Tuesday, June 7, 2022

The Poor

Know both material and spiritual poverty

From the point of view of Pluto, the world, and our little heart of darkness, money measures the importance of each person. The rich are very important persons. Those with little money are insignificant. Those with none exist only as statistics.

From a biblical point of view, being poor certainly involves having little or no money. But there is more to it than that. Being poor primarily involves a spirit of humility. The two go together but the spiritual question remains primary.

The biblical witnesses invite us not to separate the two. One cannot be poor in spirit without also lacking possessions. The story of the rich ruler speaks against this. When this ruler asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replies, “‘Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (Luke 18:22, English Standard Version, here and following). Being poor means limiting our wealth to what we would be willing to drop, on any given day, should Jesus speak these words to us. Should Jesus desire it, would we be ready, tomorrow morning, to leave everything to follow him on some merry adventure?

Conversely, material poverty is insufficient. A spiritual attitude of simplicity, otherwise known as humility, must correspond to our material simplicity. The materially poor become spiritually rich when they use their material poverty as an excuse to sin. One cannot be both humble and self-righteous. 

This double aspect of poverty is indicated by the two parallel forms in which we have the Beatitudes. In Luke we read, “‘Blessed are the poor’” (6:20); in Matthew, “‘Bless are the poor in spirit’” (5:3). Again in Luke we read, “‘Blessed are you who are hungry now’” (6:21); in Matthew, “‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’” (5:6).

Jesus Christ is the truth who sets us free to enjoy material and spiritual simplicity together. He frees us from a desire for greater wealth and in relation to the wealth we already possess. He also frees us to live justly, to be an advocate for others suffering injustice, and to do so with firm gentleness and gentle firmness. 

Have God as their only hope

The poor are those who are misunderstood, ignored, condemned, abandoned, denied, and betrayed; those who, from an Olympian point of view, are losers. As those needy in both body and spirit, the poor are righteous—or set right—with God by God. This is not because the poor are more virtuous than the rich. It is because, lacking all other aid, God is their only hope and as such God delights in responding to their cries. “For [Yahweh] hears the needy” (Psalm 69:33). “For he stands at the right hand of the needy one, to save him from those who condemn his soul to death” (Psalm 109:31). 

Have Jesus as God’s creative response

Jesus Christ understood himself to be God’s creative response to the poor. In Nazareth he declared, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor’” (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1).

All Old Testament texts about the poor point prophetically to Jesus Christ. All are fulfilled by him, absolutely, from the cross in his God-forsakenness. In coming to dwell with us and to die for us, the Son of God divested himself of his equality with God (Philippians 2:6) as well as all material well-being. In doing so he fulfilled all of God’s words in the Bible on poverty by becoming the representative of all the poor before God. 

Jesus tells us we will always have the poor with us (Matthew 26:11). We continue to have them with us because Pluto likes it that way, Pluto himself serves as the heart of our economy, and our little heart of darkness delights in serving him. 

But Jesus Christ continues to respond creatively to the injustice and even mercilessness driven by Pluto. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus calls and enables us to embrace material and spiritual simplicity and live as his representatives in the world. Through the poor as his representatives, Jesus questions the world and worldly churches. As we walk with Jesus, he allows his gracious gifts of material and spiritual simplicity to challenge the rich and even to liberate them from their pride, illusions, and indifference—just as he continues to liberate us from ours. 

(Today’s reflections were guided by Jacques Ellul’s book, Money and Power (trans. LaVonne Neff, Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).

Copyright © 2022 by Steven Farsaci.
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