Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Camels and Needles and Good News

Jesus told us we'd always have the poor with us. But we sure do try to avoid them, don't we? We aim to move to suburbia so we can be isolated from them, so we don't have to intermingle. Then we get upset or annoyed on the rare occasion someone tries to ask us for some spare change.

I had the opportunity to do a lot of walking around downtown Chicago last weekend. In addition to the miles and miles of walking, I also used public transportation the whole time. The huge breadth of people, the diversity of faces and colors and tax-brackets... It's a jarring reminder of the sheer number of PEOPLE God has placed on this planet. All of them deserving love and compassion, all of them under God's dominion. Each of them loved by Jesus enough to die on the cross.
"He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.' Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'" (Luke 4:16-20)
Really, if you want to see the diversity of people and colors and tax-brackets in a smaller city, you can just head over to Wal-Mart. It's the great equalizer. I suppose some might avoid Wal-Mart because of the very fact that it's filled with the people we try to avoid in suburbia.
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20)
I've heard some say that Sunday mornings are the most segregated day of the week, because of the lack of diversity within our local churches. I'd say the same holds true for the rich and the poor. There's just not much income diversity in most churches. In fact, it seems like the rich tend to huddle together in churches. That's not entirely the fault of the churches, I suppose (although I'll definitely give them some of the blame). Local churches serve local areas, and our society continues to draw broader geographical lines between the gated community and the trailer court.
"Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me... I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:16-26)
For some reason, though, we've turned the gospel around into something "for the wealthy." The rich go to church, and they try to help the poor heathens through various ministries. Sermons occasionally touch on money, but it's generally about tithing -- I've seldom seen anyone mention the Matthew 19 passage without adding, "but that doesn't mean you have to do that!" I've heard countless preachers say that it's "okay to have nice things" and that it's okay to have lots of money... You just can't LOVE IT too much.
"The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." (Luke 7:22)
What, exactly, is the "good news" then? What are we preaching to the poor? To buck up and get a job? That maybe they can join our church, provided they don't have too many tattoos, and provided they take a shower and put on some clean church clothes? That if they become a Christian, maybe God will reward them with wealth?
"The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want." (Mark 14:7)
I saw a wide variety of people over the weekend. I had a friendly conversation about Notre Dame football with a homeless man in a wheelchair. My daughter asked for some money to give to a woman who "looked like she needed some."

But these aren't the type of people I see around me at church, or in suburbia. Jesus talked about releasing the oppressed, the forgiveness of debts, and good news for the poor. He surrounded himself with these people. Have we done the opposite? If it's so hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, why are our churches filled with rich people?

Have the camels all gotten smaller, or have the needles gotten bigger?


craig said...

I admire you, Scott - it's just about impossible for me to have a 'friendly conversation about Notre Dame football' with anyone. . . ;)

Good points, here. REALLY good points. And one of the reasons (along with the way that eight kids can limit one's economic options) that we live in the city, rather than the 'burbs. I should probably tell you sometime about our one-time neighbor who ran an ad-hoc junkyard out of his backyard. . .

We all long for security, and an end (in at least a comparative sense) to the grind and struggle of life, and the extreme prosperity available to us as 21st-century Americans can tempt us to think that we can attain those things this side of Heaven. It's an understandable enough mistake.

And we all (heck, even the poor) generally prefer to hang around people who are 'like us'. I once had a neighbor tell me I ought to 'go back to the suburbs where you belong' (ouch!), because I corrected her kids over some forgotten transgression. . .

But even still, it's a failure of love, this attempt to 'set ourselves apart' from folks who don't dress as nicely as we do, or who don't smell as nice, or whose cars are missing assorted body panels. Because, on the most fundamental level, we all, all us humans, all us fallen sinners, are 'like each other' - we're all of us made in God's image and likeness, and we're all of us deeply in need of His mercy. . .

Fred said...

Why do you always have to drag Jesus into everything, like you have the right to speak for him. While we're all at church you're downtown shopping with all the other liberals.

How about unSAVED

Julie L Rhodes said...

This heathen thinks this is an important message. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it can put a roof over a person's head and food in their stomach. It's amazing to me that I witness daily those who have somehow been left out of the great American dream. Living in cities and not just driving through them with your windows rolled up and doors locked... Read More has a awakening effect about the suffering of others in this shared world. And, by the way, there are many reasons I don't go near a Walmart and it has absolutely nothing to do with being faced with the realization of our world's socio-economic diversity - it's that I view Walmart as the root of the evil - low pay, avoiding benefits, taking advantage of their workers, pushing jobs to sweat shops overseas, using cheap materials to make cheap products that end up being disposed of in short order, selling crappy food that only adds to our health challenges...need I say more. Thanks for posting this, Joe. Though I'm not a Christian, the message rings true and hits home!

(Julie is an old friend of Joe B's and probably didn't realize Scott was the writer. Joe B cut and pasted her comment from Facebook.)

Joe B said...

Great words Scott, you managed to contextualize the challenge of Jesus at the very basic level of how we live in the world.

I am so intrigued by Julie R's reaction to what he wrote. A "good Christian" would typically read this article asking silent qustions like "what has this got to do with justification by faith" or "eternal security", or perhaps asking "is it possible to incorporate this into our church program?"

But Julie is neither a typical Christian, nor a typical non-Christian. I'll take the liberty of calling her a "Non-Christian Jesus Follower". She immediately sees Scott's observation in terms of the cosmic conflict between power and love.

Wal-Mart. The government. The Axis of Empire. In the article she identifies "The captains and the kings" who are thrown down by the self-sacrificing, indestructible army of Jesus Followers (in Revelation 18.) The "rulers & authorities of this dark world", against whom God's people stand ready to act (Eph 6). And she spends her days and nights trying to undermine those dark forces by living contrary to them.

I think if Julie were a christian, say an ordained minister with a PhD from Cambridge, she would have written a book called "Against Christianity" decrying the church for slouching into a tame lap-dog religion, a Vichy regime in cushy cooperation with the dark forces of this world. Becoming a civic religion not so different from the Roman or Egyptian or Babylonian sort.

As it is, you'll have to read Dr Peter Leithart's book by the same name. Canon Press, 2003.

Matt said...

Fred...who is fred and what was THAT all about? :-)

I find an irony in what Scott (sorry don't know you...) writes.

"But these aren't the type of people I see around me at church, or in suburbia. Jesus talked about releasing the oppressed, the forgiveness of debts, and good news for the poor. He surrounded himself with these people. Have we done the opposite?"

You are willingly admitting a fault that these are not the people around you in the church or place you live. That's interesting...does your "church" know these thoughts of yours? Your leaders know?

I find it mind-bogggling to try to figure out who to "surround" myself with. Is it others who come to me, or someone I pursue? Mutual or onesided? Didn't Jesus reject some? Who? Never the poor? Is poverty now the requirement for relationship with Jesus?

As someone who is wrestling with shepherding... it's all overwhelming to think about...so eventually I just fall on my knees and ask for help...and try to surround mself with Jesus first...and go from there...

Matthew 19 that quote of Jesus is directed at a man - a particular man. That had great "wealth" which means he had alot of "stuff." Jesus tells him to sell or let go of your "stuff" and follow Him - unburden yourself of your "stuff." Our culture tends to subtley teach us to be defined by our "stuff" and yet we all know we are burdened by the "stuff," too. It's quite a conundrum... I've been struggling with the issue ...for years...in all sorts of ways... bc we tell rich people to get rid of "big" stuff like houses and then they have little "stuff" like a cell phone... or a TV... or a poor person on a street corner who won't let go of the street corner... or a piece of clothing... it's not about the stuff... it's about how much or how little we desire and trust Jesus in our lives over the stuff...

Joe B said...

Yeah, Matt, good thoughts. How come good thoughts usually raise problems?

But there remains no doubt that whatever poor or rich mean, or big things or little things, or MY house or MY corner...they are the things we are to value less than God.

And how we regard our neighbor is the measure of how we regard God.
So what are we to do? Live to please God by loving our neighbor for real.

So you're right, there is no formula for who to love, or exactly how. Love is love and if finds the way. It's not something to sweat.

Eutychus said...

Whoever "the poor" are, they're poorer than you are. And apparently they are like the canary in the coal mine: They reveal the truth about you.

And who are "the rich"? They're richer than you are. They reveal the truth about you too.

Even a kid could figure out this has to do with more than money. People can be fortunate or unfortunate in different ways.

scott said...

So many good things to talk about here.

I am most definitely admitting a fault of my own. I do, in fact, live in a (relatively) poorer area, and yet I "go to church" in a relatively richer area. It wasn't by design, it was just the church we had been going to before we even moved to where we currently live. If all of my friends, my brothers and sisters, weren't at that church, maybe we'd go to the one that's right across the street from where we live. It sure would save a lot of travel time!

Do my church leaders know about this? They know where I live, sure. I doubt they would look at "going to their church" as a fault, though, and I'm not sure I could convince them that it is.

"Is poverty now the requirement for relationship with Jesus?"

No, I don't think so, and I didn't say so. But I think Jesus' statements are fairly clear: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God," and "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Maybe not required, but Jesus did seem to speak much more highly of poverty than of riches.

From Matt: "I try to surround myself with Jesus first, and go from there."
From Joe: "How we regard our neighbor is the measure of how we regard God."
From Eutychus: "The poor... They reveal the truth about you."

Yes, yes, and yes! Well said, all. Love is love, and there's no formula for it.

(And yes, the rich reveal the truth about us too, but there's probably only about 1% of the people in the world richer than us, while 99% are poorer.) :-)

Matt said...

I'm fearful some might have taken my tone wrong.

I was not asking you specifically about whether "poverty was a requirement for a relationship with Jesus?" but rather as a rhetorical question to myself. Something I wrestle with.

Also, in regards to speaking with leaders; I have a deep heart for leaders, being one now. Money can be a delicate issue, if only b/c there is deep truth in "where your treasure is, so your heart will be also." To criticize how anybody spends money is felt at a heart level, even church bodies and leaders. If I had one or many in my congregation that felt this way, I would be deeply hurt and I would struggle to engage with it without getting defensive. It's a challenge not to be defensive. It is much harder to lead a body of Christ into the Kingdom in this culture than I realized before I felt led/invited into it.

I did not realize how difficult it is until I became a leader and I have greatly repented and grieved over the grief, both indirect and direct, that I gave many leaders, for various reasons - this topic included.

Matt said...

Oh, and the "Fred" comment...is that like and insider's joke or was that for real?

scott said...

I got the impression that Fred was sarcastic/joking. At least it made me chuckle.

But you never know, I guess.

Robert said...

My impression of all the comments: Lot of talk, not much walk! Just sayin'.

Joe B said...

re: Robert

I guess that is the nature of "comments." They are "talk".

Except for Robert's comment which is, indisputable, "walk."

The camels have gotten smaller...so small a man could swallow one, it seems!

craig said...

Yeah, I was gonna ask how one goes about 'walking' in a blog comment. . .

Point taken, I suppose, that Jesus' challenging words are directed to our actions, and that He wasn't being merely 'theoretical' here.

But, if I were to go ahead and 'walk the walk', how would you know if I did? Unless I told you, but that would seem to run afoul of other of Jesus' words.

So, dang it, I guess. . .