As I sat in the Newark, New Jersey airport gate area on that rainy Friday night some years ago I occupied my time waiting for the flight back to Atlanta by observing the other passengers; a favorite pastime of mine. Normally these large metropolitan airports contain a diverse cross section of society, but this flight was full of tired businessmen in rumpled suits thinking about getting home sometime later that evening.
Shortly before boarding I heard a baby crying in the distance. As the volume of the cry increased it was obvious to everyone that the baby were getting closer. Then the mother and wailing child walked into our gate area and the group dynamic abruptly changed. I could easily read the body language and facial expressions of most of these men. They observed this young woman and her screaming baby with one thought in mind; “please don’t sit anywhere near me.” I wondered if she noticed the attention. I was not overly concerned about her and the baby since it was a large plane and the odds of them winding up near me were slim, so I thought. I boarded and found my customary aisle seat and settled in for what I knew was going to be a bumpy flight. The seats filled up rapidly with no sign of the young woman. Finally she came down the aisle looking at the row numbers and stopped in front of me, looked at the middle seat, then back at me and smiled. My continence sank as I arose to allow her to sit down, thankful that I was not the poor guy stuck in the window seat; at least I could lean into the aisle for some relief. I noticed the looks from the men around me and could again easily read their faces, “better you than me.”
I did my best to ignore the situation for the first few minutes of the flight then noticed the crying had stopped. I looked over to see the baby in the arms of the man in the window seat as he was talking to the mother. A rush of shame overwhelmed me. At the first opportunity I introduced myself, and started a conversation with her. Come to find out this was her first flight and she was taking her baby to Birmingham, Al to see her grandparents. Her husband was unable to travel with them at this time; her father was a medical doctor; so much for assumptions. Although I’m not the best air traveler, I tried to help her and the baby throughout the remainder of the rough flight. When we arrived in Atlanta I walked her to her connecting gate where she thanked me profusely and we said good-by.
Driving home that late that evening I remembered the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:34-40, “Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 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, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
Paul writes in Romans 12:13, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” The word “hospitality” here suggests the idea of “love to strangers” (Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 654). We “seek” to show hospitality “as if in a chase or hunt” (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 405). Paul cited Onesiphorus as an example of a hospitality-seeker in 2 Timothy 1:16-18, “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me— may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.”
It is interesting that the term “churches of Christ” is found only once in the New Testament (Rom 16:16), but Luke uses the word “Way” six times in Acts to refer to the disciples of Christ. Five of the six times the term was used by people outside the church who took notice of the distinct “Way” that Christians conducted themselves in relation to others. The origin of this term may be Christ’s words to Thomas in John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Emperor Julian wrote in his Epistle to Pagan High Priests: “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes… “(reference?) Christ reminded His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount of their responsibilities to others when He said: "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Paul was accused of “turning the world upside down” with his teaching and “way of life” in the first century. (Acts 17:6) How are we to go about doing the same today? Is it through politics and protests or by living a certain “Way” that is countercultural? Are we not to be proactively “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22)?
In light of the above, why do we often see a lack of enthusiasm and commitment for benevolence in our congregations today when compared to evangelism and edification? Why is this vital work treated as a fifth wheel rather than the third leg of the mission of Christ’s church? In my experience as an elder when it came time for the annual selection of primary ministry oversight responsibilities benevolence was usually chosen just ahead of delinquents in the last round.
The church is a living organism and as such will periodically become unbalanced in its priorities. It is the responsibility of congregational leaders to impartially review their ministries and correct that imbalance. As Paul wrote in 2 Cor 13:5: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
God expects leaders to follow the example of Christ and recognize the importance of benevolence as an equally critical work of the church. Rom 15:1-3:”We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me."