Every time we open our phones or watch TV or listen to the radio, we are bombarded with the overwhelmingly heavy needs of this world….story after story and image after image of hunger, disease, war, earthquakes, religious persecution, refugees, earthquakes, etc.
SO MUCH poverty.
SO MANY needs.
It can be overwhelming to the point that it feels like the problem is too big and we are too small and that nothing we can do will even make a dent…and so we start to shut down and tune it all out. Why bother?
After all, didn’t Jesus say something about how the “poor will always be with you?” in Matthew 26? Wasn’t He saying that we should just accept the fact that poverty isn’t going away? That perhaps we shouldn’t worry about it like disciples supposedly were? Is this really what Jesus meant when He said that?
The disciples and Jesus were dining at the home of Simon the Leper and the disciples were indignant when a woman came in and poured an expensive bottle of perfume on Jesus’ head. “Why this waste?….She could have sold it for a fortune and given the money to the poor,” they said. Then Jesus, in responding back to the disciples said something strange: “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” It seems sort of arrogant of Jesus doesn’t it? Is He saying the poor don’t matter in comparison to Himself? Is He saying we have to pick between loving Him and serving the poor? Is He condoning poverty? These words always confused me….they didn’t seem to quite fit the character of Jesus that I knew.
A couple years ago I read a really interesting sermon by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis in which she discussed this very topic and it helped me to see things in a whole different light. Jesus is not condoning poverty, rather He was highlighting His role in reducing poverty and rebuking the way the disciples wanted to address the poverty…which in this case was by simply giving money. In saying that “the poor will always be with you” Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15:11, a scripture to which the disciples would have immediately made a connection, though many of us today do not.
Duet 15: 11 “There will always be poor people in the land.” Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
Duet 15:4-5 there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, He will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.
In saying “the poor will always be with you” Jesus is not excusing poverty, far from it. According to Rev Dr. Liz Theoharis’ sermon, “it is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty. ” If we read deeper, we see that Jesus is pointing the disciples toward what they should be doing to address the poverty. Giving charity to the poor in the form of money, supplies, food, etc is obviously good, even essential. The Bible is full of stories that show us and commands that tell us to give to and provide for the needy, we cannot ignore this as part of our call. However, God also calls for, commands even, for us to do something more… to go a step further…to work toward a total revolution and upending of the systems of injustice that allow poverty to exist in the first place.
In Deuteronomy 15, the Lord is giving the Isrealites the laws regarding the year of Jubilee and reassurance that if His people were to follow these laws, there need be no poor among you. The laws of the Jubilee states that after the end of every 7 years, the captives are set free, creditors must cancel debts, and wealth is distributed evenly among all the people. The year of Jubilee completely upended and transformed the status quo. This year of Jubilee was a way of highlighting the values of God as well as foreshadowing all that was to come when the Messiah arrived: freedom. It was also perhaps a safety measure that God put into place for their own good, helping them guard against the tendency of the human flesh…to not trust that God would provide, to instead gather and stockpile for themselves, no matter the cost to their fellow people. It was a way to break all chains of oppression that might have formed among the people over time, oppression that inevitably is created when human beings get involved doing things their own way. It was a way to draw them closer to Him in dependence, so that they might know that He was God and that He was good…that He was in control and responsible for providing for ALL of them, not them for themselves. It was a way for God to clearly demonstrate that in the end, we are all equal in His eyes…there are no rich or poor in His Kingdom.
Jesus is reminding the disciples that they shouldn’t stop at simply “serving” the poor (ie. selling the perfume and giving money to the poor). He was telling them that it was their responsibility, as it is ours still today, to help break the chains of poverty completely so there are no poor in the land at all.
This seems like a big call, mind-boggling big actually. So what does that even look like? How do we do this as a church and as individuals in ministry? How do we honor God in this? These are some thoughts:
- First, I think it always has to start with a time of humble self-reflection and prayer as the Body of Christ, asking God to open our eyes and hearts.
- Have we become apathetic/overwhelmed to the plight of the world’s poor? If so, how and why is that? Why are our hearts not breaking for what breaks His? In our giving, have we unintentionally propped up systems that perpetuate injustice or the poverty cycle?
- Secondly, I think it means sharing and calling out on the name of Christ. In 2 Corinth 3:17 it says “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” People need more than just our good deeds or material gifts, they need to encounter Christ. A transformed life, starts with a transformed heart.
- What good is it to feed someone’s stomach and leave their soul aching and empty? Are we pointing people toward Christ’s goodness and love or toward ourselves and our own generosity? As we are sharing our money are we also sharing our testimony? Are we relying on ourselves to do the work or surrendering to God and asking for His help?
- Thirdly, I think it means an in depth analysis of the complex systems that can lead to poverty, as well as our own part in them.
- Have we looked at the various forces, internal and external, that create chains of injustice and oppression in our society? Are we putting band-aid fixes on things rather than doing the hard work of digging deep down to discover the root of the problem? Do we consider that poverty is actually a result of sin, our collective sins as a society and not just one individual’s sins? Do we believe that not every person in poverty has the same story? Do we take the time to listen to each person, to understand each story?
- Lastly, I think it means by empowering people with skills/opportunities to escape the cycle of poverty. Equipping people with tangible skills and/or opportunities that allow them to engage in the good works that they were created to do. We, the economically privileged, are not the only ones Jesus created to do good works. Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Each of His children were made for this, every part of the Body has something to contribute to the whole.
- How can we help others to be able to work and feel the same pride and dignity that we do when we provide for our own families and our own communities? If it is a blessing to be able to give and not receive, how can I bless others? How can we involve others in the work of bringing God’s Kingdom here on Earth? What gifts has He given to others that the Body needs right now?
This all seems so simple, and yet it is so messy and complicated. It is so easy to get overwhelmed and want to use Matthew 26:11 as a justification or excuse, rather than as a command to do more. There is no “one-size-fits-all” method. We cannot judge or chastise those who go about this differently than we do. The beauty is that there are so many ways of doing it, so many different people that need help in so many different situations, so many different opportunities for each of us to be a part in some small way. All we can do is continue to ask ourselves these questions and ask for God’s guidance along the way. This has to start on our knees in prayer.
Before we pray, we want to leave you with these quotes, one from Martin Luther King and one from Paulo Friere (a Brazilian philosopher and educator), bo :
On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice [or system] which produces beggars needs restructuring.” -Martin Luther King Jr, “A Time to Break Silence”
“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”―
Gracious God, we come to you humbly asking for your blessings over our church’s or our individual ministries to the poor, both local and foreign. Jesus, you demanded that in everything that we do, we practice holistic development and work that address the spiritual needs of people without neglecting the physical needs and vice versa. We ask for you, Father God to open our eyes, hearts, and minds. We ask for humility and courage and grace. We ask for wisdom and compassion. We ask for unity in working toward meeting the immediate needs as well as ending the cycles and systems that unjustly and unfairly continue to contribute toward holding our brothers and sisters in oppression. We ask that you would give us the desire and the strength to do more, even when it seems daunting. We trust that you will work through us and in spite of us to bring freedom to your people as You reconcile Creation back to Yourself. In Your Son’s Name, Amen.
Note: This contents of this blog originate from a video devotion that Nathan and I did with Freedom Church’s “21 Days of Prayer” series. The link to the original video can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/myfreedom.org/videos/868355873558997/.