Poverty

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Poverty is one of the great challenges facing South Africa today, with unemployment rates above 25% for the population as a whole and around 55% for young adults, and with poverty still running along racial and gender lines (StatsSA). It is a challenge for the country and for the church. It is a challenge we try to deal with in our mission to the world, and it is a challenge we try to deal with among ourselves. Many of us are ourselves struggling with poverty.

What is it that God expects of us regarding poverty?
And how do we do something about poverty, when we ourselves are poor? 

Luke 12 presents to us Jesus’ perspective on poverty, which is essentially that we should not worry. “Don’t be afraid, little flock”, he says. “Do not worry”. “Do not be afraid”. He regales us with analogies of ravens, sparrows, flowers and hairs on our head. Analogies that speak of God’s provision, God’s providence, God’s care. “You are worth far more than many sparrows”.

How does Jesus expect us to ‘not worry’ about things that are so worrisome? Are we simply to sing the “Don’t worry, be happy” song? or Hakuna Matata?

Jesus reveals in Luke 12 that not worrying about poverty (or any other life challenge) is not about switching off to poverty or denying reality. Rather, it about seeing a more powerful reality that lies beyond the present; a world that lies beyond this present world. He invites us to recognise that there is a world to come that is more important than this one and more enduring. It is not that this world, this life, is unimportant! Clearly, from Jesus’ behaviour and teaching, we know that this life and its challenges are important. But there is an even more important world to come. And it our investment into that world that really matters, that counts in the short and long run.

Our capacity see that world rests in faith. It is “by faith” that we see that world. Faith is the central topic of Hebrews 11. The writer reminds us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Paul similarly writes, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). In this chapter from Hebrews, the writer uses the phrase “by faith” 21 times to emphasise that the legacy we inherit from our biblical ancestors is one of faith. While we typically want an instant return on our faith investment, our ancestors were willing to wait generations for the return:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb 11:13).

Abraham was able to see the future through God’s eyes. He heard and believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2, 15:5 and 22:17), even though he did not see this for himself in his lifetime. He could see it because he could see through God’s eyes. Through the eyes of faith. It is these eyes that we need to be able to see the world beyond this one, to see God’s provision in the midst of hardship, to see God’s promises fulfilled even if not yet. These are the eyes of faith. These are the eyes of God.

And so Jesus says,

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:33-34).

This is a message not just for those with money (though we, especially, should heed it), but also for those without (think of the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4). This what God calls his people to:

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

It starts at home, within the church community:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. …And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 22: Lukan Manifesto

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Today and for the next two days we focus on three pivotal passages in the Gospels, which present to us Jesus’ mission for himself and for us. These are important because they reveal to us not only what God wants from us, but also what God wants from God. In other words, they reveal God’s intentions, God’s mission, God’s heart. The things that God says are most important for us must be very important to God too.

The first of these passages is from Luke 4:18-19, where Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2 in what has become known as Jesus’ manifesto, Jesus’ statement of his programme or mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

After reading, Jesus begins to preach, opening with the words, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

These words summarise what we read throughout Luke’s version of the Gospel, which is that Jesus has a deep and enduring commitment to the poor.[1] While ‘poor’ does here include those who are financially destitute, the term is used quite broadly to include all those who are oppressed, marginalised, silenced, excluded and disempowered. Women, for example, enjoy a particularly prominent place in Luke’s Gospel, as another clear group of poor people. “The entire ministry of Jesus and his relationships with all these and other marginalized people witness, in Luke’s writings, to Jesus’ practice of boundary-breaking compassion, which the church is called to emulate.”[2]

We see Jesus’ commitment to the poor, which clearly impressed Luke, even in the songs sung about him before his birth. Mary’s song includes, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Zechariah sings about his son John, who will prepare the way for Jesus, “…salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies” (Luke 1:71-74a).

Liberation theologians refer to this as God’s preferential option for the poor. It means that when God is presented with a choice of siding with a poor person and a rich person, God will side with the poor person. In other words, God’s heart is inclined to those who are poor (remembering that ‘poor’ is defined quite broadly). We could say that wherever people suffer at the hands of others, God will be there standing in solidarity with the sufferer. This tells us something important about God’s heart. And it says something important if we are the ones inflicting suffering.

However, Luke’s Gospel is full of stories of Jesus engaging with the rich (this term is also broadly defined to include not only those with lots of money, but also those who are greedy, powerful and exploitative). Jesus recognises that to change society – to make society a better place for the poor – the rich have to change. Thus Bosch describes Jesus as the “evangelist of the rich”.[3] In all these encounters, Jesus works to shift their attitudes so that they adopt God’s concern for those who are vulnerable. The story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a good example (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus goes to the home of Zacchaeus, a much unloved and exploitative tax collector, for tea, a move that probably shocked the poor. But through His engagement and love for Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus experiences a change – no, a conversion – of heart, and consequently of lifestyle.

God’s preference for the poor, therefore, does not result in God being hostile towards the rich, nor in God being permissive towards the poor. Rather, God’s desire is for the salvation of both, and we see Jesus engaging wholeheartedly in the transformation of both rich and poor. It may just be that the sins that rich and poor people must repent of and seek forgiveness for differ. But ultimately, Jesus aims to establish a community of loving faithful, living together in mutual care and support. “In their being converted to God, rich and poor are converted toward each other. The main emphasis, ultimately, is on sharing, on community.”[4]

In Luke 4:22, the initial response in the synagogue to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah and his subsequent sermon seem to elicit approval and admiration. But this quickly turns and in verse 29 they attempt to throw him off a cliff to his death! What could have provoked such fury?

Commentators have grappled with this, but Bosch’s argument makes good sense to me and reveals something more about God’s heart.[5] The passage that Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61 was written to the Jews who had just returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon. They were depressed and despondent, humiliated and shaken in their faith. These words promised restoration and hope, which they were desperate for. But they also promised vengeance on their enemies: “He has sent me… to proclaim… the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2b). Verses 5-7 of Isaiah 61 speak of a reversal of fortune, where Israel will hold power, and foreigners will serve them.

Jesus’ audience would have had similar hopes for liberation from Roman oppression and were looking forward to the day of vengeance of our God. But Jesus leaves these words out, ending short with “the year of the Lord’s favour.” In verse 23, Jesus’ words suggest firstly that they were disgruntled that he had performed miraculous healings among the Gentiles in Capernaum rather than among the Jewish people, placing foreigners above family. And in verses 24-27 Jesus explicitly praises gentiles/foreigners as being recipients of God’s grace, rather than Jewish people.

It is likely that it was this dramatic contrast between Jesus’ message of healing, reconciliation and redemption for all peoples, particularly those who are poor, regardless of race or creed, and his listener’s expectations of vengeance and restitution that infuriated them. Rather than siding clearly with the Jews against everyone else, Jesus appears to side with everyone against poverty! Jesus message seems to be that “God’s compassion on the poor, the outcast and stranger – even on Israel’s enemies – has superseded divine vengeance!”[6] Instead of advocating revenge and violence, Jesus advocated gentleness, repentance and forgiveness. His is a gospel message of reconciliation, community and, of course, love.

What do we learn from this first important Gospel passage? First, we learn that God is moved by suffering. God’s heart is, in this sense, soft – God’s heartstrings are plucked when God witnesses poverty, suffering, oppression and abuse. In such situations God experiences a surge of love and reaches out a healing hand, to comfort and restore. This is good news for those of us who are suffering. We can hold onto the truth that God sees, hears, is concerned and is present with us in our suffering. We are not alone.

Second, we learn that those of us who cause suffering can expect God to challenge us. God expects us to engage in respectful, caring, egalitarian relationships with each other. When we are the ones causing poverty, when we are doing the oppressing, God’s protectiveness towards the sufferer calls forth a complementary anger towards us. This is good and appropriate – it is just what we might hope for when we are the ones suffering. But when that anger is directed towards us, it is surely frightening! Nevertheless, God’s anger in these cases is not intended to annihilate, but to call us to repentance. God is clear in the expectation of how we should engage with each other. There is no room for exploitation or oppression in the family of God. When we treat others as less than God’s beloved, we can expect a reaction from God.

Third, we learn that God’s agenda does not include vengeance, but rather reconciliation. This may be disappointing for us when we are suffering – we sometimes hope for a lightning bolt. But on those occasions that we are the oppressor, that we are the rich person, we may be grateful that God does not seek vengeance. Thus, in our relationships with those who oppress us, God calls us away from vengeance and towards reconciliation. This is much harder than vengeance! But it is God’s agenda – to establish a community of humans who love and respect each other, free of poverty and oppression, a community of peace and chesed.

What ties all of these together is God’s deeply rooted love for us, a love that protects, champions, nourishes, persists, expects and supports.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the ways in which you are rich. Consider the ways in which you might be oppressing or hurting God’s beloved. If you can think of some ways – which probably we call can – ask for forgiveness and the wisdom to engage differently with God’s beloved.

Prayer for the Day

Oh God, you are a protective mother, who loves her young and will do almost anything to ensure their safety and well-being. Please protect me when I am being threatened, and help me not to threaten others.

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[1] Bosch, D. J. (1991). Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, p. 98.

[2] Bosch, p. 86.

[3] Bosch, p. 101.

[4] Bosch, p. 104.

[5] Bosch, pp. 108-113.

[6] Bosch, p. 111.