Posts Tagged With: poor

John 5: Hopelessness Not Laziness

Personally, I don’t really like election seasons.  They seem to bring out the worst in people.  That is not just an American thing.  I have seen the same in Canada.

I guess that all of us have issues that are especially important to us and that we are sensitive to in pre-election rhetoric and proposed policies.  One of mine is poverty and what to do to help those who are in situations of fundamental need and stubborn, generational poverty.  As I see it this was a topic discussed often in the Bible and a benchmark of Christian charity.  Of course, I also know that not all Christians see the solutions to the problem of poverty the same way.

Unfortunately, I find that discussions of economics and political policy regarding relief to the poor during an election season can bring out ugly caricatures of impoverished people, assumptions of character flaws, and a general lack of Christian charity and compassion.  So, it is in this unconscious context that I read today’s chapter, in particular this interaction between Jesus and a man who has been disabled and destitute for almost four decades.

There was a man who had been there, in the same sick state, for thirty-eight years.  Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time already.

“Do you want to get well?” he asked him.

“Well, sir,” the sick man replied, “I don’t have anyone to put me into the pool when the water gets stirred up.  While I’m on my way there, someone else gets down before me.”

“Get up,” said Jesus, “pick up your mattress and walk!”

At once the man was healed.  He picked up his mattress and walked. (5:5-9a)

“Do you want to get well?”  I am not sure we can know for sure what Jesus meant by this question; I suspect he was provoking a faith response.  What sick person wouldn’t want to get well?  But he had been there at Bethesda for 38 years.  There had been many opportunities to get into the pool, right?  This question sounds like what we sometimes hear people say today to destitute people today: “Do you even want a job?”  “Do you want to get off welfare?”

The explanation from the paralytic as to why he has not yet been healed is the kind that, for some, sounds like an excuse.  But are we really to believe that if he had had the real opportunity to be healed he would not have taken it?  It is rather hard to get up when you are paralyzed.  The blind man beats the crippled man to the pool every time.  There are explanations we hear for persistent joblessness and reliance on others and they some times sound like excuses.  And maybe sometimes they are; as long as there is sin in the heart of people there will be people who take advantage of others.  But it becomes easy to think that some people are just lazy.  Hopelessness, though, sounds a whole lot like laziness.  After years of trying and failing, people give up hope.  After years of losing the competition for getting ahead, people begin to believe they can’t.  Giving up comes from hopelessness, not usually laziness.

A lazy man would not have tried to “get up” when told to do so by Jesus.  How many times had mean-spirited teenagers taunted him to do the same, only to run off laughing at his inability?  This man’s healing started with his hope being restored.  That may have been Jesus’ greatest gift to him.  With renewed hope, the paralytic got up.

Writing people off as lazy is easy.  God’s people are called to be those who restore hope.

What do you think?

Categories: John | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Luke 18: Stuck in the Eye of the Needle

As we read through Luke, we keep coming back to money.  That is no surprise, knowing Luke is the “social justice gospel.”  Luke’s Jesus talks about money almost as much as Matthew’s Jesus attacked the Jewish religious leaders.

Is it wrong to be rich?  That’s a loaded question.  It is also an impossible question because “rich” is entirely relative.  Are you rich if you make more than $50K in America as that is roughly the median household income?  Are you rich if you have three cars?  Are you rich if you have one car and don’t have to ride the bus?  If you are a welfare mother in Memphis with four kids to feed, you are poor, right?  But isn’t she rich compared to a many people in Africa or a leper in the slums of Calcutta?  And does how you use your money make you more or less rich?  And what do you have to do to not be rich?  How much do you have to give away?  Do you have to stop clothing your kids at Aeropostale and shop at Wal-Mart instead?  But aren’t you still spending more than at Goodwill?  You can always give up more, so trying to draw a line between poor and rich seems a bit arbitrary, slippery, and maybe even self-serving.

Here is a better question: Does wealth make following Jesus harder?  I feel much more comfortable answering that one, and “rich” can remain as relative as it clearly is.  It seems Luke’s answer is a resounding “yes.”

Jesus saw that he [the rich young ruler] had become sad, and said, “How hard it is for those with possessions to enter God’s kingdom!  Yes: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.” (18:24-25)

First let’s deal with Jesus’ wording and one misconception: I like the way N. T. Wright phrases the first part of Jesus’ response, “those with possessions.”  This is a reminder that the real issue in possessing something with clenched fists as if it is our own and with an unwillingness to let it go.  Rich people can do this.  But poor people can too.  Trying to serve our selfish desires while also serving God, that is when the problems come.  Next, there once was a belief that there was a now-lost gate in ancient Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle” that was very short, so short that camels had to get down on their knees to crawl through, and that this is what Jesus was referring to here.  Hence, it is not impossible for a camel to go through the “eye of the needle,” and it is not impossible for rich people to enter God’s kingdom.  However, F. F. Bruce and others have made it clear that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence for such a gate, and the next two verses make it clear that Jesus is talking about an impossible feat.

Does having money make some things in life easier?  Certainly.  That is why most parents get a bit nervous when our kids say they want to grow up to be artists and musicians, not dentists and pharmaceutical salespeople.  That is often why we encourage people to stay in school (there are better reasons, but let’s be real about a lot of people’s motivations).  That is why we encourage our kids to work hard, to seek promotions, to save, to eliminate debt, to invest and squirrel away for retirement.  The American Dream — I daresay, all of capitalism — is based on the belief that money makes life better or easier and we wouldn’t be going on three hundred years of American capitalism if it were not at least partially true.

But in a culture like America (and Canada and Europe and free Asia and so much of this “flat earth,” as Thomas Friedman called it) where the philosophy of materialism (all that exists is that which is tangible and material) and the practice of affluence (let’s have as much of that material as possible, because it will make me happy and solve my problems) are part of the dominant worldview that is in opposition to that described in the Bible, it is absolutely imperative that we hear Jesus clearly here and decide whether we really believe what he is saying.  This is a proverbial “line in the sand.”  Attachment to material possessions makes following Jesus harder.  It becomes easier to become attached to material possessions the more we become able to attain possessions (i.e., when we are rich, whatever that means in a given context).  The more we have, the more we feed the desire to have.  The more we try to satiate our needs with stuff, the more we teach ourselves that stuff makes us happy, thus do what it takes to be able to procure stuff.  These are not comfortable words to write.  They are very indicting.  They confront the very culture most, if not all of us, are living in.  But they seem to be what Jesus is saying.

Let me end with a concrete example of what I am talking about here.  Each summer and often once or twice during the school year, a group of my students and adult friends travel to an orphanage in Ghana, West Africa that we help support at our school.  These kids come from nothing and, though their quality of life at the orphanage is actually pretty good by African standards, they still lack much of what we would call essential.  Nonetheless, the most common statement I hear from students who return from Ghana is this: “I wish I were there.  I can’t wait to go back.  Life is so much simpler there.  Those kids know what really matters.  They teach me that so much of what I have is unnecessary.  I think they are actually happier than I am.”

Could it be that our affluence is, in fact, making life with God harder?

What do you think?

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Luke 16: Faithful in Little, Faithful in Much

“Rich Man and Lazarus, Part 1,” prettytexasgal (from Flickr)

Someone who is faithful in a small matter will also be faithful in a large one. Someone who is dishonest in a small matter will also be dishonest in a large one. If you haven’t been faithful with that wicked thing called money, who is going to entrust you with true wealth? (16:10-11)

What constitutes “faithfulness” in this passage?

I think I have always answered that question the way Dave Ramsey or Larry Burkett might want me to.  “Faithful” means managing your money in such a way that you do not lose it and maybe you even gain more.  Faithful is financial.

But then I see the word “dishonest”  in verse 10, so maybe faithful is ethical.  Being faithful with money means not cheating your employer or not selling junk bonds or something like that.

Then we keep reading on in the chapter and I am wondering if Luke doesn’t tell us himself what “faithful” means.  Luke gives us a story contrasting the life of a rich man who has “received good things” (16:25) but goes on to an eternal punishment and a poor man named Lazarus who would have settled for “scraps that fell from the rich man’s table” (16:21) but receives a blessed afterlife.  The implication is that the rich man is being punished for how he has treated or, maybe better said, neglected Lazarus.  If Luke intends for us to read these stories together, then “faithful” is social.  To be faithful means to be compassionate, to care for others, and to use the money with which God entrusts us to ensure the people in our life have what they need, not simply to serve our own interests.

Does that understanding make sense with your reading of this chapter?

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Luke 6: Blessings and Woes

Happy Fourth of July!

And now for something completely un-American!

Most of Luke 6 is our author’s version of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7.  Jesus’ sermon is shorter, but it has many of the same teachings and the same sequence of topics minus the “You have heard it was said, but I say to you” commentary on the  Pharisaic reduction of the Law.  I have to admit that Luke’s version of the Beatitudes has me perplexed and filled with questions today.  I understand that Luke’s emphasis on social justice accounts for the differences between his version and Matthew’s, but Luke seems too either-or.  I will restructure Luke 6:20-26 so the couplets come together.

Blessings on the poor: God’s kingdom belongs to you! . . . But woe betide you rich: you’ve had your comfort!

Blessings on those who are hungry today: you’ll have a feast! . . . Woe betide you if you’re full today: you’ll go hungry!

Blessings on those who weep today: you’ll be laughing! . . . Woe betide you if you’re laughing today: you’ll be mourning and weeping!

Blessings on you, when people hate you, and shut you out, when they slander you and reject your name as if it was evil, because of the son of man.  Celebrate on that day!  Jump for joy!  Don’t you see: in heaven there is a great reward for you!  That’s what their ancestors did to the prophets. . . . Woe betide you when everyone speaks well of you: that’s what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Are these very situational verses?  Was Jesus speaking into situations where people were rich or poor because of injustice and oppression?  Is it inherently wrong to be rich, comfortable, and happy?  Must one suffer in order to enter fully the kingdom of God?  Sure, there will be a reversal in the hereafter that punishes those who got rich by exploiting the poor, but what about those who were rich through acceptable avenues?  Can a Christian not be well-received in society and be devoted to God?

What do you think about these verses?

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Matthew 25: Stay Alert!

This chapter is nothing but three popular parables: the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Sheep & Goats.  They are interestingly placed.  You might expect that Jesus would be done telling stories this close to his death.  I think the reason for their placement is that they follow the exhortation to “keep alert” in 24:42 because Jesus’ future return will come unexpectedly.  Today’s parables pick up that point and advance it.

Like the five wise girls in the first parable, we are to be ready and “keep awake” (25:13).  We are to use the resources we have, like the girls’ oil, in a wise manner because the end could be upon us without notice.

Likewise, we must use the “talents” or resources (as talents were an increment of money not an ability, though the principle would be the same) wisely and responsibly.  The Master is looking for and even expecting fruitfulness, and those who “have been trustworthy with small things” will be put in charge of “bigger ones” (25:21).

How we use our resources is important.  Like the “sheep” who are congratulated by the king for serving him by serving the poor, our resources are given to us in order that we might help others in need, not simply for our own enjoyment.

Time is short.  No one is guaranteed tomorrow.  Be responsible.  Be active.  Help others.

(The following artwork comes from Cerezo Barredo, an Hispanic artist.  I like the way he recontextualizes these parables in a modern way.)

Categories: Matthew | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

BONUS: An Introduction to James

I can remember studying the book of James at summer camp for a week back when I was around twelve.  With James’ practical focus, it was the first time I ever realized the Bible actually did relate to everyday life.  This great little book, written most people think by Jesus’ own brother James (Gal. 1:19), will yield a week full of wonderful lessons once again so many years later.

James is typically classified as a “general epistle,” meaning it was likely written to be circulated amongst several churches and therefore had a broader focus as opposed to most of Paul’s letters which seem to have been written to address a particular situation going on in one specific church.  This does seem to be true.  James has no personal details at all.  However, as I read through the book with a group of students recently I was struck by how many times proper relationships between rich and poor Christians occurred in the book.  That has to be related to something going on in the background of this letter, though the details may be lost forever.

James was likely written to Jewish Christians.  James says their meeting place was a “synagogue” (2:2), the Jewish law is discussed with great familiarity, and the recipients are called “the twelve tribes,” probably a reference to Israel (1:1).  The recipients are said to be “scattered among the nations” (1:1).  James played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem so likely he is writing to Jewish Christians who had to flee from Judea when persecutions of Christians started (see Acts 11:19).  Ever the leader, James is pastoring his scattered flock.

James is best known for the strong argument in the second half of chapter two that faith is only real if it is active.  If one comes to James with a belief that faith is purely a matter of the mind and that good works are of no worth to God, he or she would probably join Martin Luther in disparaging the book of James; Luther called James “an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”

James 1:27 nicely puts together these ideas and serves as an appropriate theme verse:

As far as God the father is concerned, pure, unsullied devotion works like this: you should visit orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent the world [from] leaving its dirty smudge on you.

Over the next week we are guaranteed some very practical lessons from this part of Scripture that in my mind is closest to the teachings of Jesus or the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  How appropriate that James would sound a lot like his brother Jesus!

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Acts 3: Giving to the Needy

He [a lame man] asked them to give him some money. . . . The man stared at them, expecting to get something from them.  “I haven’t got any silver or gold,” Peter said, “but I’ll give you what I have got.  In the name of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, get up and walk!”  (3:3-6)

We have all heard it a thousand times: “Hey man, can you spare a little change?”  More often these days I get an elaborate story involving a broken down truck several miles away and how there is a need for money to “fix my truck.”

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of helping the needy.  There are many different perspectives on whether to help or how best to help.  There is no need to rehearse the arguments here.

This is what struck me in this chapter instead:

You are the children of the prophets, the children of the covenant with God established with your ancestors when he said to Abraham, “In your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (3:25)

We are the “children of the prophets” who spoke about caring for the needy almost as much as they did singular devotion to God.  We have received a legacy from Abraham that includes a calling to give to or “bless” the nations.  Well, I know, actually this was talking about the Jews.  But we have been grafted into the olive tree of Israel, haven’t we (Romans 11:16-21)?  Spiritually, we are talking about our family history too, right?  So, giving is a part of our spiritual heritage.

And give to this lame man is exactly what Peter did.  However, Peter did not give the man what he was asking for.  Instead of getting what he requested, this man receives what he needs.  Money is a small blessing compared to healing and wholeness.  Maybe he was so demoralized by his ailments that he had given up hope for anything more than pity.  Maybe it was just easier to beg for denarii.  Regardless, in line with his heritage, Peter gave.

Peter also gave in such a way that God received the credit.  Peter and John were evidently receiving honor for the miracle (3:12).  But they deflected the attention from themselves back to the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob — the God of our ancestors” (3:13).  They gave to the needy and God received the glory.

Lord, give us compassionate, giving hearts — to your glory!

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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