Sermon Series: The Economics of Jesus
“Jesus and Poverty”
Sunday, January 31, 2010
How many of you recognize this scripture?
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me'” (Matthew 25:31-36).
You recognize that? This parable, this sermon is the greatest sermon ever preached on the theme of compassion for the poor and the marginalized. Jesus says, “In as much as it did it unto one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you did it unto me. If you failed to do it unto the least of these, you failed to do it unto me.”
If you see somebody hungry, and you feed them, you’ve fed me, Jesus says. If you fail to feed them, you’ve failed to feed me. If you see somebody thirsty, and you give them something to drink, you’ve given me something to drink, Jesus says. If you walk past them without helping them, you’ve walked past me.
If you meet a stranger or an alien and you welcome them, you’ve welcomed me. If you see somebody who needs clothes, and you give them clothes, you’ve clothed me. If you care for a sick person, you’ve cared for me. If you visit someone in prison, you’ve visited me. If you haven’t done these things for someone else, you haven’t done them for me.
So Jesus is saying that there is no way we can love him, unless we concretely and specifically love the hungry, the needy, the undocumented alien, the diseased and the imprisoned by caring for their needs. We can’t love Jesus without loving his hungry, thirsty, ill-clad, marginalized, diseased and imprisoned brothers and sisters.
This teaching of Jesus has been so engrained in many of us that we hardly ever have contact with a poor person without thinking in the back of our mind, this is Jesus I am talking to. This is Jesus I am helping. This is Jesus I am passing by as though he did not exist. This is heavy-duty stuff.
The second thing Jesus says in this sermon is that our eternal destiny is shaped by how we treat the poor and needy. We don’t get in to heaven by believing the right ideas, by going to church, by being moral. We don’t get into heaven by being good; we get into heaven by caring for the poor and marginalized and the vulnerable and needy, even when this is not religiously motivated. It is not our religiosity but our humanness that determines our eternal destiny. Not everybody may be exposed to teachings about Jesus, but everybody has within themselves the capacity to be humane.
You will find this very powerful teaching of Jesus at the very end of the 25th chapter of Matthew. So far as I am concerned it is about the most powerful sermon in the Bible.
Just after the 25th chapter of Matthew comes what? Chapter 26. In chapter 26, Jesus and his disciples are at a party in Bethany, at the home of someone named Simon the leper. At the party, a woman anoints Jesus’ head with a very expensive ointment. The disciples, who had just heard Jesus’ sermon the chapter before, get angry and snippy with the woman. “What a waste!” they say. “That ointment could have been sold for a lot of money and the money given to the poor.”
Perhaps the disciples, having heard Jesus’ sermon, were expecting Jesus to scold her for wasting so much money when it could have been given to the poor.
But Jesus doesn’t scold the woman; he scolds the disciples. He says: “Don’t bother her. Leave her alone. She has done a good thing.”
Then he says: “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
You will always have the poor with you. Poverty is just the way it is. You will always have the poor.
What do you make of this?
We are studying right now the topic of the Economics of Jesus. The question this morning is: What did Jesus think about poverty? What did Jesus believe about poverty?
It is not easy to figure out Jesus’ teachings about economics. For one thing, there are four gospels and so we see Jesus through the eyes of four different writers and four different traditions. And especially on the topic of money, our own circumstance seems to influence our take on Jesus’ teachings. And this began already in the very beginning. Matthew and Luke have somewhat different ideas about Jesus’ teachings about poverty and the poor.
For example, compare Luke and Matthew’s versions of the beatitudes. Luke says:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6: 20-21).
Matthew’s version says:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled… Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” [portions of Matthew 5:1-9 re-ordered to be parallel to Luke’s version.]
Luke says: Blessed are the poor. Matthew says: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Luke says: Blessed are the hungry. Matthew says: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
What’s happened? Either Matthew has spiritualized Jesus’ teachings… taken Jesus’ teachings about the poor and the hungry and turned them into something spiritual. Or else Luke has materialized Jesus’ teachings… taken Jesus’ teachings about spiritual things and made them teachings about material states of being. You choose, because nobody knows for sure.
Why does it matter what Jesus believed about poverty? Let me give you an example.
The campus ministry I served in the 1970s and 80s had begun an emergency shelter for homeless families. It began as a student volunteer project and grew into a fulltime shelter for homeless families. Our goal was to do whatever we had to do to get people out of homelessness as soon as we possibly could. We felt homelessness was debilitating to people so we wanted to help get them into their own places and kids back into school and their lives normalized as much as possible as soon as possible. We were very results oriented.
So I was visiting a Catholic Worker House in New York City. The Catholic Worker house provided shelter to homeless people. I asked the person who was showing us around what their goal was for getting people housed. She said to me: We don’t have a goal for getting people housed. Our goal isn’t to house people. Our goal is to learn from the poor. Our goal is to learn how to live from the poor who are the friends of Jesus.
Both of us thought we were living out Jesus’ teachings about the poor. Which attitude, do you think, represents more closely the teachings of Jesus about poverty and the poor?
I think there is more than one way of thinking in the Gospels, but let me make a case for what I think Jesus believed about poverty and the poor.
I think, first of all, that Jesus treated the poor like friends and not clients. Jesus, it seems to me, had a remarkable ability to be loose and comfortable around all kinds of people, both the poor and affluent, lepers and prostitutes and gentiles and a distinguished religious teacher like Nicodemus who came to him by night. The only people who seemed to make Jesus tense were the religious types who acted as though they were superior to other people.
Jesus seemed to enjoy lots of different people’s company and seemed to enjoy engaging with and learning from the poor and the affluent.
I think, secondly, that Jesus saw accumulating money as a false remedy for anxiety. We think having money in the bank will protect us; Jesus taught that it is our relationship with God and others that will give us security. So Jesus taught giving money to the poor as a spiritual exercise for our own good.
Third, one of the books I’ve suggested you read during this sermon series is John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, a study of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Luke.
John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite teacher, believed that all Jesus’ teachings need to be understood in light of his personal mission statement in Luke:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18).
Jesus’ goal was release for the captives, access to education for the uneducated, freedom for the oppressed, and economic relief for the poor.
The year of the Lord’s favor was the year of Jubilee. The year of Jubilee was a Holiness Code teaching from the Book of Leviticus. (Leviticus 25:8f). Leviticus taught that every 50th year there should be land reform. Every 50th year, all land that had been bought and sold should revert to the original owners or their heirs. In an agricultural society, land reform meant wealth reform.
When Israel was established, the goal was that all families and all tribes would start out with a fair distribution of land, everybody would start out equal, and then every 50 years, they would redistribute the wealth and everybody would start out equal again. There is no evidence that Israel ever did this, but it was part of the Holiness teaching in Leviticus.
Jesus’ mission statement in Luke was to proclaim the year of Jubilee, the year when the poor get their fair share back. Jesus was not just about charity; he proclaimed economic redress and justice for the poor.
So how do we explain Jesus’ statement that we will always have the poor with us? Wasn’t Jesus saying that poverty is a permanent condition in this world and that we will never be able to end it?
The interpretation for this statement I actually find most convincing is one made by Kurt Vonnegut… the great biblical scholar Kurt Vonnegut.
Kurt Vonnegut described himself as a Christ-worshipping agnostic. He loved Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He once said that he did not think life would have been endurable if it were not for the Sermon on the Mount.
Vonnegut preached a sermon on Palm Sunday 1980 at St. Clements Church in New York City. He said in the sermon that Jesus’ quote “the poor you will always have with you,” was used by those he grew up with to justify the existence of poverty. As a result he studied the passage very carefully. He became convinced that Jesus was telling a joke that got lost in translation.
He thinks it happened this way. A woman whose life Jesus had touched in some way wanted to express her appreciation and love for him. She expressed it the best way she could, by anointing him with some expensive perfume.
Jesus’ disciples, trying to be holier than thou, criticized her. Jesus responded by telling them to get off of her case. To stop criticizing her.
Then Vonnegut thinks Jesus said to the disciples, “Listen, there will still be plenty of poor people for you to help after I am gone. If you are so committed to helping the poor, you are not going to run out of them soon.”
Jesus was defending a woman who had done the best she could to express her appreciation for Jesus’ teachings which honored and defended women. When his disciples got snotty and superior, Jesus put them in their place by saying, “Don’t worry guys, you are not going to run out of poor people to help.”
Jesus was joking, Vonnegut says. He was being almost sarcastic. I actually find Vonnegut’s interpretation convincing.
The story also reminds us that Jesus was on his way to the cross. We can never forget Matthew 25. There is no substitute for concrete acts of compassion and caring for the hungry, homeless, the stranger, the diseased, and imprisoned. When an earthquake does what it has done to Haiti, you send food and water. You do Matthew 25.
But Matthew 26 reminds us that Jesus was about more than charity. Jesus’ mission was to transform human consciousness… to teach us a whole new way of understanding the world. Jesus not only fed the hungry and gave the thirsty water to drink. He began a movement that would birth hospitals and medicine and science. He began a movement that would birth colleges and universities and public education. He began a movement that would end slavery, topple despots and autocrats, establish the principles of democracy and equality and justice.
At the same time we are sending food and water to Haiti, we can be asking the question of how we can end global poverty. The two are not mutually exclusive, and one without the other diminishes the teachings of Jesus who called us to be both compassionate and strategic… to both love and think… to be both good and just.
Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, gave her life to live with the poor and to work to end the structures that maintain poverty and injustice in our world. But one of her favorite quotes was from Dostoevsky who said, “We are saved by beauty.”
There are all kinds of fundamentalism. May we just not get into pitting the work of feeding the hungry against the work of ending hunger against the work of anointing the Messiah against the work of making beauty. It is all part of what it means to be truly human and truly humane, which Jesus teaches is the least we can do… the least and the most.