Consider for a moment all the ways that your life intersects with poverty. If you’re a social worker or a school teacher, chances are that your work regularly brings you into contact with those who are poor. Perhaps you know of families in your neighborhood who have lost their job, or who have difficulties paying the bills, despite the parents working multiple low-paying jobs. It could be that now or sometime in your life you have developed a friendship with a person living in poverty and have walked with them through different struggles. Maybe you volunteer at Community Meal or with People Working Cooperatively or with the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Maybe you bring food items here to church to be given to the Oakley Food Pantry. Maybe you have decided to give a certain percentage of your income to an organization like Mennonite Central Committee or to shop regularly at a place like Ten Thousand Villages. Perhaps you yourself have experienced periods of poverty in your own life or remember stories that your parents or grandparents told about being in poverty. Some of you have traveled to parts of the world where you’ve encountered poverty on a massive scale.
Any of these cases connects you in some way to poverty. As close as your own family or neighborhood, or as distant as a developing nation. Remember these relationships as we talk about poverty and the poor. Keep these stories and experiences in front of you. A temptation when talking about poverty is to depersonalize it into one big abstract overwhelming issue, something that happens out there with those people. One way to avoid this temptation is to remember the people and situations that we are connected with where poverty exists. If it has to do with connection and relationship then we ourselves are on the inside of the issue, and we find that it is anything but impersonal. Poverty has to do with us – the big “us.”
Our concern for the poor is rooted deeply in the scriptures.
Jesus defined his own mission by using the words of the prophet Isaiah – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18) Matthew and Luke each record slightly different versions of Jesus’ most important sermon, but they each start out having to do with poverty. In Luke, Jesus begins the sermon on the plain by saying “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20). In Matthew, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’ idea of the poor being blessed included a health care plan that did not discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions. In fact, it seemed to favor those with pre-existing conditions and send them to the front of the line. When a paralytic was having a difficult time with health care access, due to the crowds pressing around Jesus, his friends decided to try another approach and come down through the roof of the house where Jesus was staying. Rather than send the paralytic and his friends away with nothing but a bill for the cost of the roof repair, Jesus admired their great faith, and healed heart and body by offering forgiveness of sins and re-energized legs that enabled the paralytic to walk out on his own, much to the amazement of the people.
Jesus’ idea of the poor being blessed also involved food security for families. All four gospels tell of a time when a large crowd had gathered in a deserted region to hear Jesus preach. People had come on foot from all the surrounding towns, and it says that Jesus had compassion on them “because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” so he began to teach them (Mark 6:34). As it got later in the day, the disciples suggested sending them all back to the surrounding villages to find their own food. But Jesus tells them to bring whatever food they have to him. He takes the loaves and fishes, blesses them, and breaks them, and tells the disciples to pass them out. And somehow, everyone has enough, with plenty left over.
There are many examples of Jesus acting out this teaching, “Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God,” but what about “Blessed are the poor in spirit?” What does it mean to be poor in spirit and what relationship do the poor in spirit have with the poor?
If Jesus’ mission could be called “good news to the poor” it could also be called “difficult news to the rich.” Some of Jesus’ hardest sayings were directed at those who were wealthy and who made no connection between having wealth and having a responsibility to the poor. For Jesus, it was a dangerous combination for a person to be both wealthy and proud in spirit, rather than poor in spirit.
Will Willimon is a former professor and dean of the chapel at Duke University and he starts out one of his sermons by saying “The gospel is so hard to live, I don’t know why you all keep coming here every Sunday to hear me preach about it.” He talks about the extra challenge of living the Christian life in a culture of affluence and that as much as he tries to live the gospel in his own life he is always challenged to go deeper.
He tells this story about an encounter with a student: “On the first Sunday of the school year, we had a group of students over to our home after the university chapel service. We had a picnic for them, then some lingered to play basketball or to talk. I sat on our patio with one student. He said, “Dr. Willimon, thanks for having us over to your home. This is the first time I’ve ever been in a faculty home.” “That’s a disgrace,” I said. “I think that we faculty ought to have students in our homes as often as possible.” “Well, few faculty think that way, I can tell you,” said the student. “And you have a beautiful home,” he said. “Let me ask you, do you feel at all guilty being a Christian and living in such a nice house? How have you thought about that?” And I responded, “Now I’m remembering why it was not such a great idea to invite you people over to my house.” (Sojourners’ Poverty Sunday Organizers Toolkit) He doesn’t resolve the tension, but goes on to say, “Such are the challenges of attempting to be Christian in the midst of affluence.”
To the wealthy, Jesus called for a recognition of their own poverty of spirit. His teachings were rooted in the ancient story of the Jews as a people who God delivered out of the poverty of slavery and who were to never forget their experience of poverty and God’s love for the poor. The reading from Deuteronomy is a great example of the relationship between the poor and the poor in Spirit. In Deuteronomy the people were looking ahead to a time when their days of poverty would be behind them. They would enter a new land where there would be streams and wells of water, where wheat and barley and vines and fig trees grew in abundance, and where they would eat their fill. They would go from being poor slaves to wealthy caretakers of the land. But rather than an all-out celebration of their new fortunes, they receive a word of caution. Never forget. It says, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your gold and silver is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deut. 8:12-14) The Israelites are being presented with the challenge of how to be poor in spirit without being poor. In your Spirit you must remain as one who is poor so that you still consider the poor your brother and sister. You will treat the poor with fairness and generosity because you have a memory of being poor. The reality of poverty resides somewhere within you and you are always connected to the poor in this way.
The call to be poor in spirit doesn’t let us off the hook – as if we can just get by with being poor in spirit and not really poor. In becoming poor in spirit we are placed on the hook in being challenged to make our resources of time, money, possessions and power, always available to the One who delivers the poor from their bondage to slavery.
Call to mind again all the ways that your life intersects with poverty. I believe that the Spirit calls us to continually go deeper in the ways that we share our life with the poor and that every small action we do or relationship that we have matters. There is a model that presents a continuum for the ways that our lives are engaged with the poor and I want to pass that along here. It involves different steps that build on each other and draw us toward the vision of Jesus.
The entry level could be called a Holy Nudge. This is the beginning of a calling to live for more than oneself. It is the gift of unrest or uneasiness with the way things are. This Holy Nudge could come through prayer, study, or encountering poverty in a new way. It can be experienced as a new awareness of the reality of poverty and a sense that one can no longer live completely separated from the poor. We could call this getting a hand delivered invitation by Christ to become poor in spirit. We get a glimpse of our own inward poverty and we’re drawn toward the riches of opening our lives up to being good news for the poor. One of the things that struck me when I was doing the research for the Day Laborer sermon a couple weeks ago was how easy it is to just not know about what all goes on in the lives of the poor. The privilege of the middle and upper class is that we don’t have to pay attention to poverty if we don’t want to. So we need these holy nudges often that call us out of our secure world, into the risks of gospel living.
The next step is charity. We know that we must give something. Not all of our possessions are for us only, and we free up some of what we have to be given for the benefit of people and programs that serve the poor. One generous act of charity that you all have done this year is giving out of the government rebate checks that we received this summer. The portion of the money that goes toward local mission will have a direct impact on our Oakley neighborhood. The board of the Oakley Food Pantry met recently and was discussing how we would like to have Thanksgiving meal vouchers for people to use at Krogers this year – vouchers specifically for a full meal package. There was some discussion about where the money would come from for this, and I was able to mention that CMF had collected money this summer that would be able to cover all the expenses. This money given in charity will enable between 30 and 40 Oakley families to have a full Thanksgiving meal this season.
The next step of involvement and engagement with the poor after charity is service – where we give our time and work alongside the poor. With service there is a growing sense of camaraderie and trust that is built as we put ourselves on the ground where there are needs. I was encouraged to see recently that numbers for Mennonite Voluntary Service were up this past year, well above previous years. Setting aside a year or two for the purpose of service is something that we value as a church and something to be talking about with our youth. Service changes us because it is the step where we start to realize that we are receiving so much more than we are giving.
A step that builds on charity and service is advocacy. There is only so long one can be in service before one recognizes that there are systemic issues at work that keep generations of people in poverty. Sojourners is fond of saying that it’s one thing to pull drowning people out of a river who keep floating by, but it’s another thing to go upstream to see who keeps throwing the people in the river in the first place. Advocacy is very much connected with how we vote. The Vote Out Poverty pledge cards are one attempt to get elected officials’ attention that there are people who consider poverty to be a core issue in how they cast their ballot. It’s as if a large group were coming together and saying that our own interests aren’t the only things that matter this election. We voting for what is best for the poor. Advocacy is where we start to put our own lot on the line and take risks for the well-being of the poor.
Each step becomes harder and requires more commitment and conversion. Beyond advocacy is friendship. In friendship with the poor there is a line that is crossed from this being an issue or a cause to being a relationship. It is no longer by us, for them, but it is “us together” and we are changing each other. To be truly friends is to be equals and to seek understanding. This is hard work – to befriend the poor. We start to see the world as they may see it.
Beyond friendship is something that we just get little glimpses of – what could be call co-liberation. These are the times when we get slivers of experiences where the kingdom of God is present among us. We are liberated from our fears and our clinging to what we have. We see that we are wrapped up in each other’s past and in each other’s future.
It’s unfortunate that one of the best remembered lines from Jesus about the poor is one that gets used to justify poverty. After Jesus is anointed with expensive oil during the week of his death and his disciples complain about the extravagance he tells them that the poor they will always have with them. This has been interpreted to mean that no matter what you do, poverty is always going to exist. But maybe this is a charge that Jesus is giving his disciples right before he dies. As my followers, you will always to have the poor with you. You are never to separate yourselves from the poor but to be with them. So you will always have the poor with you, and the poor will always have you with them. As followers of Christ this is also our charge. As middle class North Americans it comes as news that nudges us out of contentment and toward engagement. As soon as we take one step we are nudged to take another. As we walk, we learn more and more of what Jesus may have meant by these words: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”