Jesus Honored the Poor. Do We?
Several years ago, after preaching a sermon on Christians’ responsibility toward the poor, I received an email accusing me of not appreciating those who “worked for a living.” According to my critic, I had also failed to realize that poor people are poor because they are lazy. If they would stop milking the system, apply themselves, get educated, and go find a job like the rest of us, their problems would be solved and the world would be a better place.
As I read this email, I felt anger. I’m pretty sure it was a good anger – the anger of Jesus rising up inside, a protective impulse for those he affectionately called “the least of these” and “heirs of the kingdom.”
At best, a lack of concern for the poor reflects a blind spot. At worst, it reflects an arrogant dismissal of Jesus and his concern for the least of these. As we are drawn in by Jesus’ compassion for us, we will also be drawn into a life of compassion toward the poor.
“Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…’ When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.” (Luke 4:16-29)
Instead of sending Jesus an email, they made plans to throw him off a cliff.
I don’t know what motivated the email that I received that Sunday, but I imagine that it was partly an aversion to high-maintenance propositions. Compassion for the poor – like all true forms of love – will be messy, costly and inconvenient. But sometimes things that are messy, costly and inconvenient are the most worthwhile things. Jesus thought so. Who did Jesus receive while others were pushing them away? Who did Jesus say were the heirs of the kingdom? It was the messy, costly and inconvenient masterpieces – namely, little children and the poor.
Through the Old Testament prophets, Yahweh declared that authentic faith fights injustice, liberates the oppressed, relieves burdens, feeds the hungry, shelters the poor, and clothes the naked. Moses said that if there are any poor among us, we should be open-handed and give generously and never begrudgingly, and we should give until the need is met. James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote that religion that is true and that God accepts is the kind that looks after widows and orphans in their distress. Isaiah takes it a step further when he says that we all owe a debt of love to the poor and are to treat the poor as our own flesh and blood. We are to treat the poor as family. (Isaiah 58:6-7; Deuteronomy 15:7-12; James 1:27)
When family members are in distress, loving relatives step forward as the first responders. Loving relatives stay with those who are hurting or experiencing loss. Loving relatives reorganize their lives – schedules, finances, mindshare and energy – to carefully and strategically position themselves to share the burdens carried by their disadvantaged members.
Full hands must become emptier in order for empty hands to be filled.
“All who believed…were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need…no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them.” (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35)
Moses instructed Israel to give freely and not begrudgingly to the poor. Why would anyone begrudge the poor, think poorly of the poor, or pass judgment on the poor without having a relationship with the poor and without ever having shared the experience of the poor?
For Christians, the chief reason is amnesia, a forgetfulness that whatever one’s station – whether empty-handed or rich in cash – we are all beggars at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
We are all beggars and Jesus, only Jesus, has the bread…because Jesus is the bread.
I wonder if it’s also a combination of being naïve and arrogant. We can be naïve about the lives of people in whose shoes we have never walked. We can also grow arrogant about our own privilege, power and wealth, somehow believing that we are who we are, and we are where we are, solely on the basis of our own tenacity and dedication and not at all on the basis of the conditions into which we were born.
It is easy to overlook the fact that most privileged people were born into privilege. It is also easy to overlook the fact that most poor people were born into poverty.
Do we fault the poor for being poor? This is no different than faulting a person born with one leg for his inability to keep up with others who were born with two.
Many of the poor give up trying because of a system – a one-legged system into which they were born – a system that fails to create opportunities for them to move forward because the world is set up for people with two legs. Lack of resources, absentee parents, failing schools, and a scarcity of vocational on-ramps make it much easier to quit than to try. Seventy percent of those born in poverty never make it into the middle class. Many children born into poverty are, statistically speaking, two hundred times less likely to attend college than my children. College and career aren’t even on the radar. For these children, the chief thing on the radar – whether materially or relationally – is survival.
If my children go to college, hard work will be part of what gets them there. So will the world of opportunity, resources, education, nurture and privilege into which they were born. We simply must not underestimate this reality. So much of what we become is a result of the cards we were dealt in the first place. If you’re born with four aces in your hand, your likelihood of winning the pot is much greater than those born with a pair of twos.
If from a place of superiority you are tempted begrudge the poor, resist. It is not right to take credit for the two legs you were born with, or for the handful of aces that were dealt to you by someone else. Yes, you have to use those legs and play those cards in order to win, but remember — always remember! — God gave you those two legs and those four aces, just like he gave you food, shelter, clothing, a sharp mind, an education, and on ramps into opportunity.
How might Jesus be calling you to use these things to help those born with one leg catch up to those born with two? Would he have you support a child from Compassion or World Vision or help an orphan find a home by supporting Siloam Clinic or Corner to Corner or The Next Door? Or serve a nonprofit in your local community? Or dive in with a local church that prioritizes mercy and justice? (If you’re in Nashville, here’s one of those ) Or open your home and table to a few who don’t have the same advantages you do? Or steer your workplace towards philanthropy, community service, or training, hiring and promotion practices that create opportunity for those less fortunate? The possibilities are many, but one thing is sure. If you are with Jesus, he has a role for you to play.
As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)
But there’s more. Jesus also said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
“Blessed” is the Bible’s equivalent to our word, “happy.” How can this be?
I’ll never forget being prayed for by Ray, a friend whose world is one filled with material poverty, homelessness, setbacks and empty hands. Ray prayed strong and spontaneous – that I, the pastor of the big church from Nashville, Tennessee who writes books and has a blog and lives in a comfy house and has never been concerned about missing a meal and has always been able to pay his bills – would know the security of the Father’s care, the smile of the Father’s love, the freedom of the Father’s grace, the intimacy of the Father’s arms, the friendship of the Father’s family, and the abundance of the Father’s provision. Ray prayed as a man who, possessing close to nothing, possessed all things. He prayed as a man with empty hands but a full heart. He prayed as a man with abundant gratitude, as if he had a secret treasure stored up in a world that I had only heard and talked about, but perhaps had not yet seen.
In that moment, I began to wonder which of us was really living large and which was living in scarcity. I began to wonder which of us was running with two legs and which of us was running with one. I began to wonder which of us was carrying the aces and which of us was carrying an empty hand.
As Luther aptly said, “We are all beggars, this is true.”
This is true, because we are all the same.