Jesus inaugurated his ministry with a sermon announcing good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, release for the oppressed, and the coming of the year of the Lord's favour (Luke 4:16-30). His startling claim that "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" led some of his home town listeners to try to kill him! What does Jesus' claim lead Christians to do here and now in the third millennium? How does Jesus' death on the cross influence our hearing of this passage? Will we proclaim good news to the poor in our time and place?
Who are the Poor?
What makes a person or family poor in Canada, or for that matter, in any country? How can we recognize poverty when we earnestly seek to discern which of our neighbours are in need? In Canadian society, poverty is commonly associated with scarcity of income and material resources. Statistics reveal some important material dimensions of poverty. According to Statistics Canada, at least 3.4 million people, one in ten individuals, lived in relative poverty in Canada in 2005. This included nearly 800,000 children living in poverty.
Statistics, however, are often hotly disputed. Christians frequently allow themselves to become entangled in debates about the validity of one or another set of statistics and fail to acknowledge that the flesh and blood people behind the numbers are "image-bearers of God." Christians can improve on the statistical method of getting at the complex but hard hitting reality of poverty through the biblically-based concept of calling. Christians sometimes limit their idea of calling to church- and evangelism-related ministries. Within God's creation, however, people are called to image and respond to God in a wide range of activities, e.g. people are called to nurture children, to work creatively, to care for neighbours, to play, and to steward the earth. In the broad setting of creation, these callings can be seen as opportunities to be faithful or unfaithful to God.
This broader understanding of calling leads to a more complex definition of poverty. Poverty exists when persons, associations or institutions lack the resources and space they need to fulfill their God-given responsibilities and callings. For example, a person or family might lack money but they may also lack skills, healthy habits, or enabling opportunity structures. One or another institution—like a school, hospital or farm—may lack the resources it needs to properly fulfill its functions in society. Furthermore, entire communities may become poor, for example, certain inner-city neighbourhoods, native reserves, or rural districts. Poverty weakens and undermines our capacity to ‘open up’ and tend creation as God originally intended us to do in His great benediction of Genesis 1:27-31. Understood in this way, poverty can never be a secondary concern for Christians since it strikes close to the heart of what it means for humans to image God.
This definition of poverty offers a variety of advantages. First, the main strength of this broader definition is that it helps show that poverty is as multi-dimensional as the human beings God created. People can be weakened in their ability to fulfill their callings for more reasons than simply the lack of material resources. People can become poor in social, economic, psychological, and spiritual ways. They can be family-poor, job-poor, friends-poor, food-poor, cash-poor, culture-poor, land-poor, etc. While poverty does not undermine our dependence on grace in Christ Jesus, it weakens our capacity to fully respond to the multi-dimensional callings in our daily lives.
A second advantage of this definition of poverty – as a lack of resources or space needed to fulfill a person's, association's or institution's God-given responsibilities and callings - is that it gives us a starting point for distinguishing “needs” from ”wants.” In contemporary economics, it is assumed that no one can make a valid distinction between needs and wants because they are both based on individual value choices and thus beyond moral criticism or external limitation. But if we understand that ”needs” are directly related to the resources and space required to fulfill one's God-given callings, we acknowledge that there are standards external to the individual person that help us discern “enough.” Importantly, as persons, institutions, and communities discern “need,” we will also find that it is a two-edged sword, it not only helps us discover who is poor and needy, but also helps us know who in the community has abundance and can contribute more toward the common good. The resulting understanding gives Christians a basis for the stewardship of all of the gifts and resources with which we have been entrusted. Only when a society has a sense of enough—our real needs are being met—can it also develop a sense of “abundance” and thus appropriate thankfulness to God!
Third, the proposed definition of poverty also reminds us that we must discern who is poor in a context. People did not need the same types of resources and space to live their lives in 1000 AD as they do in 2000 AD, nor do people living in the inner city of Edmonton need the same resources and space as people living in a small farm in China. Time and place significantly influence how we define poverty and how people experience various forms of poverty.
Fourth, this definition acknowledges that the specific callings and/or responsibilities of people and institutions in society shape the type and amount of resources and space they need. As we publicly and politically address poverty, we need to be able to discern the nature of different callings and institutions in order to develop a sense of what they might require in order to fulfill their responsibilities.
Fifth, this definition of poverty recognizes that the determination of callings, poverty, enough, need, wants, etc. will always involve human judgment – in response to God's word and creation -and can never be reduced to a particular Bible text, a mechanistic political or social formula, or a simple financial or statistical cutoff point for poverty. Poverty is a human, social, and relational reality; it concerns real people in a variety of offices and callings as they make real choices.
Adopting this multidimensional definition of poverty can also lead to new distortions; that is, we can be tempted to underestimate the importance of finances to the poor. People who exist in absolute poverty in our society may be able to survive physically, but is mere survival sufficient to fully respond to God in contemporary Canada? A family without any cash flow in present-day Canada simply cannot obtain the day-to-day necessities needed to fully respond to God's callings, e.g. they need cash for rent, groceries, bus fare, telephone, and clothes. For many people, falling back on a self-sufficient farm life is a faded dream and cash flow has become critical for fulfilling their callings in an urban society.
Poverty and Grace
Christians often contrast "spiritual poverty" and "material poverty" and say that material poverty is secondary. This dualistic conception is not supported by the Bible. Scripture frequently refers to poverty and the poor, so often that someone suggested that if you cut these passages out of your Bible it would hang in tatters. In fact, the Bible portrays poverty and the poor--the widow, orphan, and stranger -within the larger drama of creation, the fall into sin, redemption through Jesus Christ, and the return of Christ. Within this redemptive story, possessions are pictured as part and parcel of fulfilling our God-given callings. Without "enough," the poor lack the means to fully enjoy and live out their God-given humanity. They lack the resources, possessions, relationships and legal standing in the community needed to fully exercise their humanity through the exercise of their various callings and responsibilities in life. The Bible often pictures God standing over against sin and injustice and on the side of redemption and justice. God reveals himself as the liberator and restorer of sinful humanity, on the side of the poor, widow, and the orphan and against those who injure and oppress (e.g. Is 1:10-20, 3:13, 10:1-3, Pr 21:3, Mt 25).
Jesus' statement that "the poor you have with you always" (Mt 26:11) can be of great help in understanding the biblical message concerning the poor. This passage has been used by some Christians to suggest Jesus condones doing little or nothing for the poor. But this unbiblical emphasis misses the deeper thrust of the Gospel. Jesus borrows this phrase from the Old Testament passage which ends "therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers [and sisters] and towards the poor and needy in the land" (Dt 15:11). Why? Because, the passage continues, "God will richly bless you in the land." This is God's grace! God had liberated Israel out of Egypt not because they deserved it but by grace (Dt 7:7). Once they were delivered into the Promised Land, the land of plenty, God gives Israel the opportunity to choose curses or blessings. He summons Israel to see their prosperity as the basis to care for others so that "there should be no poor" among them (Dt 15:4). God initiates redemption and provision, and the people are asked to respond to His generosity by caring for the poor. Notably, this passage reveals a different sense of property than the modern, classical liberal idea of `private property.' Possessions in this passage are seen as `stewardship property,' as gifts of God to be opened up by serving our own, and our neighbor’s, legitimate needs (Dt. 15:7-11). Even in regards to property, Christians are not "containers" but "pipelines" flowing and even overflowing with God's grace (2 Co 1:3-5).
Our understanding of Jesus' peculiar use of the phrase "the poor you have with you always" is deepened in the context of the Old Testament sabbatical laws. A Sabbath year was to be observed every seventh year in which land was given rest – and whether one deserved it or not – debts were cancelled and servants set free (Lev 25, Dt 15). At the mathematical climax of the Sabbath years (seven times seven years, or forty-nine years) came an additional Year of Jubilee. At the centre of the Year of Jubilee was the Day of Atonement when God pronounced the people cleansed of their sins. As a consequence of this pronouncement, the people were to "proclaim liberty throughout the land" (Lev. 25:8-12). Thus, at the very heart of God's early ordinances for Israel's social and economic order was the reality of unmerited forgiveness of sins or debts. So when we go back to Jesus' words "the poor you have with you always," we note that it ends with the phrase "but you will not always have me" (Mt 26:11). Jesus says this on his last journey to Jerusalem that ends with the cross. On the cross, Jesus fulfils the Day of Atonement once and for all. In the ultimate sense, Jesus' death and resurrection is the definitive Jubilee for all creation, it is the conclusive "good news to the poor," "freedom for the prisoner," "release for the oppressed," it is in fact "the year of the Lord's favor" (Lk 4:18-19, see Lk 7:21 and Mt 25:31).
In the Old Testament era, Israel was to function as a unique people pointing all the nations to the redemption that God was bringing into the world. The very structure of the economic, social, and political order that God set up for the Israelites in the sabbatical laws, points to the need for Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see God's love for the whole cosmos and his singular love for each person (Jn 3:16-17). Jesus is the solution for sin that lies at the heart of all human problems, including poverty in all of its dimensions. Grace in Jesus Christ works out from regenerated hearts into redeemed patterns of living, working, caring and sharing.
The biblical message of grace does not allow us to oppose soul against body, spiritual against material, and evangelism against justice. Redemption is integral to the whole of human existence. Thus, it should come as no surprise to New Testament believers that God's intention for human society as stated in Deut 15:4 is that "there should be no poor among you, for...he will richly bless you..." In fact, this message is echoed powerfully in the early practices of the New Testament church (Ac 2:42-47 and 4:32-35). The integrality of redemption is further evident in passages such as when John the baptizer sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Promised One. Jesus replies "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, whose who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor" (Mt 11:4-6). Shortly before Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time, he told the parable in which he recognizes his true followers as those who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, invited strangers in, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner (Mt 25). Those who are restored to fellowship with God show this in every dimension of their lives.
The message of grace also does not allow us to oppose charity against justice. It is true that God called Israel to charity, that is, to be "open-handed" to the poor (Dt 15:8). But acts of charity were also to be structured into the very institutions and relationships of the new society in the Promised Land. These were to be societal structures of justice, that is, structures that routinely enabled the poor to achieve a full life within the community, for example, cancellation of debts (Dt 15:1), lending freely (Dt 15:8), returning land that was lost by the original owner (Lev. 25) and so on. These just societal structures allow the poor, the widow, and the dispossessed to be restored to full human and social participation.
Finally, the Bible does not allow us to treat justice for the poor as an optional frill over and above worship and evangelism. In fact, God emphatically warns us that worship and religion are empty if they are not accompanied by actions that come from a heart of gratitude and structures of justice and mercy (Is 1:10-20 & 58:3-12, Mt 23:23, Am 5:21-24, Hos 6:6, Micah 6:6-8, James 1:27, 2:17).
Jesus' startling message that the Year of the Lord's Favour includes good news for the poor is a wonderful, third millennium challenge for today's church. Some Christians may respond to this message with hopelessness and surrender because of the immense scope and gravity of poverty in Canada and around the world. We need to remember, however, that Jesus also said "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." In Jesus Christ the ultimate victory over sin and evil has already been won. God has already gone ahead and initiated his Kingdom of righteousness and justice. It does not ultimately depend on our work and efforts. The Holy Spirit is beckoning and empowering us to be faithful and to gratefully respond to God's work in our everyday callings. In this way, we are becoming "letters from Christ... written not with ink but the Spirit of the living God" (2 Co 3:3). And as open letters, our neighbours will be able to read in us the concrete reality of good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, release for the oppressed, and the coming of the year of the Lord's favour (Lk 4:16-30).
- In the article, we see that “poverty exists when persons, associations or institutions lack the resources and space they need to fulfill their God-given responsibilities and callings.” How is this broader understanding of poverty different from society’s definition of poverty? How do you define poverty?
- Since poverty is multi-dimensional, people can be poor in social, economic, psychological and spiritual ways. Who are the poor in your community? What are some ways we can care for the poor?
- By distinguishing “needs” from “wants,” we can have a better understanding of a sense of enough and develop a sense of abundance. How do we discern between “needs” and “wants” in our lives? How do we practice the biblical call to stewardship?
- The Scripture tells us that grace does not allow us to oppose spiritual against material, soul against body, evangelism against justice. In this context, what is the biblical message of grace in relation to poverty?
- What are the unjust societal structures today (ex. income inequality, lack of affordable housing, etc.) that prevent the poor from achieving a full life within the community? What are some actions we can take to ensure justice for the poor so that they can live out their God-given responsibilities and callings?
Dr. John L. Hiemstra is professor of political studies at The King’s University College in Edmonton. This is an excerpt taken from The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s position paper on faith and poverty.