“Following Jesus, Serving the Poor”
a Sermon by the Rev. Jay Lawlor
21st Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 23, Year B – Oct. 14, 2018
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Richmond, IN
The Bible contains over 2,000 verses about poverty and presents a number of descriptions for what it was like to be poor in biblical times. There are the orphans and widows, the sick, the lame and the blind, lepers, debtors, the hungry, and the thirsty, all listed among the poor. Poverty in the Bible is a condition of factors that marginalized the poor person from the wider community. Behind poverty lay economic imbalance and struggle. The injustice of indebtedness created a severe system of impoverishment and slavery. Unfair wage practices also presented economic conditions that kept people in poverty. Amos, Micah, and Isaiah witness to God’s demand for justice in light of the commercialization of land and the abuses it created in exploiting the poor.
Like in the Old Testament, debt played an especially destructive role in New Testament times as well. Through debt, ownership of the land of the peasantry — needed to farm crops for their food — was taken from them. All the Roman laws, set by the elite, favored the elite creditors and forced the peasantry further into debt. If odious debt could not be repaid, as was often the case, the debtor – or member of the debtor’s family – was sold into slavery or imprisoned.
The poor in the Bible are unable to maintain their inherited status because of misfortune or the injustice of others. They were socially vulnerable: religiously, economically, politically, and domestically. The poor in the Bible faced situations of utter vulnerability and powerlessness that left them deeply impoverished materially and robbed them of the honor and dignity that was part of their inherited status in life.
Whether impoverished because of misfortune, the injustice of others – or a combination of both, being poor in the Bible meant one lacked access to the necessities for the provisioning of life; both tangibles (food, water, clothing, shelter) and intangibles (honor, dignity). The poor faced situations of utter deprivation and despair that left them unable to participate in society at all levels. The Bible also makes clear that the poor suffered because those with resources either oppressed them or ignored their needs. The rich and powerful had honor and dignity in the world’s eyes, but God was set on a great reversal where honor and dignity had nothing to do with worldly riches and power.
Theologians and biblical scholars agree that “God has a preferential option for the poor.” But what does that mean? Does God love poor people and hate rich people? No; not exactly. God is love and God loves everyone the same. The Gospel According to John tells us that Jesus came so that all may have abundant life – this includes rich and poor alike. This does not mean, however, that God remains neutral or on the sidelines when it comes to treatment of the poor and oppressed.
The Bible makes clear that God identifies with the needs of the poor, is on the side of lifting them out of their poverty, and that God wants to reorder unjust systems that oppress impoverished people.
Scripture even demands that political leaders (hence, also those who elect them) assume responsibility in delivering the poor from their poverty.
God identifies so closely with the needs of the poor and oppressed that when we oppress the poor we insult God, and when we help them, we honor God. Scripture goes even further: God considers treatment toward the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed as how we are treating God directly. This last point makes clear that not only does God have a preferential option for the poor, but God demands that we do as well.
Jesus calls his followers to a new way of living that exhibits God’s reign. Christian communities across the ages are to proclaim and continually build the reign of God in all areas of life. Following Jesus involves imitating his pattern of life in service to others.
Jesus emphasizes an interdependence based on the ethic of family. Jesus is inviting people to experience a new community that walks in the love of God, cares for the needs of others, shares abundantly with the suffering, and turns on its head the socio-economic-political order of the day. In bringing forth this new social behavior, Jesus calls his followers to a new way of life as exemplified in the narrative of the Rich Young Man in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark. And it includes God’s great reversal: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31).
Jesus tells the rich man to sell all he owns and distribute the money to the poor. The rich man, as we know, is unable to sell his processions and goes away from Jesus. Biblical scholars and theologians comment that this story is part of an overarching and central message about what Jesus demanded of Christian discipleship. As Bruce J. Malina writes:
Jesus’ injunction to give one’s goods to the poor is not about self-impoverishment but about redistribution of wealth; and motives
for giving to the poor are not rooted in self-satisfying charity but in God-ordained, socially required restitution.
Jesus’ purpose is to draw the human family together in a way where the quality of our relationships opens us to sharing the abundance that God provides for all. Amen.