"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Spiritually resisting the poor

Serving the poor carries a significant political backlash, particularly as Christians assert that Christ commands that we care for the poor.  Almost invariably, the discussion of Judas gets cited.  Admittedly, I am starting to see Judas in a different light, particularly as I see more of myself in his character.

The text is well-known: A sinful woman pours rich ointment over Christ’s feet, wiping His feet with her hair.  Judas takes objection asserting that the ointment could have been sold and the monies given to the poor.  Christ then replies, “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” (from the Gospel of St John, the 12th chapter)

The interesting thing to me is that this verse gets quoted as a way of resisting serving the poor.  But I have to wonder if Christians would have the same response if Judas proposed that the money go to the hospital or to the schools or to the nursery.  Is it not true that we will always have the sick, the young, and the powerless with us?

I would like to make a connection between the poor and the sick because we tend to acknowledge the sick in our midst.  We will go to great lengths to try to alleviate the human suffering of a loved one we know who is sick.  We help our sick loved ones personally, we rejoice when people respond to the professional call of tending to the sick, and we value tending to the sick, even at some sense of a macro-scale.  (Please remember the ground rules for this discussion, especially rule 2: recognize that people will have variant political perspectives.)  We find it to be a great tragedy when a loved one suffers from chronic, recurrent illnesses.

Yet we seem to accept chronic and recurrent poverty as normal.  And I do think that just as we have chronic, recurrent illnesses, we have chronic, recurrent poor persons.

What function might the physically sick serve?  Well, if we did not have the physically sick, how could we make sense of this description of Christ’s purposes from Luke 5: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  We ascribe the title “Great Physician” to Christ as a way of honoring this purpose.  The physically sick serve to remind us all of our spiritual illness.  Again, from Christ, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Similarly, I think we can draw the analogy to the materially poor.  “Those who are rich have no need of a benefactor, but those who are poor.”  If Christ is indeed our Great Benefactor, then the material poor serve to remind us all of our spiritual poverty.  Incidentally, this observation brings us back to the question “Who are the poor?” from last week.

Personally, I struggle to see how God can desire permanent sickness in anyone.  The fact that prayer heals certain people without healing others leads many to doubt their faith because we naturally think that prayer should heal everyone of their physical infirmities.  Yet, we accept material poverty as though God ordered some to have more than others.  I accept situational poverty as much as I accept situational illness.  I could very easily suffer physical or financial calamity tomorrow; I have no idea what tomorrow holds.  I might have a mild cold or a squeezed bank account.  Or I might run into a rather debilitating flu or lose my job.  Certain physical and financial strains happen in the course of living a human life.

But I struggle also to see how God can desire permanent material lack for any of His children.  I am speaking of true material lack that limits life just as much as a devastating illness limits life.  I am not advocating a “prosperity gospel” but rather I think there is a real challenge to trust prayer to work within the situation.  Moreover, in the case of material lack, it seems that we are invited beyond prayer if we have the means.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” From the Epistle of St James

I think we would rather see doctors as the answer to sick and social workers as the answer to the poor.  It is much easier to remain distant than it is to get involved.  We just may find ourselves in an encounter with Christ.

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3 responses

  1. I often wonder how Christians can make the case that Jesus’ comment to Judas means we shouldn’t care for the poor. Jesus himself was poor and spent lots of time with the poor. But the comment itself seems to imply that there will be plenty of time to take care of the poor in the future. It also goes on to clarify why Jesus responded the way that he did, that being Judas wasn’t saying this out of concern for the poor, but because he was a thief, implying he wanted the money for himself.

    God bless you in your work.

    24 April 2010 at 12:46 pm

  2. I think Jesus was telling Judas and the Apostles
    that the particular moment was about serving each
    other as children of God and that there was time
    later to go out into the wider world to serve the
    poor. The moment itself was a demonstration of
    intimacy among His immediate disciples. Jesus was
    telling Judas, “be here with us now”.

    Having a lot of money in my case would not be good
    because it would be more of an opportunity for sin,
    so sometimes I am thankful to be on disability and
    food stamps; it keeps me humble.

    God is God.

    Pete.

    24 April 2010 at 1:41 pm

  3. I do think that it is absolutely imperative to understand our motives for doing what we are doing. This particular story of Judas gets pulled out of context a great deal. My goal here is not to provide Biblical commentary as much as it is to explore how the Church should relate and respond to people in poverty.

    I also think we can over-estimate our material lack. The epistle focuses on one who “lacks daily food.” Glory to God that He meets that need through disability and food stamps for some people. Yet I also think He meets some of those needs through His Church as well. After all, in Acts 6, we find a case where the Greek widows were overlooked in the distribution of food.

    God is God; He’s a good God. And He also invites His people to live lives of love for one another.

    24 April 2010 at 1:57 pm

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