The Complexity of Faith and Poverty

**This article of mine was originally published in the Toledo Streets Newspaper**

As our country continues to try to climb out of this difficult recession we are left with a lot of questions about poverty. In the past several decades it was much simpler to put a face on poverty because the lines were clear…there was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that was definable (or we at least allowed ourselves to believe this to be true). The longer our current economic downturn trudges on the more fragile we realize those once hard barriers are. The folks standing in line for food, clothing, and unemployment are our neighbors – those with an attached garage and privacy fence surrounding their previously well manicured yard. Those folks are us.

One of the most difficult things for us in our current socio-economic climate is dealing with some of the false beliefs we once held so tightly. There are many that at one time or another had rung true to us. Things such as: Poverty is a result of laziness, Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, You made your bed now lie in it – these previously proud statements were once paraded around by those of us in privilege who never had to deal with facing foreclosure, food stamps, or joblessness.

The examples I gave above were more a reflection on cultural statements, but there are many from within the church that have touted the same or similar beliefs. Some of them carried an identical message but were dressed in the lily whites of Jesus-esque language: “G_d helps those who help themselves” comes to mind (please note – this is not in the bible). Maybe you’ve even heard folks dismiss the issue all together by quoting Jesus, “The poor will always be with you.” Then some blame the impoverished person’s faith or righteousness for their plight…reminding them that if they just ‘trust’ in G_d then He will provide.

Is it really that simple? Is this really how the LORD desires us to deal with poverty in our midst?

When wrestling with what our faith has to say about poverty we must recognize that it is complex. Most of us have been taught that if the answer is too easy then it probably isn’t the right answer. I believe that in our need/desire to communicate the faith as simply as possible we’ve oftentimes have made the answers too easy – and therefore not the right answer.

So how do we address poverty from a place of faith? Well, let’s first turn to the Text that should inform our beliefs.

I want to begin with the verse mentioned above – Jesus declaring that the poor will always be amongst us. Many Christians miss that Jesus is actually quoting a passage from the book of Deuteronomy (15). This passage actually begins by G_d promising Israel that if she does all that He commands that poverty will not exist amongst them. The next piece of the Text is where it starts to become more complex – G_d expects Israel to respond to those who become poor with ‘open hands’ and generously taking care of their needs. “Why?” we might ask, well because in His breath just prior He said that an obedient nation would not have poor. We are left to wrestle with, “How then did this fellow become impoverished?” – Did G_d fail to uphold His end of the deal? Let me just say (in the spirit of St. Paul) “Heavens NO!” – the failure was not YHWH’s but rather it is ours. Therefore, we must not close our hearts to those in need because their situation stems from our own (corporate) failures to uphold the commands of G_d. The end of this section in the Text is a sad moment when the LORD declares of Israel, “The poor will always be with you.” Ugh – this is gut wrenching. Our LORD has established a system amongst His faithful that was designed in part to eradicate poverty but because we prefer to live according to our own will and not His – well, poverty is still with us.

This passage is a real confrontation to our good Western society that is hyper focused on independence, individualism, and self-reliance. We, in many ways, have fallen for a trap of importing cultural norms onto biblical precepts. The faith of Messiah and his fellow Jews was one steeped in communal worship, communal forgiveness, and communal living. It is impossible to fulfill the Torah without living deeply invested in community – caring for the person next to you, the hungry, sick, and poor. This is in stark contrast to the way we have learned to express our faith today. We declare it to be a ‘personal’ faith, ‘personal’ Messiah and ‘personal’ relationship – these aren’t, in and of themselves, bad but they are far from the heart of the gospel and from the faith of our Messiah.

Let’s look at another passage: Matthew 25 speaks of the ‘time to come’ when the king will sit on his throne and separate the sheep from the goats. This scene is ominous as the goats are sent to destruction and the sheep are ushered into ‘green pastures’ – most Christians, if asked (and often when we aren’t) would respond to this question (How does one avoid destruction and instead enter ‘green pastures’?) with a much different example than Jesus uses.

Jesus tells a story where someone is hungry and has either been fed or ignored, someone is naked and has either been clothed or ignored, etc. His story does not include faith statements, creeds, dogma, or doctrine – instead His word picture centers on assisting the poor.

We can also pick up on this thinking when Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” His response is a combination of Deuteronomy 6 (“Love the LORD your G_d with all your heart, soul, and strength…”) and Leviticus 19 (“Love your neighbor as yourself…”). In that Leviticus passage we have a list of things that lead up to this statement in verse 18 – this list is the ‘how’ of loving your neighbor. It talks about leaving the corners of your field. That section is one of my favorite sections of the bible. I always try to point out to people that G_d doesn’t say how much to leave, He just says to leave the corner…the extent of our generosity is solely up to us. In addition to the ‘how much’ is the ‘for who’ – the Text says it is for the poor and sojourner to come and take what they need.

I find this striking because nowhere in this section or in the Matthew 25 passage is there anything that actually ‘qualifies’ the person – do we think someone stood at the edge of their field and checked w2’s before allowing entrance? Did Jesus say, “I was hungry and after a thorough vetting process you deemed me worthy of receiving food”?

I think these things might hold part of the key to why faith and poverty is such a complex topic. We want to know or determine who is worthy to receive. Let that sink in…when we see a person on the corner with a sign, and we attempt to assess their worthiness for our spare change. Trying to predict how they’ll use the money, why they are there in the first place, what being a good steward means in this situation…these are the things we tend to process in those moments. We must remember our own worthiness – ‘for yet while you were still sinners’ comes to mind – before the LORD. We must remember His generosity. We are not the moral agents of others, it is not our place to determine another’s worthiness but it is our responsibility to ‘do all that I [the LORD] has commanded.’

May we be a people of faith who leaves the corners of our field, feeds the hungry, visits the sick – and more importantly be generous with ‘open hands’ when we meet another who is poor.

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