Poverty and the poor are reminders for many middle-class North Americans of the unevenness of our economic systems.
At the end of the family fiscal year, we distribute funds to certain agencies that help to alleviate poverty. And we receive a tax credit from our government.
Throughout the year, we are reminded by our mission agencies of the dire straits some people group in the world finds itself. We may give again.
We see pictures on our news sources of urban and rural poverty right in our own midst. This is repulsive to our own sense of well-being.
Tragically, every year over the last decade, we have witnessed catastrophic weather conditions, which have produced instantaneous poverty in our own hemisphere. These images shock, sadden and may temporarily embolden us.
One would think this might produce a sustained Christian response to poverty that would lead, for instance, to legislation to alleviate the circumstances of poverty (housing, food, childcare programs), as well as massive financial contributions to bring an end to poverty in our lifetime. That would be a faithful response to the gospel.
Yet, the will is not there, and we too easily, for all the wrong reasons, agree with Jesus’ assessment, “The poor you always have with us” (Matthew 26:11). A very superficial understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the poor.
Recently, I was reflecting on Luke 18:18-25. Here is a story of an interaction between Jesus and a political leader about obtaining eternal life.
Jesus’ first response was that he should keep the commandments. Being a pious Jew, the man responded that he had done that.
Jesus then raised the bar to suggest the man, who was described as very rich, should sell all of his possessions and distribute the money to the poor.
The narrative goes on to stress the inherent difficulty in rich people entering the kingdom of God.
I thought, what about the poor in this story? The poor were poor at the beginning and remained so through the scenario.
The emphasis is clearly on the capacity of the rich man to achieve eternal life. The condition of the poor became instrumental in the quest of the wealthy to secure eternal life.
We have no sense of how his wealth distribution might have affected the poor, nor whether he had any inherent interest in the poor.
The greatest concern of the rich man was to protect his resources, even more than obtaining eternal life.
The story concludes with Jesus observing the difficulty of rich people entering the kingdom of God.
Poverty was such an accepted reality in Jesus’ day that it clearly took second place to questions about eternal life.
Realizing that Jesus had much more to say elsewhere about the poor (for example, the Beatitudes), here the plight of the poor is incidental to the spiritual questions of the wealthy regarding their own resources and their qualification for abundant life in the hereafter.
In my opinion, this instrumental way of addressing poverty and the poor has passed along to us in contemporary Western economies.
We are always aware of poverty; we could raise it to a supreme level of concern, but it becomes a contrasting factor in how we manage our resources and how we earn tax credits.
In particular, evangelicals have often shifted our focus to eternal life, all but obscuring the responsibility we have in this life for poverty and the poor all around us in this life.
In the Kingdom of God of the “here and now,” poverty is always a supreme priority.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for World Day of the Poor 2019. The previous article is:
Pope: Economic Inequality Largely Unchanged Since Biblical Times | EthicsDaily.com Staff
Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Christian Thought and Ethics, and Adjunct Professor in History and Classics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is also president of the Board of Interfaith Spirituality Network, a provincially based interreligious organization.