ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS JESUS ASKS:
Reflections on Together for Hope
by Malcolm Tolbert
As a seminary professor I had the responsibility of giving my students periodic tests. On the basis of the scores that students made on the tests given during the semester, they would either pass or fail the course. Of course, it goes without saying that they had to answer the questions that I asked. Often I gave the students a great deal of guidance in preparation for the exam so that they could get the answers ready for the questions they would be asked. They might have chosen to ignore my guidance in getting ready for the test questions. They could have prepared to answer questions other than the ones I put on the test, but those answers, no matter how good, would have been unacceptable.
Jesus told us that we will have to pass a final exam. He also told us exactly what the questions will be. One of the clearest passages we have in the Bible in this regard is Matthew 25:31-46. The questions go like this: How many prisoners have you been concerned about? How many sick people have you helped? How many naked people have you clothed? How many hungry people have you fed? You donçt need a seminary degree to understand that passage. As strange as it may seem, however, a great many people apparently are getting answers ready for the wrong questions. For example, they are attempting to phrase their confession of faith just right. Some seem to be more concerned about their doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible than they are about doing what the Bible clearly teaches us that Jesus wants us to do. Indeed, I don't remember anywhere in the gospels where Jesus seems to be excessively worried about the disciples' theology. He was more concerned that they live loving lives, which means helping lives. Many people are concerned about getting their theology straight who do very little or nothing about the poor. Rigid orthodoxy keeps people from hearing what Jesus has to say in this century as it did in the first century.
If we are going to do what Jesus so plainly told us to do, we are going to have to identify some disadvantaged person or persons whom we can help. I can't do anything about all the starving children in the world. Indeed, I often feel overwhelmed when I read the statistics, especially those that tell us how many children in the world die from malnutrition every day. I cannot help them all, but God does not expect me to help them all. On the other hand, we can help some if we identify them. Of course, people in need are found in every region of our country and in every city. One of the places where you can encounter people in deep poverty is in the rural areas of the deep south. One might say that there are more disadvantaged people in a large city than in a given rural area. That may be true. On the other hand, there are more organizations available to help the needy in the cities than there are in the rural areas. Also, there are more resources available in the city than in the rural regions.
At their best, programs are developed to direct our attention toward what is doable and to channel what we do for people who are in need. The CBF has identified an area of our state where many people live, children and adults, who lack so many of the things we take for granted,food, clothing, medical care, adequate housing, you name it. They call the program through which our efforts are directed the Together for Hope Rural Poverty Initiative. There are countless other places in the world toward which we could direct our efforts, but we can't do them all. We need to reduce our ministry to a doable size. That is what has been done in this program. Also, we recognize that our neighbors are our special responsibility. If we don't accept the responsibility for ministry to people in the rural areas of our state, we can hardly expect others to do it. Let it be kept in mind that we are not talking so much about geography but about people. The people who live in poverty in rural regions are people whom God loves, many of them in need of our ministry. Jesus was concerned that his followers love those whom God loves. He was concerned also that we do it in concrete ways.
You may be able to answer correctly many important questions that bear on your relationship to God. Are you a faithful member of your Christian community? Wonderful! Are you a good and responsible spouse and parent? Great! Those, however, are not questions Jesus included in his parable about the final exam. Have you clothed anybody lately? Have you fed a hungry person? Those are the questions Jesus said that we would be faced with. One of the ways we can get ready for that final exam is to be involved in the Together for Hope Rural Poverty Initiative.
Dr. Tolbert, retired seminary professor, missionary, pastor and New Testament scholar was the featured speaker at the first annual Stagg-Tolbert Forum for Biblical Studies held October 16, 2004 at Broadmoor Baptist Church, Baton Rouge