for concrete ideas to set up programs to relieve distress.

Lisel Joubert

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