Ministers and ministry-to the poor

What is the role of the local congregation in the life of people in poverty?

Lael Caesar, Ph.D., is associate professor of religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

One of the most striking of all Christ's predictions was His assertion that at the moment of final judgment, when the "sheep" are divided from the "goats," the dominating deciding factor, the overriding question, will be how human beings have treated one another. To be more specific, it is how we humans have ministered to those who are hungry, thirsty, alienated, unclothed, sick, and imprisoned (Matt. 25:31- 46); how, in short, we minister to the poor.

Another of Jesus' far-reaching predictions was simply that the poor will always be with us (Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).

In the face of such realities, can gospel ministers properly ignore the privilege and burden of ministry to the poor? How does this privilege and burden relate to the kingdom we proclaim? And will that kingdom come in its finality while we overlook the ministry to the poor?

Too present to be missed

The poor are too present to be missed. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set the poverty line at an annual income of $8,860.00 for the individual, and $18,100.00 for a family of four. 1 The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that a total of some 8-10 percent of the American population lived in poverty in America during the last two decades of the last century.2

By comparison with this American data, the World Bank reports that one billion people live in countries categorized as "low-income" where the per capita Gross National Product ranges from $90 to $660 a year.3 Clearly much divergence exists between the notion of poverty in America and elsewhere.4

Dramatic as the divergence may be, we must acknowledge that the real tragedy is simply poverty itself. Given its dominating presence in the world, it must be at least remarkable that so many of us succeed in seeing so little of it.

One articulate young student of mine wrote that the first and foundational reason why he does not help the poor is his commitment to ignoring them. "I limit my exposure to them," he says, "visually, educationally, and of course relationally .... this way, while I can [spew] pious affirmations that poverty is a problem and we must do all we can to help, I can simultaneously push the poor so far out of my life as to make them unreachable in any proactive sense. It is as if I am reaching my idealistic theological hand out of a car window as far as I can to touch the poor while my practical ministerial foot is pushing the gas pedal in reverse."5

His vivid metaphor will not make the poor evaporate. Nor does the mandate of James 1:27 allow for effective gospel ministry while they are ignored. For James, pure and undefiled religion before God requires attention to orphans and widows in their affliction, in short, ministry to the poor. James's use of the Greek term episkeptomai, often used for visiting the sick, bears a basic sense of looking observantly at something, examining closely, inspecting, observing.6 Pure religion requires us to look out for and even mandates that we "see" the poor.

Henri Nouwen, who devoted the last years of his life to working with the mentally handicapped, describes this act as carrying the "burden of reality." He urges us to remember "that there is no hope in denial or avoidance," and "that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility." 7

Too much of a contradiction

My student's above insight shows that ignoring poverty also presents a significant contradiction of authentic missionary commitment. The exclusive language of "we" and"they" effectively underlines this fact. Notwithstanding our own needs, the "we" who contributes and subscribes to the journal Ministry generally stand economically apart from the "they" whom this article identifies as poor.

For that reason alone, this "they" becomes our natural missionary obligation, the place to which "we" must go, sent in mission out beyond our self. It is not the only place to which we may go. But it is our widest field. Ignoring it, then, constitutes disobedience to the gospel commission itself. An oft circulated e-fact quips that if the world were shrunk to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, 70 would be illiterate, 80 would live in substandard housing, 50 would suffer from malnutrition, and 6 people (all from the U.S.) would possess 59 percent of the entire village's wealth.

Evidently, material and economic need are inescapable factors in most populations, and this is a truth that confirms some individuals in their theological correctness, testifying as it does to the accuracy of Jesus' words that the poor are ever with us.

Judas's or Jesus' theology With numbers like this, it's clear that the plight of the poor is too urgent to postpone any longer. Jesus' rejoinder about the poor always being with us is not designed as a sanction for their suffering. In the incident in which He spoke those words, Jesus was the recipient of effusive adoration and absolute sacrifice, even as a repentant woman poured out on Him her total life's savings.

But not everyone there that day was pleased. Judas's greed-inspired indignation (John 12:4-6) juxtaposes service to Jesus and service to the poor. Indeed, it is Judas's remark that drew forth Jesus' quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11, a verse in contrast with God's preference (stated in the same passage) for the total elimination of poverty (verse 4). In context of Judas's sanctimonious choice for food-stamp support as opposed to support for Jesus, the latter unleashes a stinging condemnation of those whose preference for Deuteronomy 15:11 denies God and His children the Deuteronomy 15:4 ideal.

Some perceive Jesus' citation of Deuteronomy as reason to ignore the poor. They believe the status of the poor should not be modified, for God has so doomed or destined them. For some whose fervor for the poor replaces their respect for the claims of the gospel indoor plumbing and a roof over all heads becomes their ultimate conception of salvation.

For the first of these, God has designed some for misery; for the second, God only matters as much as creature comforts can afford. Hence, we have the frequent, distorted, and unqualified references to the parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46). But just as Judas would serve the poor rather than have Jesus honored, so do we dishonor God who ground our theology on Deuteronomy 15:11 rather than working with energy, talent, and all, toward the realization of God's ultimate ideal.

The year of remission, considered in Deuteronomy 15, is nothing but a symbol of that ideal of absolute and unmodified freedom, not merely from the shackles of economic poverty, but from all the futility to which sin subjects us into the glorious liberty of eternally and abundantly living daughters and sons of God (John 10:10; Rom. 8:21).

To the extent we have lost sight of that ideal, we may well have unwittingly chosen the theology of Judas over that of the alabaster box. The time is now for us to return to the ideal. For now it is time that the gospel, in all its liberating dimensions, should be preached to the poor.

1 See <http.//aspe.os.dhlis.gov/poverty/poverty.shtml>, the Web site of the office of the assistant secretary for Planning 8t Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

2 Data derived from <http://www.census.gov/prod/ 2002pubs/01statab/tat-ab01.html> Web site of U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract of the U.S. Ethnic breakdown shows that among Blacks the range was from a high of 33 percent in 1982, to a low of 24 percent in 1999; Hispanics ranged downwards from 28-23 percent; and Whites upward from 8-10 percent

3 World Bank, World Development Report 1995, 162, 163, cited in Ron Sidei, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunget: Moving I'roni Affluence to Geneiosity, 4th cd. (Dallas; Word, 1997), 4.

4 By way of illustration, the American family which will live at a level of poverty equivalent to the desperation of the world's poorest 1.3 billion might own, between them all, a single pair of shoes, one suit or garment each, a smattering of foodstuffs generally excluding meat, fresh vegetables, canned goods, crackers, candy and such like, one radio, and a cash hoaid of $5.00. Sec Robert L. Heilbioner, The Great Ascent: The Struggle for Economic Development in Out Time (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 33-36; cited in Sider, ibid., 2.

5 Joseph Olstad, essay, "Why I Don't Help the Pool."

6 An Intennediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889; reprinted 1986); s.v episkeptotnai, episkepos, skeptomai; also l-'rit7 Rncnecker and
Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Regency Reference Eibtary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1980), on James 1:27; Analytical Greek Lexicon (Eondon: Samuel Bagster & Sons, reprinted 1971), s.v. episkeptomai; William R Arndt, and I'. Wllbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament ami Other Early Chiistian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), s. v. episkeptomai.

7 Henii J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (Garden City. Doubleday, 1975), 39, 40.

 

 

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Lael Caesar, Ph.D., is associate professor of religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 2003

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