Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Who Are the Poor?
As I've said, oh...let's see...5,222 times David Platt's book, Radical and all the scriptures in it about the poor, the helpless, the orphan, and the oppressed really stirred something up in our souls last year. Plain and simply put, although God's Word talks an awful lot about the poor and advocating for people in helpless situations, as a couple we were living lives that rarely, if ever, even considered the poor. Yes. Please. Pass us the awesome award.
One of our favorite minor themes of David Platt's book, Radical is this revolutionary idea that goes a little something like this...
What if we quit over analyzing scripture and explaining away the hard teachings of Jesus? What if we simply read the difficult things Jesus said and believe that as the author of communication, Jesus may not have a problem saying what He means? I know. What a mind boggling concept.
If you're like me, you're tempted to read the seemingly ridiculous things Jesus said, like the passage below and explain these unsettling ideas away.
"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46
Is it just me or do you read those words and immediately want to reason away what Jesus is saying? I know He says, "this" but what He really meant was "this." The "this" I tried to turn Jesus' words into was always a lot more palatable than His own actual words.
Although Jesus says some crazy things, the first step of this journey as God softened our hearts toward the poor was pretty simple and kind of embarrassing. Do we believe that Jesus is capable of actually saying what He means? Can we read scripture and simply absorb the words of Jesus without any "but what He really means is..."?
We nervously decided to give "letting God speak for Himself" a try. When we did, we found a lot of scriptures we had ignored about the poor, the helpless, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed in the Bible. Clear teachings. Clear instructions. Clear commands. Clear warnings.
After taking a few weeks to really read and study the passages in the Bible about the poor, the helpless, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed we said something like... "Uh......Hmmm....Well. It's pretty clear that these things are really big deals to God. Things God talks about an awful lot are not even things we ever think about. So maybe we need to ask God to forgive us and then start to figure out how to actually live out God's clear commands." Not to make God like us. Or like us more. Not because God is a butt head who likes to put us in awkward situations, but because God is good and gracious and His Word was sent to heal us. Learning to care about what God loves ultimately results in a richer understanding of our own sin, the gospel, and God's grace, mercy, and love.
After we got over the shock of how many times passages about the poor are listed in scripture and how many times we had managed to ignore them (as well as the fact that we'd both been raised in church our entire life and never really heard much about the poor in sermons that was not immediately explained away to mean something else) we started asking some hard questions of ourselves. Not our church. Not other people. We can read. We belong to God. We were the ones calling the shots with our finances. We controlled our schedules. We were ignoring Him. We wanted to own this sinful oversight and let God work in our lives. Although it's always more fun to point the finger (or give it) and accuse everyone else of not caring or doing anything, we figured that was kind of silly if we ourselves were not doing anything either.
After telling God we were sorry and that we want God to grow our faith (and ultimately our joy) as we learn to understand God's heart towards the poor, the first thing we did was ask some hard questions.
What does the Bible mean when it says "the poor?" Who is poor? Who are "the poor?" I had heard many people (myself included) say things like, "Well...the person down the street from me does not know Jesus. She's not financially poor, but she's spiritually poor. So I'm serving the poor."
I'll be the first to admit that sectioning off our relationship with Christ into something that resembles Richard Simmon's Deal a Meal program creeps me out. Richard Simmons on his own is creepy enough. But I think it's important that we don't confuse the poor with the lost. In some ways those areas can overlap. Some people who are poor know Jesus. Some poor people are not only financially bankrupt but spiritually bankrupt as well. We could spend all day coming up with different kinds of "people combos," but that's a little ridiculous. Where we landed is this: Yes, we're supposed to be sharing the gospel and the "good news" is the most important thing we could ever offer to another human being, but we simply can't deny that, for some reason, God says to serve the poor in tangible, needs-meeting ways as well. We were doing neither of those things.
2 Corinthians 8:9 says that for our sakes, Jesus became poor. Obviously He did not become spiritually poor. Jesus is God's son. In some freaky-I-don't-understand-the-Trinity kind of way, Jesus is God. The same word for poor and poverty used in that passage is used all throughout scripture and the definitions are exactly what any regular ol' Joe would think of when they think of the word, "poor." Destitute. Beggar. Helpless. Worthless.
Which makes sense when we think of Jesus' words to John the Baptist that I referenced yesterday. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them."
God seems to have a special place in His heart for those who would be completely destitute and helpless unless someone intervened. The blind. The lame. The outcasts. The sick. The deaf. The dead. Without intervention, these people are doomed. They can't work their way out of their situation on their own. A dead person can't come back to life on their own. A crippled person can't will themselves into walking. The same goes for the oppressed and the orphan. On their own, they will forever be stuck in the same sad, oftentimes horrific situation they are in today.
God is asking us to be tender towards people like these. And how can we not if we have been saved by God's sweet grace? Is this not who we once were? Who we still are in a lot of ways? Helpless. Unable. No hope in ourselves. No boot straps. Nothing. We could not save ourselves. We were oppressed and imprisoned. Without Jesus intervening on our behalf, we would still be in the same sad place. Without Jesus intervening today for me, I have found myself in that same sort of spiritual poverty.
Befriending and loving the friend down the street who does not know Jesus is wonderful. She's made in the image of God. She may need a friend. She may in turn be a loyal, loving friend to you. But let's not jump into this lady's life and claim that we're serving the poor. This new relationship may honor God, but let's not rewrite or redefine scripture. This isn't the "poor" Jesus is talking about when he says to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give water to the thirsty.
Aaron and I spent weeks on just this one aspect of trying to figure out how to care for the poor. No more calling people "poor" who were not "poor" in the way Jesus was describing. Yes, everyone needs to hear the gospel. God is clear about that. But He's also clear that the poor, the helpless, the voiceless, the oppressed, the widow, and the orphan are dear to Him and He desires for believers to pour their lives out for people such as these.
Next we got busy trying to figure out who was poor in the world. We didn't want to assume we knew, because our record, when it came to the topic of "the poor" was pretty bleak. So we pulled up Census Reports. We googled until our eyes felt like they might fall out. I read charts. I hate charts. So really I attempted to read them. Okay fine, Aaron is the only one who actually read the charts. He would tell me what they said. He read reports from respected places like The Heritage Foundation. Reports like this one. There are a lot of reports like this one from varying sources, but this one puts together a lot of data from various reports in one document. We'll let you read it and come to your own conclusions. Then we'll share ours.
How Poor Are America's Poor?