Last week’s July 19 post (“Are Christians Different”) ended witha negative answer as I compared today’s Christians and church with the early church that was seen as very different from its society. If you don’t catch us in the act of going to church it is difficult to tell who are Christian and who are not by our actions. As a result of that indictment, I would like to examine the impact of this negative answer on two challenges we face in the U.S. and the world today: (1) the increasingly lop-sided division in our society and the world society between the very rich and the wealthy corporations that enrich them, and the poor—with the numbers of the poor vastly outnumbering the small number of the rich; and, (2) the fear of violence that this lopsidedness engenders in our own society and throughout the world. I’ll take up the first issue in this posting and the second in my next posting.
Jesus, reflecting the Old Testament and especially the prophets, saw the problem of poverty in his day as of great importance. He defined his ministry at its beginning in the synagogue of Nazareth in terms of the importance of the poor and down-trodden. He read from the book of Isaiah these words to his “home church”: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
The Old Testament saw poverty as neither an accident nor as a natural occurence, but rooted in injustice. The prophets saw poverty as being caused by the rich and not as the fault of the poor (as we now like to do). For example, Amos echoed many of the prophets when he thundered this warning to the wealthy women of Samaria: “Hear this you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountains of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’ The Lord has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks….” (Amos 4;1-2)
Jesus’ views on money and wealth reflect the Old Testament views. He identified his ministry with the weak, the outcast, the down-trodden. Jesus warned about the risk of wealth to our spiritual life in these ways: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall hunger. (Lk. 6:24-25)
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19;24)
“Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15)
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also. (Matt. 6;19-21)
In fact, one of every ten verses in the Synoptic Gospels is about the rich and poor; in Luke the ratio is one of seven. There are more than 500 verses in the New Testament alone about the problem of riches and money. Money was one of Jesus’ favorite topics in his teachings.
The early church shared Jesus concern about this and made sure to provide goods for the poor and the orphan and the widows who could not support themselves and were poverty-stricken. The early church was known for these actions by the society that surrounded it.
And yet, as Jim Wallis (who has challenged me with his ideas) points out in quoting sociologist David Moberg, there has been “a great reversal. Twentieth-century evangelicalism in the U.S. came to identify thoroughly with the mainstream values of wealth and power.” As the country became rich and fat, so did evangelicals (the church), who soon replaced the “good news'[ of Christ’s concern for the poor with a personal piety that comfortably supported the status quo.” (Call to Conversion, p. 55)
Wallis contiues: “Evangelicals today have not been the ones calling for economic redistribution. Instead, they have tended to favor tax breaks for the middle class and for the big corporations. Many usually support increased military spending and budget balancing by cutting the amount of public resources available for the poor. ….They extol the virtue of wealth and power when most of the world is poor and powerless. They call for unrestrained economic growth in a world where resources are running out and much of God’s creation is ravaged by industrial exploitation.” (Call to Conversion, p. 56)
And each day in the U.S. the rich, who also by their wealth control the power of government at national and state levels and see that laws are passed and legislatures elected that will help them to continue to grow even richer, widen the gap even more between the few rich and the many in poverty—not just in the U.S. but in the world.
What is the church doing about this? What words do Christians speak in behalf of the poor? What is the place of the poor among the priorities of Christians today? Our disregard of the problems of poverty and the widening gap between rich and poor is not only an economic problem of the highest magnitude, but also a spiritual problem of the highest magnitude. For in ignoring the poor we are also disregarding some of the most basic teachings of Jesus.
Listen to the words of Jesus found in Matthew 25: “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations , and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thisty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” They they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you? Then he will answer them, ‘”Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not for me.” ((Matt. 25:31-46)
Are you a sheep or a goat??