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The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay posted 20 September 2010

"Peculiar Respect" for the Poor of the World:
Imitating God, Nourishing Our Own Souls

For Sunday September 26, 2010

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Jeremiah 32:1–3, 6–15 or Amos 6:1–7

Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16 or Psalm 146

1 Timothy 6:6–19

Luke 16:19–31

           My morning routine unfolded as usual. I rose at about 5:30, had my cup of coffee, ran, showered, and headed straight to Starbucks where I ordered a grande, triple shot latte for $4.

            According to the World Bank, about half of the people in the world today live on $2 a day or less. These people could live for two days on my daily caffeine addiction. More than a billion people live on a dollar a day. This half of the world suffers horribly from the catastrophic consequences of poverty as measured by a broad array of similar indices — access to safe and dependable water, life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, literacy, and so on.

           The psalmist reminds us of the inseparable connection between loving God and caring for the poor. There are many reasons to care for the poor and the vulnerable, but our ultimate motivation is based in the character of God himself. In three short verses Psalm 146:7–9 reveals the tenderness of God for people in trouble. Notice the eight (!) different groups of people mentioned:

He upholds the cause of the oppressed
   and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
   the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
   the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the alien
   and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
   but he frustrates the way of the wicked.

           About forty years ago theologians and pastors who ministered in the poorest half of the world coined a term to describe this essential aspect of God's character. God, these theologians insisted, is actually biased, even prejudiced. Far from being neutral or impartial, they argued that God has a preferential option for the poor. God plays favorites, you might say, by bestowing special favor on the dispossessed. And he asks us to do the same.

Polluting steel factory.

           This wasn't a new idea. It's a prominent theme throughout Scripture. When Paul sought the official approval of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he says that "the only thing they asked us to do was to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do" (Galatians 2:10). Early theologians like Tertullian (170–215) emphasized the centrality of caring for the poor. He said that God had a "peculiar respect" for the lowly, and that caring for the poor was the "distinctive sign" by which believers were known. Knowing God means caring for the people close to his heart. When we align ourselves with his cares we imitate His character.

           Wealth isn't intrinsically evil, but Scripture does describe it as dangerous. In helping the poor we acknowledge that riches can impede and hinder our own salvation. We admit that we are susceptible to its allure. The reading from 1 Timothy 6:6–19 describes the realm of riches as fraught with arrogance, traps, temptation, harmful and foolish desires, ruin, destruction, grief and wandering from the faith.

           In last week's reading, Amos indicted the rich for exploiting the poor; in the reading for this week he warns of the seductive power of wealth to make us complacent (Amos 6:1, 4–7):

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
   and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation,
   to whom the people of Israel come!
...You lie on beds inlaid with ivory
   and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
   and fattened calves.
You strum away on your harps like David
   and improvise on musical instruments.
You drink wine by the bowlful
   and use the finest lotions,
   but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.

Amos laments the insidious power of luxury to seduce us, feed our narcissistic tendencies, and insulate us from the plight of the poor that breaks the heart of God.

           Clement of Alexandria (155–220) wrote one of the first systematic treatments on faith and wealth, entitled Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, based on the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16–30. He didn't believe that money was evil, but he nevertheless compared wealth to the danger of handling a poisonous snake, "which will twist round the hand and bite, unless one knows how to lay hold of it without danger by the point of the tail. And riches, wriggling either in an experienced or inexperienced grasp, are dexterous at adhering and biting; unless one, despising them, use them skillfully, so as to crush the creature by the charm of the Word, and himself escape unscathed."

           For those who have more than they need, the early church fathers distinguished between the necessary and the superfluous, and urged believers to share liberally with the poor. "From those things that God gave you," wrote Augustine (354–430), "take that which you need, but the rest, which to you are superfluous, are necessary to others. The superfluous goods of the rich are necessary to the poor, and when you possess the superfluous you possess what is not yours."

            Stated positively, Paul advises us to cultivate contentment, and his definition of contentment is shocking by American standards: "if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that" (1 Timothy 6:8). By cultivating contentment with necessities, and rejecting conspicuous consumption, we also acknowledge that we're merely stewards and not owners of all that God has entrusted to us.

Polluting steel factory.

           Luke's Gospel for this week records the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). The rich man dressed in the finest clothes, ate the best food, and actively ignored the poor man at his gate. Lazarus was famished, wore rags, was covered with lesions, and surrounded by dogs who licked his sores. But death came as the great equalizer, as it will to each one of us, and in the afterlife there was a reversal. Lazarus found comfort, whereas the rich man suffered torment, agony and regret.

           I don't think these gospel stories intend to portray the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. Rather, they remind us that our time here is short, our opportunities to serve the poor are limited, and that our economic choices shape our deepest identities and our eternal destinies. By sharing generously and being rich in good deeds, we "lay up treasure for ourselves as a firm foundation for the coming age," and "take hold of the life that is truly life" (1 Timothy 6:18–19).

           We freely share what we have not out of guilt, ascetic renunciation (although God calls some people to that path), some communistic ideal that loathes private property, nor because the poor are virtuous. Paul is clear, "God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Timothy 6:17). Rather, in tending to the poor we care for our own souls and imitate the character of God himself.

For further reflection:

For just one of many resources, see http://web.worldbank.org.

For further reading see Ron Sider's classic work Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977); Jacques Ellul, Money and Power (1954); Justo Gonzalez, Faith and Wealth; A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (1990); Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches; A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (1999), and Douglas A. Hicks, Money Enough; Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy(2010).


Image credits: (1) Icepoverty.pbworks.com and (2) Promiseland.it.