A friend of mine in Louisiana has been deeply invested in disaster relief for that area so hard hit in recent years. In a recent exchange he wrote: “there is no greater disaster in American than poverty.” Far too many live on such a thin margin that if the next paycheck did not come, they would be plunged into their own personal disaster. This number is growing exponentially, as we know.
At times reduced to mere illustrations for political purposes, the poor have a claim to priority for the people of God. The Epistle of James spends much of chapter two upbraiding those who claim to be believers in Jesus Christ, yet act favorably only to the rich and, thus, further marginalize the poor. Rather than being welcomed in the Christian community, the poor often are seen as an embarrassment rather than preferred “heirs of the reign of God” (2:5). The author of this no nonsense epistle puts it bluntly: “ . . . you have dishonored the poor” (v. 6).
If this is the ultimate measure of faithful discipleship, then the great majority of us are falling short. Seduced by affluence, cosseted in comfortable pews, and profligate in spending for personal pleasure, the poor rarely flit across our consciousness. When they do, our response is often paralysis in the face of overwhelming need.
Churches will never flourish if they regard potential members only as sources of new revenue for the congregation. In like fashion, to regard only the rich as capable of bringing gifts to the community is shortsighted. James is characteristically forthright:
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
If we fail to keep the poor in view, we have violated the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I wonder if our spending patterns reveal not only negligence of the poor, but also a lack of authentic love for ourselves. Thinking that one more pair of shoes, one more elegant meal, one more vehicle, one more addition to the house (or another house), will provide happiness is a false assumption. Recent studies out of Princeton University that seek to correlate happiness with levels of income demonstrate the limits of correlation. Many persons with very little are happier than those with great wealth. Yet, the kinds of stresses caused by poverty are grinding and dehumanizing.
We cannot outsource our connection with poverty through government or even denominational initiatives. The poor have the power to convert our practices when given the chance. The hardest conversion, after head and heart, is the conversion of the purse, according to Martin Luther.
Molly T. Marshall
Central cares about justice for all persons, and we teach to that end. To learn more, continue visiting our website www.cbts.edu