If you were to ask several different Christians to individually explain what ‘worship’ of God is or looks like, you might well receive several different answers. They may speak of what occurs during times of corporate worship in a formal gathering; private worship in an individual ‘quiet time’ of prayer and Bible reading; or perhaps they might talk about ‘all of life as worship’.
No doubt all these and many other responses can fall under the broad-ranging heading of ‘worship’—after all, we are urged to live lives that express honour and worship of God in all that we do (e.g. Rom 12:1; Col 3:17)—but let me add another to the mix: care for the needy.
Several times, in both the Old and New Testaments, God admonishes his people for practising hollow, ritualistic and insincere worship, and tells them that if they truly knew and worshipped him, they would be caring for the vulnerable.
Consider Isaiah 1, where God expresses his displeasure at the people’s continual sacrifices, offerings and festivals and tells them instead to ‘Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’ (vv16f) Or Jeremiah 22:16, where God says that Josiah ‘“defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.’
Similarly, in Luke 11:39-41, Jesus tells the Pharisees to be generous to the poor rather than fixated on ritualistic cleanliness. He rebukes them for legalistically tithing their herbs but neglecting ‘justice and the love of God’. James writes that ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’ (Jas 1:27)
But what is it about caring for the vulnerable or seeking justice for the needy that makes this an act of worship or service toward God?
In the OT, the Israelites were to act justly toward the vulnerable not only in obedience to God’s explicit command, but in remembrance that God had saved them from slavery: ‘Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.’ (Dt 24:17,18; see also Ex 22:21, Lev 25:35-43)
Likewise, in the NT, John writes that the way we treat brothers and sisters in need demonstrates the love of God in us, which we know through Jesus’ sacrificial death (1 Jn 3:16-18; also 4:11,12,19).
For Christians, therefore, it seems that caring for the needy is not so much about entitlement and rights as it is about acknowledging our own standing before God (as needy sinners who have been saved), remembering God’s grace toward us and reflecting his character.
With that in mind: rather than merely adding ‘justice’ and ‘care for the needy’ to our Christian to-do lists, we must be careful that we don’t fall into the same patterns that the Pharisees and people of Isaiah’s day were reprimanded for. After all, it was not their actual sacrifices or obedience to the law that were offensive to God—it was the motivation and heart behind their actions. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 13:3 warns us that even the act of caring for the needy can become a false or meaningless form of worship: ‘If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.’
Where love for God overflows in loving care for the vulnerable, there we see a ‘service of worship’.
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