Is this the true face of poverty?
This past Sunday, the sermon was on human poverty. Often, when we think about poverty, we think of starving children in Africa or those struggling to eke out an existence in the slums of Mumbai (pictured above). And that is certainly part of it, but in order to lay a groundwork for true compassion instead of mere pity (see my past post ‘Poisonous Pity’), the preacher encouraged us to engage with our own poverty. He had us ask ourselves: “In what way am I poor?”
If we take the Gospel seriously, we cannot help but conclude — as uncomfortable as it is to admit — that, before our Lord, each of us is equally poor and wretched. Paul, a very learned and well-respected man, considered himself the chief of sinners, and had these words to say: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin (Rom. 7:18, 21, 24-25, NIV).
Lest we think that the reality of this pollution of our very selves is something evident only to those who have recieved the truth of the Bible, we can see that there are many thoughtful people throughout history who have come to the same conclusion apart from a knowledge of the Christian Scriptures. Plato wrote: “Unless a man is born with some heaven-sent aversion to wrongdoing, or unless he requires the knowledge to refrain from it, he will never do right of his own free will, but will censure wrongdoing only if cowardice or age or weakness make him powerless to practice it himself” (Plato, The Republic I.II.4.2). In our humanness, we are, to use a Pauline term, slaves to sin.
Though we may possess material comforts, we are spirtually without two pennies to rub together, and the only reason we have any material possessions at all is because of God’s provision in our lives. Unfortunately, abundant material comforts and finances can blind us to the reality of our poverty. One of the key pieces of the sermon was a quotation from Michael Pucci from Food for the Hungry. Pucci writes: “The Gospel is asking us today to hand over to Christ what we have in our hands, not because it is as precious as we think it is, but because unless we do, we cannot empty that hand to receive what in our poverty we really need from Him. We are not attentive to the poor because we have believed a lie that we are not of them.”
This is why our confronting our own poverty is so vitally important. If we don’t, it is easy to believe the Devil’s lie that we are not one of the poor, and therefore consider the poor as other and become “arrogant, over-fed, and unconcerned (Ezek. 16:49), the very sin of Sodom herself. We are the poor, too: we are of them, and let us never manufacture barriers to separate ourselves from the unwashed masses.
That being said, those of us who do have wealth have an obligation to help those who have less than we do. Yes, we as humans are all poor and needy in some fundamental sense, but there are those who are materially poor while we, in comparison, have much more, and it therefore becomes incumbant upon us to minister to them out of our overflow. And not only that, but to be an advocate for them against those who would oppress them out of greed or selfishness. I truly believe that the one thing Jesus abhors more than all other things is injustice, and if we sit idly by and continue to believe the lie that things are not so bad or that we are not one of the needy, then we become part of the problem and fall under God’s displeasure — not that we shall be excluded from the Kingdom, but even believers will one day be called to give an account of their actions. The British statesman Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is required for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” When it come to the very thing that sets God off — the oppression of the orphan, the widow, and the defenseless — let us do something.