identifying with the poor

In my culture here in the United States, there seems to be a belief that has taken hold of many, that people are poor for a reason, meaning the poor are essentially at fault for being so. I’ve heard it put quite starkly that way, as if there are no outside factors which have contributed to their plight. Let’s face it, everyone makes less than best decisions at time, surely all of us have even done foolishly sometime when it comes to finances. But those who have a steady job and especially with a good income, have a nice margin of error, whereas the poor, who may not get much over minimum wage, do not. Yes, there’s all kinds of considerations to be added, like how some (some would say many) want to live off the government, while they smoke their cigarrettes and sit in front of the television. Yet there are others who have given up because they felt marginalized and simply didn’t have the qualifications needed to overcome.

Yes, there are poor people in the United States who barely have enough to eat, at times not enough. But most are helped in some way by the government or private agencies such as charities. The world’s poor in comparison suffer a much greater plight, since they often don’t have the resources that the poor here do. I think of places in Africa in which there is starvation even of children, often war ravaged areas in which governments can’t stop evil militia groups, oftentimes the governments themselves being corrupt.

People removed perhaps on the other side of the globe are sadly easy to dismiss or forget. But people suffering where we live is another matter. And yet we so easily live in bubbles among those of our economic, political, religious status, seldom breaking out of them enough to even begin to get to know the “others.”

To identify with the poor is essentially the way of Jesus, whose entire life, in fact coming was about identifying with the poverty of the human condition by becoming completely human except that he never sinned.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8

So we must start with our Lord, and it’s good to see it in the context of the above passage just cited (the link goes to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9). Paul was encouraging the Corinthian church to give monetarily, an offering for their poor brothers and sisters in Jesus in Judea. Some in their poverty gave generously for the help of others in spite of their own lack.

In and through Jesus, our hearts are to go out to the poor, and we’re to help them in practical ways in the love of our Lord, those who do not know him, with the good news of the gospel, itself.

We also need to be careful that Money doesn’t replace God in our lives. This is a life changing series, entitled, “God and Money,” which while saying a good number of things we may already know, is revolutionary in challenging us to see all of our resources as not only gifts from God, but also belonging to God, we being stewards of such. That needs to get into our hearts and bones to change our lives.

May the Lord teach us more in this direction, as we endeavor to walk together with him, longing for others to know the true riches we have found in him.

another take on James 5:16b on the prayer of the righteous

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5:16b

Without backing down at all on what I wrote on yesterday’s post, I want to briefly consider another possibility in line with the other way of interpreting, and thus translating this passage. Remember that all translation involves interpretation, say from German to English and back. Which is largely why we have differences in our Bible translations, which together make no impact at all on basic Christian doctrine.

The rendering adopted by the NIV (see NRSVNET, etc.) might be correct, and is certainly possible. The emphasis then would be simply on the prayer of a righteous person being powerful and effective. Even if the other way of translating is getting more to the original writing’s intent (I don’t know), what is said in this post still holds significance. And maybe a bit more so, if the NIV rendering happens to be more accurate.

A righteous person, or the righteous, in meaning is probably a bit different in the book of James then it is in Paul’s writings. The righteous in Paul, are those who are “in Christ,” who share in Christ’s righteousness, whether it’s an alien imputed righteousness, or not. The emphasis is that this righteousness comes from Christ, and is not part of the Law. And that it comes by grace through faith, as well as through baptism. It is worked into one’s life by the Spirit, and thus imparted by God through Christ to the one who has faith. So it’s not like it isn’t worked into real life. It’s just that the emphasis is on faith, and that faith in and of Christ.

In James, righteousness is different. Which is why Martin Luther disliked the letter, calling it “a right strawy epistle.” Paul referred to Abraham as simply believing God’s word, and thus being credited righteousness. James refers to Abraham being obedient so that he was considered righteous (NIV) or justified by what he did, so that James says justification is therefore by works, as well as faith, and not by faith alone. Actually we don’t see James contradicting Paul at all. It’s a different perspective, which is present but expressed in a different way in Paul’s letters. We could say that his faith produced works, and therefore was shown to be genuine faith. Through Paul and elsewhere we learn that we can’t save ourselves through our works, that we can only trust and have faith in God’s word, and specifically in the message of the good news in Jesus. Through hearing that message, and believing, like Abraham, we are justified, made or declared righteous. But if we are saved by grace through faith, we are saved for the good works which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The righteous in James are those who live by the royal law that gives freedom, namely “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that makes a difference not merely in what they believe (the demons believe God is one, and they shudder, says James), but in what they say and do. Certainly belief is important to James, but faith must be accompanied with works to prove its authenticity. Without works, faith is dead.

And so to the passage. The righteous person’s prayer is one who adheres to righteousness as spelled out in this relatively short book. They don’t just listen to the word, but they do what it says. They have humbly accepted the word planted in them, so that they are being saved. True religion includes keeping a tight rein on their tongue, helping orphans and widows (the needy) in their distress, and keeping themselves from being polluted by the world. And echoing Jesus, which James probably does more than Paul, and perhaps more than any other New Testament book, the poor seem to be more inclined toward faith than the rich, and thus are rich themselves in faith, and heirs of the kingdom of God, promised to those who love God.

And so if you are righteous according to James, that’s saying something. The focus should never be on us, but to be righteous according to James, Jesus (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) and the First/Old Testament prophets means to have a change of heart, a change of life. And right down into the nitty gritty of where we live, in what we say (and don’t say), as well as what we do (and don’t do), in good works or deeds for others.

If we are righteous in the way James describes as part of our faith, then our prayer can make a difference, in fact actually is powerful and effective. And the good takeaway here is that it isn’t just the emotionally charged, heartfelt prayer, but any prayer at all from the lips and heart of a righteous person. Of course all of this possible only through the faith that is ours in Jesus.

Lent and helping the poor

Along with the temptation of our Lord narrative, which in our tradition is the gospel reading climaxing the other readings, Father Michael highlighted the reading least likely to be talked much about, the Deuteronomy passage about the firstfruits and tithes Israel was to give to God, once they entered into the land promised to them (the readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13;Luke 4:1-13; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16).

In the Deuteronomy passage, the people of Israel are to give their tithe to the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. They too were foreigners in the land of Egypt, taken care of by God through the Egyptians at that time, and they are to do the same with the foreigners residing among them. Of course the command to help the fatherless and the widow is echoed elsewhere in the Pentateuch and throughout scripture, a call to God’s people. Part of the tradition of Lent is not only to fast, but to give to the poor, a call to God’s people in Jesus, a call to the church. Father Michael suggested such a priority can inform our politics, as we look for candidates who advocate helping the poor. I agree. Just how government is to play a role in that is not an easy question. But addressing systemic injustice is one good place to start. The goal should be to help the poor to live in a self-sustainable way. Handouts will be needed here and there. The politics of how to do this differ, of course.

But the one thing we’re to major on is our own role in helping the poor. We are interested not just in helping them to come to King Jesus to be saved from their sins and be secured a place in Heaven, but the salvation in place for this life is a salvation which is concerned about the whole person, and not just individuals, but communities. It’s a tall order indeed, but one that King Jesus takes on, part of the salvation of the good news of God’s grace and kingdom in him which begins now, to be seen and witnessed to in the church in anticipation of the Day when complete justice is set in place for all the world in and through King Jesus.

When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wanderingAramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer,subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and sawour misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lordyour God has given to you and your household.

When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the Lord your God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done everything you commanded me. Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Deuteronomy 26:1-15


helping the poor

A huge staple in the Christian tradition grounded in scripture is helping the poor. Giving is a major component of that, and of course we would want to see the poor helped on their way toward a stable, self-sustained existence in which they in turn can help others.

Scripture emphasizes God’s concern and care for the poor. God holds others responsible to do so, especially his people, the family of belivers, or household of faith. We are to be known as advocates for helping the poor. Widows and orphans are singled out in scripture, since that was an especially major issue of that day.  Today we have the homeless along with those who do not have living wages. We need to thoughtfully address these problems and life situations or places people find themselves in. The church should be at the forefront of this. Society has its role as well.

Poverty is often a systemic problem. Caste systems in the world tend to promote this. People can overcome this with help. But it is something that has to be overcome. And there is the issue of personal responsibility. The book of Proverbs is a good book to read through with that in mind. One shouldn’t expect help when they are not willing to take their share of responsibility.

Theology or a faith which doesn’t make this an emphasis I think is defective. We as evangelicals sometimes don’t make enough of this. Within the Great Tradition there’s a much better thread which we do well to learn from.

Jesus called the poor blessed, while at the same time warning the rich. It is not at all wrong to possess material wealth. The question becomes just what we do with that wealth. And especially in terms of helping the poor and those in need.

In the end God will take care of the imbalances of justice. The poor will see the salvation of God and the rich who didn’t care will be judged. And we who are blessed in Jesus will seek to promote that which is beneficial for the poor, for those in need both in the short haul and in the long run. While always pointing others to the one who became poor so that others through him might receive the true riches in God, as well as have all of their needs met.

living in identification with the poor

It is wonderful to hear of those who are wealthy pouring a sizeable part of their fortune into helping those who are poor and in need. And I find it encouraging that Pope Francis turned down an invitation to a meal with members of the US Congress to instead eat with the homeless.

We all live in varying economic situations. Most of us in the United States and in other first world countries are wealthy in comparison to the rest of the world. Although many of us live from paycheck to paycheck with sizeable debt. Yet our standard of living is something billions of others could not imagine.

I found it striking to see that a psalm attributed to David, which may have been a Davidic psalm in a sense other than him having actually written it, that the writer saw themselves as “poor and needy” (Psalm 86). If one sees their true state, then instead of thinking they are well off just because they are materially wealthy, they will learn to see that they are indeed, “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3). Jesus called both the poor and the poor in spirit blessed, while he pronounced a woe on the rich. And stated that it is impossible for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God. But that what is impossible with humans is possible with God (Matthew 5; Luke 6; Matthew 19).

When we understand how everything is a gift and how utterly dependent we are on God for all of life including each breath that we breathe, we can begin to see ourselves as no different than those who live in abject poverty or conditions much  different than our own. But with that insight comes responsibility. In love we need to reach out and help those in need. And be sure that our hearts are not tied to material wealth rather than God.

We are poor in and of ourselves. Everything is a gift. With whatever we are blessed with we’re meant to bless others, especially with the true riches that last forever in and through Jesus.

what we want (not)

When we look at our lives for whatever reason, many probably good, we might like to see something different. I’m thinking in terms of wealth, work (although I’m thankful for the good work I have), circumstances (not spouse or family). Jesus warned about how hard it is for the rich to enter into the kingdom. It’s not easy being poor either, though it may help them in terms of coming to have faith in God.

What is futile for us is to want something we don’t have to the point that we think life is essentially over, that good which may have come out of it has passed us by. We need to keep reading scripture again and again.

Did the Apostle Paul, par excellence follower of Christ have an easy road? He shared just how difficult it was and we have a good look at that in Acts. And in his next breath he helps us understand that our strength is actually in our weakness, as difficult as that may be for us to accept. It was certainly difficult for him, but he was thankful in the end.

We must go on, simply trusting in God in and through Jesus. That God is at work in our weakness, in our circumstances, in all of life for our good and his glory. We must keep on keeping on. Eyes fixed on Jesus to the very end.

doing well with money

In the evangelical world in which I inhabit, Dave Ramsey is a kind of folk hero, almost. There is no doubt he has plenty of good wisdom and commonsense to offer when it comes to money, both for the young and old. He does so from a certain kind of biblical perspective, which I think does some justice to parts of the biblical picture, even if it doesn’t sufficiently take in the whole. Others offer counsel among similar lines with some differences. What I do like about Ramsey is how he helps people get out of debt and hopefully avoid it. With the simple yet powerful maxim: Don’t spend more than you take in. And with suggested strategies and practices to implement that. What I don’t agree with is some of his generalizations about debt and the poor. Yes, there generally is an upward mobility for those who come to Christ and seek to live with integrity. But no, not everyone who is in that category is going to avoid serious difficulties. Unfortunately people can take my last statement here and rationalize their way to making bad choices, not making the better, hard choices along the way.

We would have been far better off if I would have listened to the wisdom of my wife. Back during the time when I considered myself the head, I didn’t listen well to her. Most of the time when we’ve disagreed, she has been right, a solid majority of the time in fact. Like for example when I was trying to pay up for seminary, and instead of applying for a grant which somehow I didn’t think I deserved, or trusting the Lord to provide (and going from there) as my wife suggested, no, I had to pay it off with my credit card. And other bad decisions I made along the way, not knowing what I was doing, and the result. Of course it is difficult to climb out of debt.

Unfortunately debt  cannot always be avoided. Sickness, job loss, lack of insurance (in these United States, though that currently is changing, even if not all that well) can push a family over the cliff and into financial difficulty and even ruin. Contrary to what Dave Ramsey seems to suggest (I hope I’m mistaken, and I would think he sees exceptions to the rule. To his credit he always is gracious and has advice for everyone) the poor aren’t always poor for a reason reflecting badly on themselves. Other factors are often at work. True too with those who are in the middle and upper class.

The most important thing I think that can be said in regard to money and everything else is simply this: Follow Jesus. Be in scripture, listen to those who give advice, and above all mark well the words of our Lord. Seek to live life with God’s righteousness and kingdom in view and as the goal in and through Jesus. Let wealth be beside the point of that. Let’s be generous with what we do have. And yes, let’s not incur needless debt. Do trust the Father to provide, and be led by him and grow in faith in that way.

We need to pour our lives into what lasts beyond this life. As we do we find that the good that comes from that is not only good for the life to come, but for life in the present, as well. And we need to remember that we are all in this together. We need to help each other in ways that will help us grow and mature in our life in Christ. And part of that will be how we handle worldly wealth.