Last night our Faiths in Conversation event at the Turquoise Center in Richardson focused on the subject of “The Rich and the Poor.” Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shaykh Khalil Abdur-Rashid presented the perspectives of Judaism and Islam on the questions of poverty and possessions from their Scriptures and traditions, and I presented from my Christian perspective. It was an insightful and lively evening. They always are.
Next Tuesday evening, May 23, at the Islamic Association of Collin County (6401 Independence Pkwy, Plano) at 7 pm, we will have our last Faith in Conversation event until the fall. Our topic will be “Transgender Identity.” These are powerful evenings of interfaith conversation and relationship, and I hope that you will join us. DBS +
The Rich and the Poor: A Christian Perspective
Faiths in Conversation – May 16, 2017 – 7 pm
The Turquoise Center, Richardson, Texas
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner, Northway Christian Church ________________________________________________________________________________________________
The public face of Christianity in my lifetime has been Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta. As you know, the Roman Catholic Church fast-tracked her path to canonization, officially recognizing her as a saint in September of 2016, a mere 19 years after her death. By way of contrast, it took the great St. Bede, the Father of English History and a Doctor of the Church, 1,164 years to accomplish this same feat. But it happened in just 19 years for Mother Teresa because of the widespread popular impression that there was something undeniably “Christian” about her.
“At the end of life,” St. Teresa of Calcutta once famously said, “we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, by how much money we have made, by how many great things we have done. We will be judged by – ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’” And there it is. There is something intrinsic to Christianity about serving the poor.
When the late 19th/early 20th century German Lutheran Theologian and prominent church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930) explained why he thought that Christianity had won the day in the marketplace of ideas that was the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the Common Era, he quoted Matthew 25, the very same verse that Mother Teresa did – “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.” And then he explained –
These words of Jesus have shone so brilliantly for many generations… and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may… describe… Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity… Among the extant words… of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous…. it is plain that… the gist of his preaching was to enforce brotherliness and ministering love, and the surest part of the impression he left behind him was that in his own life and labors he displayed both of these very qualities.
In April of 2015, John Barclay, the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in England opened the Houston Baptist University Theology Conference with a lecture he entitled – “The Poor You Will Always Have with You: Why It Mattered to the Church to Give to the Poor.” He began that lecture by directing his audience to Paul’s account of the Jerusalem Conference in his letter to the Galatians.
The Jerusalem Conference was the first gathering of the whole church to sort out an urgent question of Christian faith and practice, and what triggered it was the Gentile Mission. Paul and Barnabas had just returned from their first missionary journey to the island of Cyprus and Southern Asia Minor during which they had received Gentiles into the church on the basis of their faithful response to the preaching of the Gospel. This prompted the Jerusalem Church to ask about the scope of God’s saving intent. Did it really include Gentiles, or was it just limited to Jews? This was a huge question for the early church, and so about the year 48, all of the key leaders of the church gathered in Jerusalem to sort it out.
They concluded that God’s saving love in Jesus Christ did in fact include everybody everywhere, and in the second chapter of his letter to the Galatians, one of the churches that he had planted on that first missionary journey and a church whose very existence triggered the need for the conversation in Jerusalem in the first place, Paul gave this account of what had happened and what had been decided there –
…when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised… and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
Dr. Barclay’s lecture at Houston Baptist University in 2015 was an exploration of the premise that this phrase – “remember the poor” – was the expression of a commitment that was essential to the identity and activity of the first Christians, and that has remained an integral part of Christianity ever since. After reviewing the documentary evidence of the church’s response to the poor in the first few centuries of her life, Dr. Barclay concluded his lecture by saying that the first Christians took the reality of the poor into the very heart of their churches and made the alleviation of poverty one of their core spiritual practices. “To remember the poor was not just some early passing phase of Christianity,” Dr. Barclay concluded, it was one of the ways that they became “most fully Christian.” And I would argue that this remains true for Christians today.
My faith in Jesus Christ connects me deeply with an act of God’s generosity. The Christian Gospel is the message of how, in Jesus Christ, God gave Himself to us in our spiritual need as our Savior, and when this message gets believed, when this gift gets received, then it just naturally begins to cascade into a response of generous acts by which we who believe in Him start giving to others in their need. We give as God has given to us in Christ. This makes our giving a sign of Christian faithfulness.
Reviewing the breadth of what the New Testament says about giving, about wealth and possessions, about being rich and being poor, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church says that the poor are a special focus of God’s loving concern. They say that thus is an idea that’s “inspired by the Beatitudes, by the (actual) poverty of Jesus Christ’s (own life), and by His (focused) attention to the poor (during the days of His public ministry).” And they say that this is something to which the whole tradition of the church bears witness.
Now, for a Protestant Christian like myself who grew up singing – “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world” – I have to admit to feeling a certain resistance to this idea that God has favorites, that God has a special concern for one group of people over another, the first time I heard it. But as someone who has been a serious student of the Christian Scriptures now for nearly 40 years, I have now also come to the place where I have to admit that it’s an idea that’s clearly present in our Scriptures as Christians.
In the daily prayers historically prescribed by the church, every evening the “Magnificat” – the song that Mary sang in response to the angel’s news that she was going to be the mother of the Christ – gets prayed. This is as eloquent a statement of God’s preferential concern for the poor as you will find anywhere in the New Testament. Mary, a poor Jewish girl prayed –
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and He has sent the rich away empty…
When you pray these words every single day, month after month, you find your concerns starting to be shaped by the things that concern God. And this brings God’s special concern for the poor, the weak, the hungry and the lowly into clear focus for you, and it helps to explain the remarkable actions of the early church.
When John the Baptist preached his message of repentance at the beginning of the Gospel story of Jesus, he told those who were responding favorably to his preaching that they needed to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). And one of the fruit in keeping with the repentance that the Christian faith produced in the early church according to the book of Acts was an extraordinary pattern of economic sharing. Luke reported in Acts 2:44-45. And then he followed that up with an even more astonishing report in Acts chapter 4 –
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (4:32-35)
That’s the momentum of grace that the Gospel launches, and it’s what makes “remembering the poor” such a core practice of Christianity.
Now, if Christianity is a message of welcome and compassion for the poor, then it is a message of warning and concern to the wealthy. Every Wednesday at noon I teach a Bible Study at the church I serve, and right now we are working our way verse-by-verse through the first letter of the Apostle Paul to his young ministerial associate named Timothy. Some of the New Testament’s sternest warnings to the rich come from this letter.
After criticizing false teachers who were working their way into the church as a way of advancing themselves financially, Paul warned Timothy that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (6:9-10). This is as familiar as anything that the New Testament says about wealth, although it regularly gets misquoted. It is “the love of money,” and not money itself that is “the root of all evil.”
After warning those who wanted to get rich about greed, Paul then wrote a word to Timothy about how those who were already rich could be faithful with their great wealth.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (6:17-19)
This is a direct echo of the teachings of Jesus in these words. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus named money as being a rival god to which people were tempted to give their trust and devotion (Matthew 6:24). To break its hold on us, Jesus told His disciples to seek first God’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:33), and to stop worrying about their material possessions (Matthew 6:25). And as a strategy for actually doing this, Jesus instructed His disciples to be recklessly generous in the giving of alms (Matthew 6:2-4) as the way of laying up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). All of which is to say that Jesus Christ expected His followers to generously share their material resources as an expression of their devotion to Him, and of their confidence in the certainty of His promises to provide for them in this life and the next. And this is how the use of our wealth as Christians becomes one of the surest signs of just how profoundly we have been grasped by the power of the Gospel.
There is no question that there are serious and urgent conversations to be had in our society about the best ways to address the problem of poverty and the needs of the poor. The current healthcare debate in Congress is fueled by competing ideas about the best way to actually provide for people’s needs – federal or state programs, private or public funding, government or free market control – and I’m not sure that Christianity’s source documents are particularly helpful in settling this debate. The New Testament is addressed to Christians and churches and not to Caesar and the State. But what the New Testament tells Christians and churches is that God has a very special concern for the poor, and that the way we love and serve God as Christians is by loving and serving the poor, and this has clear political consequence.
As a Christian who is a citizen of this country, my votes will always be shaped my values, and one of my values because I am a Christian is the welfare of the poor. In his very last speech, Hubert H. Humphrey said – “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” As a Christian whose faith and values are being shaped by the Biblical witness, this is part of the criteria that I will use to determine which public policies and elected leaders I can conscientiously support.
Christians can and do argue about which policies best serve their values. Hubert Humphrey said that he and Everett Dirksen, his conservative Republican colleague in the Senate, hardly ever agreed on how to actually solve a problem like poverty, but that neither of them ever questioned that the other one was just as concerned about the problem as he was, or just as committed to finding a solution. Biblical principles do not automatically or obviously translate into planks in a political platform, but they must inform Christian conscience and conviction, and because they do, Jesus’ observation that “the poor you will always have with you” is not an excuse for us to do nothing, but is rather a challenge for us to do absolutely everything we possibly can do as Christians, churches and a society at large to make sure that the needs of the poor are being equitably and constructively addressed. To borrow the language of the Apostle Paul, the love of God as I know it in Christ “constrains” me to do so (2 Corinthians 5 14). “Remembering the poor” is part of what it means for me to be “most fully Christian.”