Here are facts we must not ignore. Jesus explicitly calls the gospel: Good news to the poor (see Luke 4:18-19). He doesn’t say, “ … to the poor also,” as if the primary target is a larger group and he’s clarifying that “the poor” are not excluded. No, the gospel is to the poor period. The poor comprise the primary target group. Others may find gracious inclusion (I affirm with huge relief!) but the “others” were not—are not—the primary target group.
This fact finds expression in multiple ways throughout the actual story of Jesus. For examples, those most receptive to the gospel, those most often seen, touched, healed, rescued, delivered, and saved are the poor, miserable, wretched. Jesus’ teachings caution against the dangers of wealth and riches, the impossibility of counting on the wealth, privilege, and power of this world as a basis for eternal blessing, and Jesus’ parables feature the poor as models and the rich as otherwise. Jesus’ call to discipleship often requires rejection of the pursuit of material gain and resistance to any suggestion that human life, value, and destiny can be defined adequately in material terms. And Jesus’ call to enter the kingdom of God calls us to become like children who have no assets or contributions to make in terms recognizable to the economies of this world.
Jesus’ stress on, devotion to, care for, and good news offered to the poor embrace the clear and consistent call of the Old Testament Scriptures that reflect God’s passionate commitment to the poor, as well as to the salvation and judgment necessary to secure their blessing. The connection Jesus makes between a gospel to the poor and the kingdom he brings demonstrates what the Lord of Israel and the world is doing for the poor of the world.
The Apostle Paul summarizes the entire salvation story in this one sentence: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). To anticipate the objection that this sentence simply represents the creative way Paul devises to promote better giving from the Corinthians: this one sentence truly distills the longer, more eloquent poem on the salvation story Paul cites in Philippians 2:6-11.
The earliest Christ followers demonstrate consistent faithfulness to their Lord and Messiah. They lived in sacrificial love, relinquishing whatever for the sake of following. They made every change required by a world-wide mission to different places and peoples—transcending or fulfilling Judaism in the process. What they didn’t change, however, was concern and practical care for the poor. The Apostle Paul, in chronicling how he received his grace of apostleship to the gentiles and began to conduct his mission, tells of visiting the Jerusalem church and its pillar-leaders and recounting to them the gospel he was preaching. At that meeting the leaders of the church extended to Paul the right hand of fellowship, endorsed his mission, laying no requirements upon him except to continue caring for the poor, which he was eager to do (see Gl. 2:6-10).
No wonder that the earliest Free Methodists understood their mission as preaching the gospel to the poor as well as living according to the Bible standard of Christianity. In fact, their commitment to a holy life found its most (super)natural and Christ-like expression in sharing the good news with the poor. Some of them even questioned whether they (we) could be a legitimate expression of the church apart from a gospel to the poor.
What are we to do with these facts? What, indeed, given that we—the church in the west (which includes most of those reading this)—comprise the wealthiest expression of the church that has ever existed. To be sure, we are concerned about the economies of the world, and even in the U.S. an alarming percentage of people have sunk below the poverty line. Even so, we have more than any other generation of Christ-followers in history. In addition, the trends suggest we spend more on ourselves than Christ followers ever have and yet, percentage wise, we give less than ever before. What are we to do with these facts? What about the poor?
A modest two part proposal: First, can we embrace a fully biblical understanding of “poverty.” The world reduces poverty to a matter of mere money. This is why “they”—the people who shape the way the world thinks and values—can get away with convincing us that the more we have the better off we will be, and that a worthy goal in life is to make sure that you have more at the end of your life than you need so you can pass it along to your children. Contrast this to John Wesley who dies with no “assets,” at least none that would register in terms of “estate planning.” Yet, consider the legacy and the transforming/redeeming impact of Wesley’s life. And, Wesley is just one of too many to name who have had a more adequate understanding of human impoverishment.
It is because we embrace the world’s understanding of wealth and poverty that we think we have nothing in common with the “poor,” at least those of us who are not materially poor. Yet, this is more a lie than the truth. Our common humanity is only obscured when we accept the reductionist view that wealth and poverty are simply about material assets. A person who is bankrupt relationally and socially has much in common with one who is bankrupt economically.
It is because we embrace the world’s understanding of wealth and poverty that we think that the problem of poverty is so huge and insoluble that we can do nothing about it. What can I do? Or what can we do? These are common questions that paralyze us. And when the questioners are Christ-followers, the question beneath the question is: what can even God do about it? Well, the answer is a lot.
If our hearts should be broken over the needs of the “poor” (in all the ways people come to be poor) the way God’s heart is broken, and out of such brokenness we should give, God will work. Our gifts alone may not solve anything, but the responses of many can lead to tipping points that change the world. Our gifts alone may feed only a handful or fewer, but in the right Hands provide blessing for multitudes.
Thus, second, can we agree that the facts compel us to make response to the poor among the most important priorities for our service in Jesus’ name? One of the conferences I am pleased to serve with, the Ohio Conference, has named ministry to, for, and with the poor one of three strategic priorities for the whole conference. Every church has accepted the challenge of addressing poverty as part of the mission of the local and global church. All budgets and the deployment of personnel must pass muster with this strategic goal. On the authority of God’s Word, I anticipate that the Lord of the Church will bless this part of his work in the U.S. Likewise, one of the churches in our part of the nation, the Greenville, Illinois FMC, has embraced the goal of eliminating poverty in their county. They’ve been working and praying accordingly for several years and there are signs that Jesus is bringing relief and transformation to the region.
So, what about the poor? I think it’s Jesus’ question put to all of his followers.