James the brother of Jesus is the James who joined Peter and John in meeting with Barnabas, Titus, and Paul regarding the content of the gospel (Gal. 2:1–10). This James is the same apostle who wrote the epistle of James, which is known for its many references to the plight of the poor and the church’s call to help the needy (1:27; 2:1–7, 14–17; 5:1–6). It is therefore not surprising that the topic of poverty came up when James met with Paul in Jerusalem.
In today’s passage Paul concludes his account of his second post-conversion visit to Jerusalem, telling us that the one request James, Peter, and John gave him was to remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). Specifically in mind are the poor Christians in Judea, who in the first century were often in dire straits due to a combination of famine, wars, and the like. This admonition given to Paul was not a good work added as something necessary to complete salvation, for the Jerusalem apostles added nothing to his gospel (v. 6). Moreover, the call to charity was something Paul was eager to do long before the meeting with the other apostles, as he remarks in Galatians 2:10. Paul’s readiness is not empty bravado, for during his ministry he frequently exhorted the Gentile churches to help out the poor believers in Judea (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:25–27; 1 Cor. 16:1–4).
Theologically speaking, Paul explains that in his day charitable giving to the poor Jewish Christians was an offering of gratitude from the Gentiles to the nation of Israel (Rom. 15:27). The physical descendants of Abraham were the means by which Jesus, and hence, eternal life, came to the Gentiles; the least they could do to express their thankfulness to the Jews for bearing the Messiah was to give their impoverished Jewish brethren the means to obtain food and shelter. Giving to the poor is also, in a small way, an imitation of God. Our Creator gives eternal life to those who rely on Him alone, and our gifts can help provide physical life to those who have no finances on which they can depend.
Everyone who claims the name of Christ has the duty to help those who cannot feed themselves (James 1:27). Let us do what we can to make our churches the first places needy people, and needy Christians especially, can find help.