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Monday, February 05, 2007

Who Are The Poor?

I recently have kept running across the bold assertion that "God favors the poor and so we must work to alleviate poverty". (It reminds me that I should probably reread George Grant's book Bringing In The Sheaves.)

But back to my subject.

Usually the episode of Jesus speaking in Nazareth in Luke 4 is a frequent proof text for these assertions as our Lord quotes the prophet Isaiah. I noticed that we all assume we know who the "poor" are. So who are they?

I've noticed we assume that the poor are whoever some arbitrary government income chart declares are "under the poverty line". They may have cable TV, smoke $50 in cigarettes per month, drink and dope all night long but they are hungry and show up at the food bank asking for help.

Are they the poor Jesus talks about?

I'm all for helping the truly poor our Lord spoke of.

Can you tell me who they are?

I've been trying to help the ones I thought were poor for quite some time and am pretty sure I haven't found them on many occasions. I think I found some people I've helped again and again who - had they they money and opportunity - have the attitude necessary to be the Rich Man who goes to torment in Luke 16. They don't care about anyone but themselves or about anything but their problems.

So I offer this word of warning.

If you're planning on getting into helping the "poor", prepare your soul. Keep focused on Christ and obeying Him because you'll beat your head against a wall plenty of times thinking you're helping the poor when you're just enabling their self-destruction. I don't think that bothers some. "Jesus" for them seems to serve as a political rallying cry to rationalize the government's increasing ownership of everything since they've done so well already (not!). When that happens the poor just become "pawns" in a bigger game to be paraded out and pimped as needed to justify an agenda. But really help them? As individuals? Only a loving church - not a new "program" can do that.

When I hear Jesus mentioned in that way, as a slogan, that Jesus isn't the Lord I know whose death and resurrection enables sinners to be reconciled to a holy God and then transformed by the Holy Spirit.

So who are the poor and how do I know I'm helping them?

I've worked in rural poverty for the last 7 years and am the local board chair for a FEMA funded "Emergency Food and Shelter Program" (Your county has one too I suspect... check ) and, also, am burned out.

I am struck at the ingratitude and sense of entitlement of the so called "poor" and the general unwillingness of most of them to lift a finger for themselves but instead see how many people they can get to do something for them first.

It's ironic: I work with an office full of social workers (I'm bi-vocational) who'd eat canned dog food and work 3 jobs before asking someone for help and who spend all day and will bend over backwards to help people who won't work at all. Yet these "poor" people will cuss you out for not giving them whatever they want when they want it.

As I've preached through the lectionary in Epiphany I couldn't help but notice a juxtaposition between Luke 4 and Nehemiah 8.

Jesus speaks in a synagogue of people we'd consider dirt poor by modern standards and who would be the instant object of our charitable help. And as we helped them we'd say we were doing it because Jesus wants us to "care for the poor".

Yet Jesus said to these very people we consider the "poor" that they weren't going to see his miracles, and they tried to kill him for it. I'm sure they were "under the poverty line" by all modern standards of wealth but they must not have been the poor. I say that because Jesus didn't go out of his way to help them because of their unbelief.

So who were the poor the prophet spoke of if not these dirt poor Nazareth dwellers? I think Nehemiah 8 was a good choice to juxtapose with this text...those "poor" in Nehemiah's day left everything they might have accumulated in exile to return to the Land to restore a holy nation. When Ezra read the Law of God, they wept bitterly in repentance when they heard God's Word for their sins. They truly were "poor in spirit".

On a variety of occasions in Ezra-Nehemiah, you see the people NOT asking for the king's help because they don't want God's Name to be mocked.

The poor it seems are the "poor in spirit"... the repentant... those who hunger and thirst - Jesus says - for justice or righteousness, not just for their "piece of the pie".

In the New Testament church they were widows without support, orphans who could not fend for themselves, and travelers to Jerusalem for Pentecost who stayed to be discipled in the message of Jesus and who had left their livelihoods behind to attend the feast. Collections were taken up for victims of famine. But those who wouldn't work - even for good theological reasons like the imminency of Christ's coming - weren't to be fed.

In the post apostolic church that conquered the empire, the poor served in Jesus' Name were still widows without support and orphans, the sick who had nobody to care for them, and also the infants left to die of exposure.

Jesus in Matthew 25 said to visit the prisoners, but let's be honest, that's a bit different than the guy who held up a convenience store and shot the clerk. Usually those kind of criminals were killed. It was political prisoners who were imprisoned then... and unlike today's lock ups with 3 meals, free GED classes, etc. those prisoners didn't eat unless people from the outside brought food.

I'm not saying not to help prisoners, I just wish the people who use the name of the "poor" to promote their agendas and bind the Christian conscience weren't the same ones who complain about the alleged "separation of church and state" and shut down proven Christian programs like those of Prison Fellowship.

I admit. I need Jesus to revitalize me... I am burned out.

I need discernment so I will help the truly poor - those who cannot help themselves so I do not encourage the lazy to destroy themselves and never trust in the Living God. Why should they if I'm here to give them a hand out and never bring up the issue of God and the inevitable issue of God's transforming power?