The dual dangers of wealth and poverty

ShillingThe Bible cares about economics. A  search for words like “rich,” “poor” or “money” yields dozens of verses. Why is it, then, that pulpits so rarely sound off on this important theme?

Many know the line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11, NIV). Yet Jesus was merely echoing a saying from Augur in Jewish wisdom literature:

Keep lies far away from me. Don’t make me either rich or poor, but give me only the bread I need each day (Proverbs 30:8, NIRV).

The church today is faced with dual dangers, that of too much emphasis upon riches or a too-easy surrender to poverty. Let’s take a look at both.

The danger of wealth

A Seminary professor asked his students to think about a time when they had to depend upon God. One student observed: “We don’t need God. We have savings accounts.”

The Bible has nothing against saving. Joseph, after all, saved the world from famine by maintaining a food bank (Genesis 41:46-49). Likewise, Proverbs 6:6 extols the industriousness of the ant and encourages us to be busy in the same way. Yet Jesus recognized the subtle danger of putting our trust in our riches rather than in God, of being a rich fool who is materially well-to-do but spiritually destitute (Luke 12:16-21). He cautioned that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25).

Proverbs 30:9a (NLT) underscores the danger of riches:

For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say ‘Who is the LORD? (NLT).

Seneca once observed: “It is not the man who has too little, but the one who craves more, that is poor.” This reflects the teaching of Paul in 1 Timothy 6:8, advising us to be content with food and clothing. It is eagerness for money that leads us away from faith (6:10).

The danger of poverty

Yet if riches present one spiritual danger, poverty is another. Augur’s saying concludes with the adviso:

And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name (Proverbs 30:9b, NLT).

For those who have grown up comfortably middle class, it is difficult to appreciate the spiritual danger that poverty presents. When David says that he has never seen the children of the righteous begging bread (Psalm 37:25), I conclude that David lived a sheltered life. As a missionary who has lived in four African nations, I’ve seen my share of poverty, and it is no respecter of persons. There are many God-fearing people who struggle to make ends meet, despite working from dawn to dusk.

A coziness with poverty, unfortunately, is deterring African youth from vocational Christian ministry. Young people who otherwise would answer God’s call to full-time service in the church resist because they have seen the grinding poverty of pastoral families. This condition is worsened by a “poverty gospel,” the church’s mistaken notion that a poor pastor is a more spiritual pastor. Disobedience in the giving of tithes and offerings is thus rationalized.

Some justify the church’s neglect of poor people by citing Jesus’ observation: “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7a). Yet this citation ignores other teachings of Jesus, most notably the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The parable is misused when we mine it for truth about the afterlife. Rather, it is a cautionary tale about the haves neglecting the have-nots. Jesus calls us to alleviate the conditions of the poor, not to close a blind eye.

God’s solution: mutual assistance

The solution to poverty appears in Acts 2:44-45. Long before the principle of “pay it forward” became popular through the 2000 Haley Joel Osment film, the first Christians in Jerusalem put it into practice. The concept is simply: Today, I have a need and you help me. Tomorrow, a third person has a need, and I will help her. Poverty does not honor God; generosity is the remedy. Such generosity is needed not only in our private lives but also in our public policy. God’s solution is neither dependence nor independence. Rather, the Gospel calls us to interdependence both spiritually and materially.

Summing it all up

The wise man, Augur, traces a middle-way between the danger of riches on the one hand and poverty on the other. Both riches and poverty can be a stumbling block spiritually. Let us beware false teachings that result in one error or the other. Instead, may we foster an interdependence that honors God.


Image credit: Kellie White 

 

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Holy Discontent (Amos 5:24)

Dr CroffordNote to the reader

I preached this sermon in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (main campus) on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. It was the first time I’ve preached an entire message on the topic of Christian social justice. Feel free to leave feedback in the comments.

N.B. – All verses are from the New International Version (NIV), unless otherwise noted


“Holy Discontent”

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream (Amos 5:24, NIV).

One day a farmer worked in his field along the banks of the Congo River. He looked out over the river and a saw man struggling in the water, crying out: “Au secours!” (Help me). Quickly, the farmer dove in the water and rescued the drowning man, towing him to shore. By now, villagers had gathered round to see what all the noise was about. Soon, they saw many others flailing in the water. The villagers – moved with compassion – pulled person after person from the river. It wasn’t long before everyone was exhausted. Finally, a little boy spoke up:

I’m glad we’ve saved all these people from drowning, but I wonder: Who upriver keeps pushing these people in?

Amos saw the poor of his day and had compassion on them. But there came a time – moved by God – when he got tired of dealing just with symptoms. He was ready to raise his voice about the cause.

Of all people, Amos was an unlikely candidate to be a prophet. If he were alive to day in Kenya, he might have been a Maasai carrying his rungu, herding cows. Amos was a shepherd, likely with little education. He lived in the backwater town of Tekoa, not far from Jerusalem. The year was 760 B.C. and there was prosperity in the land. A longstanding peace was the order of the day under the stable rule of Judah’s King Uzziah and Israel’s King Jeroboam II.

The cancer of injustice

But if the two nations seemed as strong as a marathoner in the highlands of Kenya, there was nonetheless a secret cancer growing inside, the cancer of injustice. So God tells Amos to leave his flocks and to travel north approximately 100 km to Bethel, where Israel had its official place of worship and sacrifice to God. There Amos – like a doctor – diagnoses the illness and applies the divine treatment in hopes of healing their disease before it is too late.

What were the injustices?

Amos is smart how he addresses the crowd at Bethel. He starts in chapter 1 by making a quick tour of the surrounding nations. He points to Damascus first: “For three crimes of Damascus, and for four, I don’t hold back the punishment” (1:3, CEB). Then he moves on to Gaza, followed by Ashdod, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. And as he makes the grand tour, you can almost hear the crowd shouting: “Amen! Preach it!’ But now in chapter 5, he zeroes in on Israel herself.  The crowd grows silent. What were some of the abuses they were practicing? 

  • v. 7 – They tuned “justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground”
  • v. 10 – The had contempt for judges, especially judges who were upright, who told the truth
  • v. 11 – The leaders oppressed the poor
  • v. 12 – Because of bribes, the poor received no justice in the courts
  • v. 26 – They worshipped false gods
Amos confronts evil leaders in Israel.

In short, for the poor, life was brutal while the privileged few built stone mansions for themselves! (see v.11) Because of the prosperity of some, the poverty of others was disguised, but it was a thin veneer and God was not pleased.

The problem of hypocrisy

We might expect injustices in a land that knew nothing about God. But this was far from the case. These were the people of Yahweh. Certainly, they were careful to keep up appearances, observing all the prescribed sacrifices.

  • religious feasts? check
  • burnt offerings? check
  • grain offerings? check
  • fellowship offerings? check
  • excellent worship music? check

What was the problem exactly? They claimed to love God but they mistreated the powerless and the marginalized. So Amos thunders:

Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:23-24).

But that was Israel long ago, right? Nothing like this would happen in the 21st century in the countries where you and I come from…would it? No one would go to church on Sunday and praise the Lord, then on Monday oppress or rob someone else…would they?

There’s an old Methodist hymn that reminds us: “It’s not my brother, it’s not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” As Jesus insisted in the Sermon on the Mount, we must first remove the board from our own eye before we can see clear to remove the speck from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3).

I spent my senior year in high school and my gap year between high school and University working at a grocery store, in the produce department. Soon after I started the job, my boss asked me to mop the floor of the back room as part of my night shift duties. The next day when I came into work, he asked if I’d mopped it. “Yes,” I replied. “The reason I ask,” he said, “is because it still looks dirty.” This went on for several nights, and he remained unsatisfied with my work. The floor still looked dirty when he came in the next morning. Finally, he asked me to show him what exactly I was doing when mopping. “Greg,” he said after watching me work for a few minutes, “you’re using dirty water and a dirty mop head. You need to use fresh water and change it often, and use a clean mop head. Otherwise, you’ll just spread the dirt around.”

Here at ANU, our slogan is: “What begins here, transforms the world.” And when we say “what begins here,” we really mean what God does in our heart. God must transform us first if we want God to be able to use us to change the world. If we are unclean, when it comes to trying to change the world, we’ll just be dirty mops spreading around dirty water. Nothing will change.

Last week was Holiness Week at ANU. The Lord used Dr Cindy North in a powerful way to speak to us about the change God wants to make inside of us individually. But may I suggest that that is not the end; it is just the beginning. When God has transformed us, it’s time to let God use us to impact our world.

The courage to speak up

Amos, though just a humble shepherd, found the courage to speak truth to power. When we come to the New Testament, we find the same theme. Ephesians is one of the richest New Testament books when it comes to the doctrine of the church. In the face of injustices and wrongs around us, what should the church do? Paul gives us the answer in Ephesians 5:11 –

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them (italics added).

The KJV says: “reprove them.” That means to call them out! The Common English Bible renders it: “Reveal the truth about them.”

What’s fascinating is that Paul was merely following the example of Jesus himself. Matthew 5:3-12 contains what is usually called the Beatitudes. It’s not often that we look at them from the standpoint of social justice, but this is what Mark Bredin does in his book, The Ecology of the New Testament. Take Matthew 5:3, where Jesus talks about the “poor in spirit.” Usually, we think this means those who are humble, yet a better translation for “poor in spirit” would be the “hopeless poor.” In fact, in verses 3-6, Jesus addresses himself to those who are poor and downtrodden. He promises: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they  shall be comforted” (v. 4) and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (v. 6).

Then in verses 7-10, we find what I call the “social justice remedy.” Faced with those who are oppressed, Jesus calls us to be merciful (v.7), pure in heart (v.8), and peacemakers (v.9). Yet it’s not naïve advocacy; oppressors and all who have  vested interest in the status quo will push back against those who seek to redress wrongs. In vv. 10-11, he warns the would-be advocate that we can expect harassment, character assassination, and persecution. To be prophetic, to speak out against wrongs, means that we will be harassed like “the prophets who came before you.” Our Lord is saying: Welcome to the club!

What is your holy discontent?

When it comes to the topic of Christian social justice, Bill Hybels uses a term that is helpful. That term is “holy discontent,” and it’s the title of his 2007 book. Hybels is the pastor of a megachurch in the Chicago area, but he grew up in a small, dysfunctional church. Bill as a teenager prayed for a friend, that he would decide to follow Jesus. One day, much to Hybel’s surprise, the friend asked if he could attend church with Bill the next Sunday. It seemed like God was answering his prayers, that the friend was beginning to ripen to spiritual things. Unfortunately, the Sunday was a disaster. Few welcomed him; he felt like an intruder. The love of Christ was absent. His friend concluded: “If that’s what Christians are like, count me out.” His heart hardened and he never came back to church.

That negative experience was the moment when Hybel’s holy discontent was born. He refused for that situation to persist; he knew he had to do something to change it. He realized that small churches needed help, training so they could be sensitized to how their actions could push people away. Hybels now hosts regular conferences for small churches, equipping them to better reach the lost. His holy discontent became his calling.

William Wilberforce: Abolition of the slave trade

There are other stories of how God can use holy discontent. In 1806, Great Britain officially abolished the slave trade, outlawing the carrying of slaves in any of its ocean-going vessels throughout the Empire. Yet few know the story behind the man largely responsible for this victory, who persevered through 20 years of set-backs to finally win a glorious victory. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) stood just 5’3″ inches tall. All his life, he suffered from colitis, a bowel condition that was very painful and that could only be treated with laudanum, an addictive form of opium. Despite his challenges, Wilberforce was ambitious and was elected as one of the youngest ever Members of Parliament.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

Yet something happened to Wilberforce at the age of 26. He understood the Gospel, repented, and was marvelously born again. Wilberforce referred to it as “the Great Change.”  Later, he wrote a long letter to his friend and fellow MP, William Pitt (the younger), announcing that he would leave Parliament in order to preach and to have time for spiritual contemplation. Pitt- who became Prime Minister – was disappointed to lose his friend in Parliament, especially since Pitt had designs to end the slave trade but couldn’t do it alone. In a reply to Wilberforce’s letter, he wrote:

Sure the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

It worked. Wilberforce stayed in Parliament and soon thereafter plunged into the battle against the slave trade. The oppression of thousands of African men, women, and children became for Wilberforce what sparked his calling, his holy discontent.

The 2007 movie, “Amazing Grace,” tells the story of the life of Wilberforce. Here is a short clip where Wilberforce tries to convince some reluctant MPs of the justice of the abolition cause:

The plight of Haiti’s restaveks

I wish I could say that slavery in the world ended for good in 1833, when Parliament went a step further and outlawed not only the transporting of slaves on British ships but the keeping of slaves in any British territory. Yet we know human trafficking in many forms still exists around the world. One of the sadder cases is Haiti’s restaveks.

restavek

The word “restavek” means “to stay with.” Estimates are that among Haiti’s 8 million people, there are 300,000 children who have been reduced to domestic servitude. Those scouting child servants will visit the rural areas and look for poor families who are struggling to provide  for a large family. With promises that they’ll take good care of their young child – often between ages 5 and 12 – that they’ll provide good food, shelter, and quality education, little boys and girls go to the city and quickly become indentured. They live as domestic servants, unpaid and provided just the bare minimum to live. Rarely do they get to attend  school, and when they do, it’s a school hardly worth attending. There are now organizations working to rescue restaveks so that they can live a better life.

Conclusion: What is your holy discontent?

Amos announced: “Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never ending stream.” Look around you. What wrongs in your society do you see? What injustices weigh upon your heart? Ask God whether rectifying one of those injustices is His calling on your life, is your holy discontent. God has saved us so that each of us can change some corner of our world. Will you answer God’s call?

Compassion and justice, God’s two strong arms

two-strong-armsOne of the noblest sentiments in the American pledge of allegiance is the final line intended to describe the United States of America: “…with liberty and justice for all.” As a people, we Americans have strived to live up to that ideal yet have often fallen short.

Psalm 146:6-7a says nothing of liberty, but it does address justice:

God: the maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, God: who is faithful forever, who gives justice to people who are oppressed, who gives bread to people are starving! (CEB, italics added)

The passage continues (vv. 7b-9), providing a seven-fold description of divine justice.  Our just God…

  • frees prisoners
  • gives sight to the blind
  • lifts up those who are stooped
  • loves the righteous
  • protects immigrants
  • helps orphans and widows
  • frustrates the wicked

The church’s mission in the world rests on a simple premise:

Find out what God is concerned about then join God in that concern.

The common denominator for five of the seven groups of people on the list is powerlessness. What can those who are incarcerated give us? Not much. Or how about the destitute woman who has lost her husband, or the child left alone after the death of their parents? As for immigrants, they are sometimes in the most precarious position of all. Yet it is not the rich and famous who receive the LORD’s special favor. Rather, it is those who seemingly have little to offer in return – the last, the lost, and the least – who have captured the loving heart of our Father. In a world that coldly pushes them to the margins as unimportant, God draws them in, wrapping them up in loving arms, whispering comfort. His compassion is naturally accompanied by the stubborn pursuit of justice on their behalf.

The parable is told of a farmer whose land was adjacent to a river. One day when tending his field by the river bank, he saw a woman flailing in the water. The farmer quickly called his family and together they fished her out of the water to safety. An hour later, the scenario repeated itself, except this time it was a man in peril. The rescues continued all afternoon, until they had saved half a dozen from the river. The farmer’s daughter finally spoke up. “Dad,” she asked, “I’m glad we’ve been able to rescue these people from drowning. But I wonder: Shouldn’t we go up river and see who has been pushing them in?”

Psalm 146:6-7 carves out a place for both the exercise of compassion and the pursuit of justice. God feeds the hungry and gives justice to the oppressed.

Mercy and advocacy are the two strong arms that rescue and empower those most vulnerable.*

If God is concerned about prisoners, immigrants, widows, orphans, the blind and those crushed by life’s burdens, then how can the church – the People of God – not also be concerned?

Yet there are two more groups of people on the list, namely, the righteous and the wicked. If we as God’s people are to be like God, then we must do as God does. And what does God do? The LORD loves the righteous (v.8) but frustrates the wicked (v.9). Here is where the church can set an example for society. Do we praise our children when they do virtuous things or do we ignore them, thereby discouraging that behavior in the future? Similarly, do we disapprove of those among us whose self-centeredness makes them callous, even wicked, or do we elevate them? It pays to study what God does then follow God’s example. To do the opposite is to invite disaster.

We serve an amazing God! The LORD models how we can walk a different path, one of heartfelt concern for the powerless. Psalm 146 reminds us that this concern entails both compassion and the pursuit of justice, Gods two strong arms. In times that risk frustrating the righteous and rewarding the wicked, let’s reverse the order. Let’s love God’s way, resisting the urge to marginalize the powerless. Instead, let us enfold the last, the lost, and the least.

_____

*Note: I am indebted to former Nazarene Education Commissioner, Dr Jerry Lambert, who spoke of evangelism and education as the “two strong arms of the Body of Christ.” I have adapted that imagery for this essay.

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Image credit: Estudos Gospelmais

Holiness as compassionate advocacy

wesley
John Wesley often spoke up for the poor and their squalid living conditions in 18th century England.

When asked the nature of holiness, John Wesley (1703-91) often pointed to Mark 12:28-31. All of the commandments are summed up in just two: Love God and love your neighbor. This love is the essence of holiness and it is the foundation of all compassion.

In recent years, we’ve spoken of compassionate evangelism. Now it is time to lift the banner of compassionate advocacy. Advocacy is concerned for social justice. As such, it is hardly a distraction from Gospel work. Rather, it is part-and-parcel of the church’s holistic Good News. In his article, “Social Justice in the Bible,” Dominik Markl notes:

Prophets such as Isaiah and Amos raise their voices on behalf of the poor and the marginalised, those belonging to the ‘weaker’ social groups. God himself prescribes a brotherly and sisterly social order in his Torah, and, in the same divine wisdom, Jesus develops a Christian ethics of love.

Those who are not followers of Christ will judge those of us who are by how we treat people who have nothing to offer in return. Right now on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a few thousand Native Americans – water protectors, as they call themselves – are peacefully resisting the construction of a pipeline across their land. Their concern is that the pipeline is to pass under the Missouri River, potentially fouling its waters with oil in case of a spill. This is hardly an imaginary threat. On July 1, 2011, such a spill polluted the Yellow Stone River. So muscular has been the response to the current standoff in North Dakota that Amnesty International is sending human rights observers.

Why should followers of Christ care? The simplest answer is that we should care about what Jesus cares about. Isaiah 42:1-4a (CEB) is a prophecy of the coming Messiah:

But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

As a nation, we’ve done a lousy job of co-existing with those who were here before our European forbearers arrived. We haven’t cared much for these “faint wicks” or about justice in our dealings. But what about the church, particularly the Wesleyan-holiness tradition that I call home? If we are about making Christlike disciples – and that is a crucial task – then we need to cast a broader vision of what being Christlike means. It is more than abstaining from sins that defile us; it is also about coming alongside the weak and the oppressed in their time of need, standing with them in their fiery trial like Jesus stood with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 4:25). How can we read a passage like Isaiah 42 then yawn as if nothing is happening in North Dakota?

Perhaps our inaction stems in part from few of us ever being water deprived, yet water security is a growing issue around the world. Drought can drastically alter how we view this precious gift. When I visited the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in September 2015, they were suffering an extended drought. The missionaries with whom I stayed sometimes had to decide whether they would wash the dishes or wash themselves. Thankfully, we prayed for rain and God answered our prayer. I went away from that stay taking water a lot less for granted.

Neither do the Sioux take water for granted. They cannot drink oil nor bathe in it. You need water for that.

Some churches are speaking up. Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church issued a statement last August in support of the water protectors. In his statement, he noted the theological importance of water in Scripture, including it being the baptism symbol of new life in Christ. I commend Bishop Curry for speaking up, but it makes me wonder: As holiness people, where is our voice? If the essence of holiness is love of God and neighbor, then here is a clear-cut chance to show a historically mistreated people that we care. These are our neighbors. Where is our love?

I’m glad that God is raising up around the world a generation of believers for whom justice isses are Gospel issues. May they be patient with us who have been around a bit longer, we who have been slower to see that holiness is both personal and social. And once we’ve seen, may the Lord move us to compassionate advocacy.