A REFLECTION ON POVERTY
AND THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST
by Jonathan R. Wilson
ow can I write about poverty with integrity? How can I represent the reality of poverty with words – but not reduce poverty to words?
We’ve all seen pictures of poverty and even now, as you read these words, you may be calling them to mind. Moreover, if you are reading this issue of Mosaic, it’s likely that you are not poor by almost any measure, even though you may feel financially stressed.
Many of us may also recall some passages of scripture that shape our understanding of poverty. These passages may come from Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, Acts or the New Testament letters. But how do these different passages form a coherent, compelling vision of good news in the midst of poverty? And what does Christ call us to do?
Somehow, it seems right to encourage faith, hope and love with words on a page. But what do I encourage? How can I write about poverty in such a way that I build up the body of Christ? How do I bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ when I turn our eyes toward poverty? How might I invite us to participate in the reality of Christ’s presence and life in the Spirit?
Those questions have haunted me and made this article difficult to write. But there is good news.
As I have read and re-read works about poverty and as I have had conversations with people who live with poverty, I have come to realize more than ever the depths and joys of the good news of the redemption of all creation through Jesus Christ.
Poverty is a sign of the rebellion against God, the brokenness of relationships, and our enslavement to Mammon.
Jesus Christ is good news for our rebellion, brokenness and enslavement.
POVERTY IS A SIGN OF REBELLION
The existence of poverty tells us that this world is not the way God intends it to be. “Poverty” is not only or primarily a lack of money. Poverty is a reality that exposes entire systems of inequalities. The presence of poverty tells us that many things are wrong in our world.
The prophets of the Old Testament expose the systems and structures of this rebellion when they denounce Israel’s legal system for not protecting “the widow, the orphan and the poor,” (Isaiah 10:1-4) and when they denounce the greed and arrogance of the powerful and rich who “add house to house and field to field.” (Isaiah 5:8)
The book of Proverbs reflects this same concern for systems or structures that are used to exploit the poor: “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court.” (Proverbs 22:22)
As we learn to see the signs of rebellion exposed by poverty, we can also begin to see how that rebellion has systemic and structural manifestations that entangle people in poverty.
Good News: in Jesus Christ, the rebel forces of this world (what Paul calls “principalities and powers”) have been defeated. In Colossians 2:15, Paul declares that Christ has made a “public spectacle” of them. Our mission is to continue this work. Poverty is still with us because the world does not know that the powers of injustice, greed, lust, covetousness and more have been defeated. But we do know! Our mission is to make that defeat known and bring those enslaved by those powers into the freedom of Christ: the exodus from enslavement that began when YHWH freed the descendants of Abraham from Egypt.
Because the rebellion against God will continue until Jesus returns, he warns us in Matthew 26:11 that the poor will always be with us. But Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15, which goes on to command God’s people to “open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”
Even though poverty will be with us until the new creation, our proclamation of good news to the poor is not the clichéd “pie in the sky by and by”; rather, our work is to make real now the fullness that is coming with the return of Christ. This reality – the defeat of the rebel forces of this world in Jesus – is declared by Mary when she sings of the rulers brought down from their thrones and the rich sent away empty, while the humble are lifted up and the hungry filled with good things. (Luke 1:46-55) Mary’s praise is confirmed when Jesus reads from Isaiah and proclaims “good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, [and] the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
When we join Jesus on this mission, we will work to identify the systems and structures that create and sustain poverty and we will seek God’s wisdom to dismantle them, subvert them or create alternatives.
Against poverty as a sign of rebellion, our “wordeed” witness to the gospel is a sign that the rebellion has been defeated and God in Christ is redeeming creation and reconciling all things, that is, getting all things in line with God’s life.
This is God’s justice.
POVERTY IS A SIGN OF BROKEN RELATIONSHIPS
The best Christian thinking today, which comes out of many decades of “walking with the poor,” tells us that poverty is fundamentally a relational problem. We humans are made for four relationships: God, others, the rest of creation and ourselves.
Here, we may cautiously think of poverty as a symptom. This way of thinking is limited, but it does illuminate a lot of the reality of poverty.
So, let’s begin by thinking of poverty like a fever. A fever is a reality that tells us that we are not healthy. But it points us to something else. A fever is a symptom caused by some other, underlying problem. And a proper response, proper treatment of a fever, depends on the proper diagnosis of its cause. For example, if a fever is caused by a bacterial infection, then antibiotics may help the body defeat the bacteria and bring an end to the fever. But if a fever is due to a viral infection, then antibiotics are ineffective. And a fever may be due to a whole range of other conditions – a parasite, a chronic disease and more. Before we turn to thinking about poverty as a symptom, let’s also note that even as medics try to identify the cause of a fever, they also treat the fever directly with fever-reducing medicines, cool baths and lots of fluids.
Now, think of poverty as a symptom of broken relationships. Poverty is not a disease to be cured, but a sign of something else that is wrong in the life of communities and individuals. As with a fever, we may take some direct actions to reduce the symptoms of poverty. We may, for example, provide things that are lacking in a situation of poverty – clothing, shelter, food, water or a job. But we cannot be content there if we are to bear the good news of Jesus Christ for those who live in poverty. We want to know and remove the cause of a fever; we want to uncover and remove the relational brokenness that so often causes poverty.
Good News: Jesus Christ came to restore the image of God in human beings by reconciling us to God, to one another, to the rest of creation and to ourselves. So when we walk with the poor and challenge and change poverty, we are serving as God’s ambassadors. (2 Corinthians 5; note how eventually, in chapters 8-9, this ambassadorship is about giving to the poor, especially ch. 8:13-15)
If we are to bear witness to the good news of reconciled relationships in conditions of poverty, we need the work of many people with many skills. In carrying out our mission of proclaiming good news to the poor in word and deed, we need the whole range of gifts that are present in the body of Christ: biblical knowledge, historical memory, practical wisdom, hunger for justice, mercy and generosity.
But in our zeal, let’s not miss two essential realities. The first reality is that the church must be a reconciled and reconciling people. We have a beautiful portrait of this in the book of Acts, where we are told that “there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)
The second reality is that we have often done more harm than good in our attempts to be good news for the poor and overcome poverty, because we have been too quick to bring our “quick solutions” and our “foreign medicine” to circumstances and people we have not taken time to know and understand. We have not been sufficiently concerned with the brokenness of relationships and the work of reconciliation.
Diagnosing the cause of a fever may require the work of a phlebotomist, a lab technician, an x-ray specialist, a radiologist, an internist, a specialist in infectious diseases, nurses, pharmacists, and all sorts of people that make their work possible – such as people who did basic research on bacteria and viruses, people who designed and built an x-ray machine or an MRI machine.
Likewise, diagnosing the particular causes of poverty in particular times and places in the lives of particular people and embodying the good news requires a wide range of knowledge, skills and gifts. We should not be discouraged by this, but rather encouraged that God’s Spirit builds us up and brings us together in mission. To do this faithfully requires us to be humble and patient: broken relationships are about us – about all of us. To engage in mission to proclaim good news in places marked by poverty means that we will be confronting our own broken relationships. But more than that, we will be discovering the greater depths and greater joy of the gospel.
Against poverty as a sign of broken relationships, our wordeed witness to the gospel is a sign that in Christ all things are reconciled: “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:8-10)
This is God’s shalom.
This is God’s justice.
POVERTY IS A SIGN OF OUR ENSLAVEMENT TO MAMMON
To hear, see and practise the good news, we actually have to work hard, always dependent on grace. Here’s the problem: we live in a time when our views of poverty and wealth are almost completely shaped by our culture not by the gospel. And even more challenging is the presence of false and distorted “gospels,” such as the well-known “prosperity gospel” and the lesser-known “poverty gospel.” Both of these false gospels arise from our enslavement to Mammon.
We must take seriously Jesus’ warning that we cannot serve God and Mammon. (Matthew 6:24, King James Version) When we commit ourselves to bringing good news to the poor and to challenge and change poverty, we are coming into direct conflict with one of our own masters: money.
I suggest that we retain the word “Mammon” in our translations and our thinking. When we translate the word as “money” we can easily make the mistake of thinking that coins and bills are what Jesus is talking about. But what Jesus is talking about is a power that enslaves us. That’s why he talks about “two masters.” Using an unusual word and capitalizing it reminds us that we are often ruled by powers that are anti-Christ.
At this point, poverty confronts us with an unwelcome, very disturbing truth: when we try to understand poverty, challenge it, and change it, we find ourselves handcuffed and hobbled by Mammon. It is Mammon, not Jesus, that determines our views of poverty. We measure ourselves and others, even our identity in Christ, by standards that Mammon has taught us. (This is the fundamental heresy of the prosperity gospel.)
Here, poverty points us not to a cosmic rebellion, nor to a social brokenness, but to our own sin. This is the basic rule of Mammon: the less you have, the less you are. When you “give away” – whatever it is – you are diminished. And when you “give,” you put others in your debt.
Our enslavement to Mammon is piercingly exposed by the declaration of theologian René Padilla: “We don’t have a poverty problem in the world, we have a greed problem.”
Good News: in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we learn that life is not a zero-sum game. Jesus reveals climactically that creation and life in creation is sustained by the superabundant life of the Father, Son and Spirit. Even when Jesus gave himself to death, life did not end, because he gave himself in love and in obedience to the Father.
When Mammon is our master, we see life as a matter of “taking and keeping,” not giving and receiving. Poverty and those who live in poverty may become a source of fear. We may see poverty as a threat to our own worth and existence. The continuing presence of poverty, as seen through the eyes of Mammon, is a reminder of how fragile our own worth, our own existence is.
But when we come to believe in Jesus – that life in creation is not a zero-sum game, that giving up our lives as disciples of Jesus is the way of eternal life – then we are freed from bondage to Mammon (among many other powers that enslave us). The grasping greed that marks so much of our lives is broken when we realize that our lives do not depend on the lies of Mammon.
In this freedom, we may enter confidently, generously into a world of poverty and into relationships with the poor – we may walk with them, not just drop in for a visit. And when our walking with the poor seems to threaten our worth or exposes our poverty, we do not run away. We continue to walk with the poor, we continue to challenge poverty and change it because we know that our life and our worth are guaranteed not by Mammon but by Jesus.
Against poverty as a sign of our enslavement to Mammon, our wordeed witness to the good news is a sign of the superabundance of God’s creation and eternal life in Christ.
This is God’s love.
As we learn and bear witness to Jesus’ good news to the poor, we have to hold two things in proper tension.
First, although poverty has been exposed and defeated in Christ, it will be present with us until Christ returns and makes all things new. Only Christ’s return will “eradicate poverty,” because poverty is rooted in rebellion, brokenness and enslavement. This arms us for endurance and patience in our fight against poverty. We should not be discouraged, and we should not lose hope.
Second, in the coming of the kingdom of God through Jesus and the presence of the Spirit, God’s justice, shalom and love have overcome poverty. This is the good news; this is the reality in which we live by faith, hope and love.
- God’s justice has rightly aligned this world with God’s purpose for life
- God’s shalom has healed the broken relationships that oppose human flourishing
- God’s love has freed us from our enslavement to sin
Our mission as God’s people is to make visible this good news in wordeed, so that lives may be transformed by the work of the Father, Son and Spirit.
So, dear reader, I am glad that you have accompanied me as we have wrestled with the reality of poverty and the good news of Jesus Christ. But this is not the end of our work. It is the beginning.
Now we must join the mission of God in the world to bring good news to the poor by making visible God’s justice, shalom and love.
This means that we must daily engage in the struggle to obey – to live in right alignment with God’s purposes for creation. We must daily choose to be reconciled to God, to one another, to the rest of creation and to self. And we must daily give our lives away in trust that the Spirit is the guarantee that we have life eternal through Jesus Christ.
Jonathan R. Wilson is Senior Associate for Theological
Integration with CBM and a Teaching Fellow at Regent
College. For further reading, he suggests When Helping
Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert; God’s Economy
by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove; and Fear of Beggars by