February 25 2018
God is calling—God has called us—to the poor. God is calling us to the poor because they are Christ’s and Christ is theirs: we cannot have him without them. God is calling us to the poor because only the poor can know themselves and God. And God is calling us to the poor because his nature is now ours, which means we can be ourselves only as we give ourselves away to the needy and the afflicted. As Rowan Williams makes clear:
The Christian life is about gratitude, a detachment from possessions grounded in the recognition that God’s gifts are restless in the hands of the receiver until they are given again.
This is the word for us in today’s Psalm, which we heard earlier:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted (or, the poverty of the poor);
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!
As you remember, Psalm 22 is the prayer Christ prays from the cross. It begins with his cry of dereliction: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And ends with this promise of blessing. See how even while Christ himself falls into godforsakeness, he knows that God will never forsake the poor? In the very moment he feels God cannot hear him, he confesses that God always hears the needy and the afflicted. Christ knows in this moment what he already realized in the Garden: he must become poor, as well. The cup will not pass from him.
Concern for the poor, the needy and the afflicted, appears again and again in the Psalms. God is revealed and lauded as the God of the poor. Three themes dominate: (1) God hears their cries for mercy; (2) he rescues them from the wicked who prey on them, and (3) he delivers them from their affliction. In a word, the Psalms bear witness to a God who never forsakes the poor to their poverty, never leaves the afflicted in their affliction.
In Proverbs, the concern turns from God to the people of God:
Prov. 19.17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.
Prov. 21.13 If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.
Prov. 28.27 Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.
Prov. 29.7 The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.
All of this makes a much fuller sense if we remember the Exodus story, the story that roots Israel’s identity as the people of God. Enslaved in Egypt, they cry out to God, and he delivers them. This deliverance tells them once-for-all who they are and who God is. Who are they? The poor ones freely liberated and sheltered by God. Who is God? The one who hears the cry of the poor, and leads them into plenty.
Strangely, God delivers Israel from the absolute impoverishment of slavery into the perilous scarcity of the wilderness. The wilderness is so perilous—Deuteronomy 8 descries it as “the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions”—that Israel desires to return to slavery. Why does God lead them this way? Because he knows they’ll never know how to live with plenty if they forget how they were poor, and if they do not learn how to live in divine, as opposed to human, poverty.
Before leading them into the Promised Land, he warns them never to forget who they had been, what they had undergone. But of course they did forget. So God sent the prophets, again and again, before the exile, during the exile, and after it, to remind them of what they had forgotten.
The prophets gave warnings: because Israel had forgotten that they were poor, God would come and make them poor again.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
And the prophets also made promises: Israel’s deliverance would come just as they cared for those in need—just as God had done for them.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
And that brings us to Jesus. The prophetic call to remember the poor is the heart of his ministry as it is revealed to us in the Gospels. Take, for example, the First Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew.
In it, Jesus is himself described as poor, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” and he proclaims that the poor are blessed, that the kingdom of God belongs to them alone. Discipleship, he says, begins and ends with giving to those in need: “you cannot serve both God and Money.” Everything comes down to what we have done—or left undone—for “the least of these.” Everything.
In this Gospel Jesus warns: “the poor you have with you always.” And he also promises: “I am with you always.” What we miss is that the one is inseparable from the other. He is the poor. They are him. “What you do to the least of these you do to me,” he said, revealed that in saying that the poor would be with us always, Christ was telling us where we could find him, how he would be present to us.
Our poor ways of reading may keep us from seeing this promise, but Maximus Confessor did not miss it. Reflecting on these very passages he writes:
And if the poor man is God, it is because of God’s condescension in becoming poor for us … All the more will we become like God as we heal the hurts of those who suffer, loving others in imitation of God. The one who becomes like God … has the same power of saving Providence that God has.
We are the providence of God. Or we are not.
But I’ve not yet answered a critical question: who are “the poor”? How to talk about them given that they have been politicized for partisan agendas? We must name them, see their faces. The poor are the needy and the afflicted among us, those who lack the goods God means for them to have and those who are treated as less than the sons and daughters of God that they are. Whenever my family prays over a meal, we pray: “Lord, be with those who do not have food to eat tonight, and those who have food but no one to share it with.” They are the poor. Widows and orphans. The homeless on our streets and refugees at our borders and in our cities, as well as at borders and in cities everywhere. They are the poor. The physically and mentally disabled. The very young and the very old among us. Addicts. Abused wives and girlfriends. They are the poor.
Without spiritualizing poverty away, we have to recognize that we are the poor as well. Each of us is poor in some way. Terribly poor. And each of us is called to the poor. But first of all, we are called to become poor for the sake of the rich and poor alike.
In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul praises the Macedonian churches for their generosity in giving to Paul’s collection for the poor in the churches in Jerusalem:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has
been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2for during a severe ordeal of
affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a
wealth of generosity on their part. 3For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave
according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4begging us earnestly
for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us…
And then he calls for the Corinthians to imitate not only the Macedonians, but also Christ, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
“… by his poverty you might become rich.” Everything depends on this: it is Christ’s poverty that makes us rich. He came so that we might exchange not our poverty for his wealth, but both our wealth and our poverty for his poverty, which is his wealth. As Paul puts it elsewhere, we must be filled up with Christ’s self-emptying life (Phil. 2). Only so can we fulfill the calling of Abraham to bring God’s blessings to all people. If we do not become poor as Jesus is poor, then we remain masters offering a hand to others instead of servants offering ourselves to them. We are called not to philanthropy but to charity. The philanthropist gives and is praised. The Christian gives and God is praised.
But how is Christ poor? By becoming sin for us, by his agonizing death on the cross. And it is that death that we too have to suffer. We must be crucified with him daily. Again, the question is, how? We must in deep, deep prayer ask God to make us poor. We must let his poverty, his self-forgetting and self-giving nature, came alive in us., fill us to overflowing We must fast from ourselves so that we can give and be given to others, because without self-denial and self-forgetfulness, there can be no self-giving. We cannot care for the poor if we are consumed with caring for ourselves. And above all we must befriend the poor, who are Christ. We can’t have him without them.
But what does it mean to “befriend” the poor? Not merely to show them kindness and respect. It is to make praise possible for them. Look again at today’s Psalm: Christ’s words in this section are addressed to those who fear the Lord. And of them he says: “from you comes my praise in the midst of the congregation.” The poor who are one with Christ join their praises with his for God’s faithfulness as we give ourselves to them in love. That is the essence of Christian friendship. We care for the poor in ways that move them to rejoice in God. We put a new song in their mouth. And that is precisely what it means for us to be rich: to be so full of the life of God that we find joy when the poor eat and are satisfied. Like Christ, we are fulfilled in others’ satisfaction. Their joy is our joy, and our joy is God’s.