Sunday, February 5, 2006

Justice and Charity: Week One: Prosperity and Abundance

I’ve always thought that it has been our obligation, our duty, to help those who are less fortunate. I’ve not always done an excellent job of providing that help, nor have the things I’ve done always been helpful despite my most sincere efforts; but, I’ve always felt strongly that God wants us to emulate His compassion for the poor.

So with this in mind, as a young man I would often – naively – go into the downtown center for the specific purpose of helping people [let me underscore once again, before I go any further, that I’m really not sure whether this is a great approach, nor am I sure that you should never do these things: I’m only sure we ought to be sensitive to both the Holy Spirit and to other people in our genuine endeavors of compassion]. Vancouver is a fairly large city, but once you revisit the same couple of places you begin to recognize the various homeless personalities you may have seen before, and one such fellow was a guy named Ken who worked the squeegee on the corner of Main and Terminal, a pretty busy – and hostile – intersection.

One day I decided I was going to try and help Ken. I really believed that if someone would actually spend time with Ken, not just give him money, that they could actually make a difference in his life and maybe help him get back on his feet. What I didn’t understand was that Ken, in addition to his substance abuse, was mentally ill and incredibly violent and when I took him to a halfway house and tried to pay for his relocation, the proprietor refused.

Apparantly, other people had previously tried this approach, unsuccessfully, with Ken.

When the proprietor refused him admission, Ken became very agitated and began to destroy things in the lobby of the home. He then followed me to my car and began to threaten me, but was ultimately dissuaded from further violence by a friend of mine, Mark, who happened to be tagging along.

My experiences that day, and the several years of advice from friends and counselors revealed to me a lot about people, about myself and generosity and compassion, and about God’s intent for me as a resource to others.

See, I used to think that it was just my job to give money or perhaps be involved in some kind of practical caregiving. After my experience with Ken, and a few other experiences that were of a similar bent, I began to wonder if I couldn’t truly make more of a difference through relationship and conversation than I could with activity or charity. But now, having reflected for some time on these experiences, I find that God isn’t satisfied with this kind of thinking.

In fact, I’m quite sure God doesn’t want me to prescribe action in advance of circumstance. I don’t think He’s interested in my policy of almsgiving.

I think God wants us to be lead by the Spirit in every moment; so, if we see someone begging we might pause to ask Jesus what He wants us to do right then. And if we feel that giving money is insufficient at that point, we might ask what would be better? Or more right? And if that leads to a meal, or if it all stops and we are lead to walk away at least we know we were driven by the Spirit instead of by our previous thoughts on what might be most helpful.

In Mark chapter 14 we’re told a compelling story about beggars:

And Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and saw how the crowd was casting money into the treasury. Many rich people were throwing in large sums, and a widow who was poverty-stricken came and put in two copper coins, which together make half of a cent. And He called His disciples and said to them, “Truly and surely I tell you, this widow, who is poverty-stricken, has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury. For they all threw in out of their abundance; but she, out of her deep poverty, has put in everything that she had--even all she had on which to live.”

Typically when we speak of money in churches it is to talk about tithing – but I think the New Testament reveals to us an entire world of economics that not only assumes tithing but surpasses it. I think the whole spirit of how we ought to handle our money as Christ-followers is summed up in the example of this woman.

Consider that in Jesus’ day the Hebrew people were a people living under the subjugation of the Roman Empire, and that there were only two classes of Jews. There were those who were very rich – the high priests, the aristocracy, wealthy merchants and the Herodians who ruled Jerusalem and Judea on behalf of Rome – and the very poor – the craftsmen, the artisans, the lower clergy, and beggars. And in that time, really, the only way for a Jew to become wealthy was through dishonest gain; I mean, you had to be one of the priests who demanded a tithe of between 17% and 23%, or someone who’d sold out their own people to a foreign ruling power, or someone who managed land and paid unustly low wages and overtaxed your workers.

The one redeeming factor of the rich, in the eyes of the rest of the Israeli people, that kept them from harm at the hands of their own countrymen until the Jewish revolt of 66AD, was that they believed it was their social responsibility to give alms to the poor. During the intertestimental period it was even recorded that the poor do more for the rich than the rich do for the poor because the poor provide the rich a means to gain favor with God.

It is into this context – where apparantly all wealth is wealth gained unethically – that Jesus and His disciples are witness to the generosity of this widow. Imagine them standing near the temple, watching all of the rich and wealthy come and give their money to the poor, making a big show and knowing that not only is this important for their appearance but also it’s a kind-of buy-out on their unethical practices before God and its keeping the coming revolution at bay – imagine Jesus and His followers watching this display of phony kindness, and then seeing the little old lady come and give everything she had to the poor.

To the poor?

She was poor! She had nothing to give, and gave it all anyway – and I think this represents for us the difference between an Old Testament and a New Testament understanding of things like prosperity and abundance.

In the Old Testament, primarily because of the stories of Abraham, Solomon, and Job – all incredibly wealthy – people believed that if you honored God with your life, He would honor you with a “good reward for your toil”; there was a one-to-one correlation that when your soul prospered, your material life prospered in terms of a large family, a full granary, abundant livestock, etc… This also applied to military matters, and issues of government and leadership. So the passages where righteous people complain to God because the “wicked prosper” are actually indictments against God, who doesn’t seem to have upheld His end of the bargain. They are the complaints of people who feel they’ve been duped or swindled, and that the way God spelled out “the deal” wasn’t actually the way things were going.

But in the New Testament, Jesus clears up some of the ambiguity. Jesus comes proclaiming that prosperity isn’t about being a recipiet of abundance, but a resource for justice. Remember, it was Jesus who said “it is better to give than to receive” and who promised special blessings for the poor in the beatitudes, but woe to the rich, for it will be “easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kindgom of heaven.” Even when Jesus quoted the Old Testament, He quoted those passages that clearly delineated that God had a special concern for the poor, like when He read the prophecy of Isaiah in the temple that was, in essence, a claim to messianism He tells His hearers that God exalts the lowly and the rich he sends away empty.

To be perfectly clear, there is – once again – nothing wrong with wealth, except that the control of wealth, the way we attain wealth, our affection for wealth often leads us into places of spiritual corruption. It is interesting to me that the word Mammon that Jesus uses for money, “you cannot serve two masters…you cannot serve both God and money”, is a word for taken from ancient Sumeria for idols that were said to possess their worshippers.

Perhaps Jesus is cleverly cautioning us against being possessed by our possessions.

In fact, it is this very thread that often appears among Christians during times of political revolution. We call this kind of thinking, “liberation theology”, and see it in Africa, in Cuba and Haiti when the Spanish and French respectively were in control; we also saw it in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas and in Northern Ireland when the Loyalists were fighting the IRA. Now, I’d like to point out that just because there were Christians on a particular side of a revolution doesn’t mean there were none on the opposing side, nor should we turn a blind eye to the crimes against humanity often committed by either side in these scenarios; rather, I’d just like to point out that for Christians living in an unjust political scheme, the promises of scripture and the teachings of Jesus take on an entirely new light.

For example, because Jesus quoted Isaiah 62.1,2 as a mandate for redistribution of wealth and a positive evaulation of the poor – which was a confrontational statement when made in the presence of the wealthy Temple priests who were taxing the people into oblivion - He funded the imagination of other people who have been similarly oppressed and are now following Jesus because He is advocating for justice.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor.

So, in modern times of oppresion, people have looked to passages like these in a present-literal way, rather than an abstract, eschatalogical one. In other words, they read this stuff and believe it and get hope from it, rather than blowing it off as some kind of poem about heaven.

Despite our inherent lack of oppression in the West, I think we begin to understand Jesus’ teachings on justice and charity – His own thoughts on wealth, abundance, prosperity, success and security – as something that demands we radically alter our perceptions about our role in this world. Once again, we are here as a resource for justice – as emissaries of Jesus sent to bring hope to our world. This has a direct bearing on how we understand and use our money, but also a bearing on how we view our entire lives.

I like to think of it as hospitality because when someone comes to my house they don’t have to pay for the food they eat, or worry about whether or not they’re messing up my “good china”. When someone is at my home my primary concern is how I can let them know they are in a safe place, free of judgement, where a spirit of peace is present and the love of God can be felt.

If we think of the earth belonging to God – “the earth is the lord’s and everything in it” – it’s not hard for us to then think that we must do what we can as friends of God to cultivate a hospitality of the earth.

As such, I believe we’re called to do something about the 300 million people living on less than $1/day in Africa; and, the 3 billion people all over the world who live on less than $2/day [nevermind the 6,600 people who die everyday in Africa and the 8500 who contract HIV]. At this point, cows in Europe receive more financial aid each day than African human beings – than our own brothers.

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