Compassion and the Mission of God | Book Review


Compassion and the Mission of God has two purposes, which Rupen Das articulates in the book’s Introduction, the first as a statement and the second as a question. First, the statement: “This book will revision some of the biblical narratives to try and understand where the poor and the broken fit within the economy of God and why” (15–16, emphasis in original). Second, the question: “Why does God care for the poor, and as a result, why should we?” (16, emphasis in original).

Chapter 2, “Issues That Frame the Discussion on Compassion” (17–41), examines “four foundational issues that influence different perspectives on whether compassion is a fundamental biblical value and whether the church should respond to poverty and other social issues. These are: (1) how is Scripture read and understood, 92) can theology be contextual, (3) the exact nature of the mission of the church, and (4) how one views the poor” (18).

Chapter 3, “The Biblical Basis to Understand the Poor and Poverty: The Old Testament” (43–71), examines what the Hebrew Bible teaches about the cause and cure of poverty. Das argues that the Wisdom tradition largely sees poverty as the result of “laziness and lifestyle choices” (71), the legal and prophetic tradition took a more systemic view of the matter. “A social-scientific and historical approach to the study of poverty in the Bible helps explain the history and the social, economical, and political contexts that created and entrenched poverty in Old Testament society and which then are the reason for the teaching on the issues of poverty, care of the poor and of justice” (70). Obviously, these two explanations—bad choices, unjust systems—continue to characterize the contemporary debate over poverty.

Chapter 4, “The Biblical Basis to Understand the Poor and Poverty: The Gospels” (73–86), focuses on “the socioeconomic context of the Gospels rather than an analysis of the teachings on the poor and poverty” (73). Das argues that the causes of poverty in Jesus’ day were the same as in the Old Testament, though with different elites. “The causes of poverty continued to be exploitation by the ruling business, political and religious elite” (85).

Chapter 5, “Teachings and Practices of the Early Church: The New Testament and Church History” (87–103), address three topics: (1) “the context within which the early church lived” (87); (2) “the practice of charity by the early church and its impact” (88), showing that “Christian and Jewish charity”—which Das sees as one thing, not two, so perhaps Judeo-Christian would be the better term—was “a completely new departure from existing [i.e., Greco-Roman] values and practice” (92); and (3) “the teachings of the early church fathers” (88). Das argues that the early church clearly valued charity, but also notes that the justice theme of both Old and New Testaments is not as prominent. Regardless, “The Central truth through all the teaching was that the only way one could demonstrate that they were true followers of Christ, was if they showed mercy and compassion toward the poor” (102–103).

Chapter 6, “Theological Challenges” (105–121) looks at three theological debates that have divided Protestant Christianity, affecting how it ministers compassionately to the poor: (1) the nature of the gospel, whether Jesus’ “kingdom of God” or Paul’s “justification by faith”; (2) the nature of “righteousness,” specifically whether it is “moral perfection” or “obligation”; and (3) the nature of the Millennium, where some interpretations effectively separated “evangelism and discipleship” from “justice and compassion.”

Chapter 7, “Healing the Divide” (123–134), surveys the history of the modern missions movement regarding the relationship between “the verbal proclamation of the gospel” and “addressing social and physical needs” (123). Das examines the great century of Christian missions (the nineteenth), which practiced both, though without “a clear theological understanding of whether social issues should be addressed” (123). In the nineteenth century, if Liberation Theology and the World Council of Churches swung to the extremes of social concern over evangelism, evangelical missiologists (led by Donald McGavran) swung the other way. The Lausanne Covenant brought evangelism and social concern back into relationship for evangelical missions, with evangelism still considered “prior” in some sense. The integral mission of the Micah Declaration, Das argues, “finally provided the right balance between the verbal proclamation of the gospel and the demonstration of its reality. Neither operates independently and each has significant implications for the other” (134).

Chapter 8, “Transformation or Witness: The Challenge of Transformation” (135–163), asks: “Does the compassion of God focus on only meeting immediate needs through charity or is God concerned with the underlying issues that cause poverty and in the transformation of the world?” (135). It answers affirmatively. However, it adds: “But it is God who transforms and he invites us to partner with him. God is already in the process of redeeming human beings and creation, and will transform us all when created time melds into eternity” (161, emphasis in original).

Chapter 9, “Transformation or Witness: Being a Witness” (165–179), takes up the flip side of the coin. Christian mission involves both transformation and witness. This call to conversion is a hallmark of evangelical missions in particular. However, missionaries who combine evangelism and social concern must face several challenges: (1) “there should be no conditionality in the assistance that is provided” (175), and “there is no conditionality and proselytism to force individuals to change their social group and religious affiliation” (179). Bearing witness is the Church’s work. Converting people is God’s.

Chapter 10, “The Face of Compassion” (181–195), outlines “three dimensions of compassion” that God exemplifies and that his disciples should exemplify too: (1) “God seeks to bless human beings and his creation”, (2) “He defends and protects those who are the victims of evil,” and (3) “God desires his creation to be restored to him” (186, emphasis in original). These three dimensions—blessing, justice, redemption—should also characterize the people of God.

Chapter 11, “Conclusion: A God of Compassion” (197–202), rounds out the book with this strong statement: “The ministries of compassion and social justice are in effect prophetic ministries because they embody the values at the core of the kingdom of God. Most people encounter the invisible kingdom for the first time through these ministries and realize that maybe there is an alternative to the realities of the world they live in. This opens them to the possibility of a God who is compassionate” (201). And, “To be compassionate in the midst of a culture which robs people of life is what it means to be the people of God in the world that we live in” (202).

Book Reviewed
Rupen Das, Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom (Carlisle, UK: Langham Global Library, 2015).

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