Posts Tagged With: poverty

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?

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2 Corinthians 8: Keys to A Generous Spirit

We are now solidly in the section where Paul beseeches the Corinthians to imitate the generous giving of the Macedonians.  This is likely referring to the collection Paul was accumulating for the famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem.  Paul’s pitch rivals anything I have ever heard in any church capital campaign!

It is this line that catches my attention today:

The abundance of grace that was given to them (the Macedonians), and the depths of poverty they have endured, have overflowed in a wealth of sincere generosity on their part. (8:2)

I am wondering if these are the two most important elements to being a generous giver.

When we become truly aware of how much grace and how many gifts have been given to us by God, a grateful heart is produced. Maybe gratefulness far outweighs expendable income as a key motivator for lavish giving.  

It appears the Macedonians knew what poverty was like.  They must have had some lean years themselves.  They could relate to the plight of the Christians in Jerusalem.  Maybe empathy and compassion goes much further towards producing a generous heart than pity or an intellectual sense of responsibility.  

What do you think creates a generous spirit?

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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 12: Beware of All Greed!

I think there maybe no more timely verses for this world than these from today’s reading:

Watch out and beware of all greed!  Your life doesn’t consist of the sum total of your possessions. . . . So don’t go hunting about for what to eat or what to drink, and don’t be anxious.  The nations of the world go searching for all that stuff, and your father knows you need it.  This is what you should search for: God’s kingdom!  Then all the rest will be given you as well. (12:15, 29-32)

I don’t know a modern American Christian for whom greed and anxiety over money is not a temptation at least potentially.  That is what comes when you live in a culture focused on money and materialism.

I don’t think there are any great secrets to conquering greed, at least not in our context (maybe you know one?).  I only conclude that with prayer and accountability we have to raise this struggle to the conscious level and fight it aggressively.  Maybe we ask ourselves why we are purchasing what we do.  Maybe we regularly deny ourselves certain intended purchases and extravagances.  I know spending time in environments far less affluent helps considerably.  So too does the practice of sacrificial giving to others.  Another big help is what Jesus says here.  Get busy trying to advance God’s kingdom and little by little, over a lifetime maybe, the trinkets of this world become less attractive.  At least that is what I am telling myself.

How do you fight greed, anxiety about money, and the temptation to be materialistic?

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

Luke 2: A Sign of Things to Come

It is a little surreal reading this classic Christmas chapter on June 28 when it is above 90 degrees F in Memphis!

I was drawn to this passage today as I read:

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said to them [the shepherds]. “Look: I’ve got good news for you, news which will make everybody very happy. Today a savior has been born for you–the Messiah, the Lord!–in David’s town. This will be a sign for you: you’ll find the baby wrapped up, and lying in a feeding-trough.” (2:10-12).

The sign the angel is talking about, no doubt, was that Jesus was to be found swaddled and in a manger.  That would have been the clear sign the shepherds could use to find Jesus.  What other newborn in Bethlehem would have been found in a cattle trough?

But I am wondering if there is more meaning to this passage than the literal.  This is a very unorthodox place for the Messiah to be laid.  This is not how a king should be born and laid to receive his admirers.  And these are strange people to pick to tell first about the birth; shepherds were second class citizens or less.

Is that maybe part of the sign?  Is this a sign of what kind of king this would be?  An indication of what sort of ministry this savior will have and to whom he will minister primarily?  A hint that he will be a much meeker, socially marginalized savior than expected, one better suited for shepherds and innkeepers?  That would certainly fit what we know about Luke’s concern for the disenfranchised of his society.  But it might still fit today, don’t you think?

Who are the people in your world who can better identify with a savior in a feeding-trough than a bassinet? 

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Acts 4: Giving to One Another

There was no needy person among them. (4:34a)

Really?

No one among the first few thousand Christians in Jerusalem had material needs?

Christians can’t say that today.  Of course, there are many times more Christians today than there was back then, and in many more impoverished areas of the world.  Still, that is an incredible claim.  Oh, for that to be true today!

How was that possible?  We have part of the answer if we back up a few sentences:

Nobody said that they owned their property; instead, they had everything in common. (4:32b)

This is the thinking that makes the lack of need possible: the realization that the material blessings that come our way are not our own.  We are stewards of God’s possessions.  We are conduits not swimming pools — blessings come in order to flow through us and out, not be collected for our leisure.  I need a new mind in this regard.  The feeling that makes this kind of radical care for the community of believers is in the sentence before this one:

The company of those who believed had one heart and soul. (4:32a)

A solidarity of spirit.  A unified soul.  A deep kindredness that has knit people together as one.  When that happens how could we let our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer in need?  I need a new heart in this area too.

Maybe that is the secret.  In only three chapters since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have seen a sea change in these disciples.  They have a new understanding they did not have before.  They are now becoming known for harnessing extraordinary power to heal.  In this chapter especially we have seen a boldness they certainly didn’t have two months before.  Now they possess a sacrificial love for each other.  How did they do it?

They didn’t.  The Holy Spirit came upon them in a deeply transforming way.  Their new mind and the new heart came from above.

Come Holy Spirit and give us radical, giving love for each other!

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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!

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