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Don't Flatter the Rich or Plunder the Poor

For Sunday September 6, 2009

Lectionary Readings

(Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23 or Isaiah 35:4–7

Psalm 125 or Psalm 146

James 2:1–10, (11–13), 14–17

Mark 7:24–37

           In her movie Wendy and Lucy, the independent film maker Kelly Reichardt explores the people in America who are one sickness or accident away from personal catastrophe. Wendy and her dog Lucy are stranded in a depressing mill town in Oregon after leaving Indiana for a better life in Alaska. Wendy is frugal and resourceful. She records her expenditures in a spiral notebook. She sleeps in her car, collects cans and bottles for spare change, and freshens up in gas station bathrooms.

           After fruitless attempts to find work, Wendy observes to a security guard who's befriended her that you can't get a job without an address or phone number. She has neither, of course. "Heck," he replies, "you can't get an address without an address, or a job without a job. It's all rigged." Minor infractions with rule-keeping bureaucrats reap major consequences for Wendy. When her twenty-year old car needs a $2,000 repair, we find her in the last scene hopping a train. Where will she go, and what will happen to her?

Walmart greeter.
Walmart worker.

           In The Working Poor, Invisible in America (2004), Pulitzer Prize winner David Shipler shows how for people like Wendy poverty can be both a cause of problems and the result of problems: “A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing."

           We shouldn't blame the poor for their poverty. Some of the hardest-working people are poor people. Barbara Ehrenreich has made a career as a writer, authoring a dozen books. In her bestseller, Nickel and Dimed; On (not) Getting By in America (2001), she describes how for six months she lived the life of an unskilled but fully employed wage earner.

           In Florida she worked as a waitress on the 2:00-10PM shift, then as a house cleaner for Molly Maid. In Maine she worked as a “dietary aide” at a nursing home and as a hotel maid. In Minnesota she clerked at Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the nation with 825,000 people on the payroll. Ehrenreich lived in budget motels and dangerous trailer parks, she ate only what she could afford (which tended to be fast food), she discovered that she needed two unskilled jobs just to squeak by, and overall found herself physically and emotionally drained.

Migrant workers.
Migrant workers.

           The unskilled wage earners that Shipler and Ehrenreich portray constitute about 30% of the American work force who earn less than $10 per hour (cf. the Economic Policy Institute). They are the people we pass every day who make our American way of life possible. They clean our office buildings at night, serve us at restaurants, repair our cars, handpick our fresh produce, and mow-n-blow suburban yards. Even though these people work long and hard, they barely make ends meet. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “in the median state a minimum wage worker would have to work 89 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing.”

           The Scriptures this week offer a rather politically-incorrect perspective on the poor. The psalmist (Psalm 146), Proverbs, and the epistle of James all blame the rich for the plight of the poor. Rich people, they say, oppress, exploit, and plunder the poor "because they are poor," for their own advantage. Rich people manipulate the legal system to "crush" the poor in courts of law.

           James thus considers it a bitter irony that some early Christians favored the rich and discriminated against the poor. He pictures an early church where believers favored rich people who were dressed in nice clothes and expensive jewelry. They offered them the best seats in church, then patronized the poor and the poorly dressed by seating them where they would not offend anyone.

Kitchen worker.
Kitchen worker.

           "You have insulted the poor," writes James. "Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?" (James 2:6–7). Later in his epistle he turns up the heat even higher. These rich people, he says, hoard wealth instead of sharing it, they live in luxury while withholding wages from workers, and they glory in their indulgence. Whereas people often think that their wealth is a sign of God's blessing, James compares their wealth to a toxic chemical that has "corroded" their character and will "burn their flesh like fire" (James 5:1–6).

           Perhaps it's human nature to flatter the rich and to demonize the poor. Even monks who sought the "complete shedding of possessions" could rationalize their flattery of the rich. As a Christian in ministry, I've raised my own financial support for twenty years, so I've always loved the biting satire of Saint Neilos the Ascetic (d. 430): “We [monks] come fawning to the rich, like puppies wagging their tails in the hope of being tossed a bare bone or some crumbs. To get what we want, we call them benefactors and protectors of Christians, attributing every virtue to them, even though they may be utterly wicked.”

           Evagrios (died c. 400) considered it a trick of the devil to befriend the rich on the pretense of helping the poor: "[The devil] suggests that we should attach ourselves to wealthy women, and advises us to be obsequious to others who have a full purse. And so, after deceiving the soul, little by little he engulfs it in avaricious thoughts and then hands it over to the demon of self-esteem. The latter calls up in our imagination crowds of admirers who praise the Lord for the works of mercy we have performed."

Coal miner.
Coal miner.

           Christians should favor the poor not because of any political agenda of the right or left, but because we're called to imitate the character of God. Using a legal metaphor, Proverbs says that God is the Maker of the poor, their advocate, and their vindicator who will "take up their case" (Proverbs 22:2, 23). James adds that God has specially chosen the poor to be "rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him" (James 2:5).

           Paul was a latecomer to the Gospel who converted on the road to Damascus around the year 35 AD. Fourteen years after his conversion, he traveled to Jerusalem to seek the favor of the original group of twelve apostles. He knew that he needed their imprimatur, and indeed he received what he calls “the right hand of fellowship” from the movement’s leaders. Later, when he recalled this trip in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote something revealing about the first followers of Jesus. What did the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem require of Paul? “All they asked was that we should remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10).

For further reflection:

* What has been your experience with both rich and poor people?
How can Christians best help the poor?
How do the rich plunder, exploit, crush, and oppress the poor?
* For further reading see Barbara Ehrenreich's three-part op-ed series for the New York Times in the summer of 2009 in which she revisits the themes of her book Nickel and Dimed in light of the current recession: She also has a newer book, This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation (2008).

Image credits: (1) The Consumerist; (2) Sharpe Law Firm; (3) Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture; and (4)

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