Finding Joy In Poverty

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. — Psalm 49:7, NRSV

There is a song quote that always sticks in my ears whenever I hear it. Granted, the radio has done a great job of playing “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles to death, but every single time it comes on, I listen for the line that reminds me, “You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky.” This insight lined up perfectly with the base text for today’s post, so I just had to make something theological of it.

Psalm 49 discusses the foolishness of believing one’s wealth can essentially cheat death. Those who accumulate and hoard riches, however, meet the same end as everyone else, and “they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them” (49:17). They cannot bribe God for more time, and they will “leave their wealth to others” (49:10). It’s not that resources or having resources are bad things, but we are not intended to simply “have” things.

When God calls Abram (soon to be called “Abraham”) out from his homeland and from his kindred, the promised blessing also comes with a requirement, an intention with which God is choosing Abram. Genesis 12:2 indicates that God will bless Abram so that he would “be a blessing.” God says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God’s callings and blessings come with responsibilities, namely that we respond to God’s grace by sharing the blessings we receive, because none of it truly belongs to us.

Not.

One.

Thing.

This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. God emphasizes to the people of Israel that they are being given “a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13). Jesus addresses the impermanence of riches when He exhorts His followers to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20). Just as we are not permanent, neither are the riches we temporarily possess. All of this is on loan.

The reason this is an important message for today is because it appears we have forgotten that we truly are poor. We possess nothing, as it is all a gift that will be returned when we move on to the hereafter. Further, what we are given is intended to be shared in order that others may share in our abundant life. We are blessed in order that we may bless others. This goes not only for the grace, forgiveness, and love we have received from God, but also for the material gifts we have accumulated.

Now, I know. This sounds like “socialist” or “communist propaganda.” I shouldn’t have gone to college because now I am an indoctrinated “libtard.” Well no. This is a Scriptural and traditional Christian teaching that we have lost or ignored consistently throughout history. In fact, the resistance that we see to certain means of sharing for the common good are great indicators that we have come to believe that what we have is ours and ours alone to keep, to hoard, and to protect, which is completely counter to the teachings of the faith.

Advocating for a brand of socialism or some other governmental/economic system  is far from my intent with this post. Rather, I am concerned with each individual person and our attachments to all that we possess. Why don’t we give or want to give? Why do feel resentful toward projects or movements that ask us to give of what we have that others may share in the abundance of this land? It’s because we believe that what we have is a result of what we have done. It’s ours.

This is a bubble that needs bursting.

I run my own business, but if I did not have people willing to invest in me that I might render them my services, I would not have much of a business. I am, therefore, indebted to them. If my parents had not raised me with discipline and wisdom, I would have neither of those things. If my wife were not forgiving, but also with high standards, I would probably not be married anymore, nor would I be the better man I am today. If I did not have a God that consistently makes me aware of His love and mercy day by day, I would be lost in misery and cynicism, not to mention that it is God who has made all of the things by which I benefit.

These exact same truths pertain to you. You owe someone something for what you have.  “The Big Someone” aside, there are people without whom you would not have what you have. Dependence is a fact of life. As such, nothing that you or I possess is truly ours. Rather, all that we have accumulated is a gift that we are meant to share in order that others don’t go without as we prosper.

If we close our fists to our neighbor, we not only disobey the intent of God (Deuteronomy 15:7-11), but we also fulfill the awful prophecy of James. “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (5:5). There is no issue with accepting the blessings that come our way, but if we do so without a generous heart and life, we fail to fulfill God’s intent for our lives.

Obviously, we cannot compensate for a world full of injustices with our limited resources, and that’s not what I am suggesting. Rather, we should adjust our thinking with regard to giving of ourselves. Instead of judging those in need, why not judge ourselves and ask what we would like someone else to do if we were in that situation? Instead of turning inward and hoarding all we manage to gain, why not look for a way to “pay forward” the blessing which God has brought to us? If we can all change our thinking and renew our minds so that panicky, tight-fisted living gives way to urgent, practical generosity, I believe we can expect more and more manifestations of God’s grace in our lives and in the lives of our fellow humans.

I encourage you to join me in praying for our increasingly self-centered society and world. This includes you and I, because I can certainly admit that it is too easy for me to close my hand when others are in a time of need, fearing that my own limited resources may give out. However, if we remember that we are blessed so that God may bless others through us, and if we remember that we are not called to fear but confidence in the One who generously gives, I believe we can look forward to a truly abundant future. This is not an easy task, but it is made less difficult when we remember that we are all ultimately poor, possessing nothing, but offered everything by the One who loved us first.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

 

Charitable Thoughts

In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. — Sirach 18:25, NRSV

I think one of the hardest things to do in ministry is convincing successful people that they still need God. Because of our cultural emphasis on wealth, status, and accomplishments, there are many people who feel that they have “made it,” and because they are successful, their relationship with God must either be on-point or unnecessary. For too many of us, this is a form of forgetfulness and idolatry that makes daily discipleship (and the transformation that comes with it) impossible.

Now it’s important that you don’t misunderstand me. It’s not just the rich and powerful that fall prey to the lie of self-sufficiency. All of us, at one point or another, find a little slice of prosperity. When the time comes to share it, our forgetfulness is evident in our refusal to lend the helping hand that all of us have at one time needed. The man on the corner should just work like we work, and he wouldn’t have to beg. The mother on welfare should “flip burgers,” as anything is better than nothing (despite the fact that getting hired for fast food work still requires things many poor American citizens lack). Those with multiple jobs who still can’t make ends meet should have “aimed higher” and done more with themselves.

See the pattern?

We who forget that we owe our very lives to One greater than us tend to be so quick to pass harsh judgment against those we perceive to be less worthy. We are tight-fisted with our compassion, not to mention our resources! These attitudes may seem like impolite, private conversation, but to hold such opinions flies in the face of Christian discipleship. The faith of Christ is grounded in receiving the grace and gifts of God that we may share them with those around us, and there is no escaping that fact.

So what do we do? The word “repent” comes to mind. We must first recognize and take responsibility for those moments in which we failed to exhibit Christian charity, whether in thought, conversation, or action. This is something we must seek forgiveness for, and, rest assured, God will forgive our confessed transgressions. But what about the other half of repentance, wherein we change direction and go about life differently because of our dependence on God’s grace? This is where our text from Sirach comes into play.

Now, if you are staunchly Protestant and don’t like the idea of taking life advice from the Secondary Canon, check out Deuteronomy 8. Both of these texts deal with not forgetting. Deuteronomy asks that we not forget that God is the one that gives us the power to get what we get. Even if we are “successful” through what appear to be totally worldly means, it is God who gave us our very life by which we make our gains.

Sirach is concerned with our forgetting what it is like to be in need, to be hungry, to require the assistance of others. When we forget this, we lose our ability to fully see the needs of others. In turn, that inability keeps us from acting in the self-giving way Christ models for us.

When we put all of this together, we come away with some excellent Scriptural advice on how to proceed. We must remember that our success does not absolve us of our discipleship responsibilities. When we reach a place of comfort, we shouldn’t hoard our newfound gifts for ourselves “just in case.” Rather, we should be gracious and open-handed, trusting that God will continue to bless us that we may bless others. Even if we have nothing material to give, our attitudes and opinions should be shaped by the love Jesus shows us on the cross. This love is self-giving and all-encompassing. Just as the grace of God is offered to us in that moment, so we ought to honor that by offering grace to others in every moment.

This post isn’t meant to make you feel guilty or bad about having a comfortable life. Rather, it is an encouragement to both recognize and reflect the grace of God that is freely given to us all. If all that we have received is ultimately a gift, we are in no position to be miserly with it, nor should we boast as if it is all due to our own greatness.

Take a moment to imagine a world of reckless generosity and compassion. Imagine a world wherein we actually realized we all have so much more in common that we originally thought. In a world of such divisiveness and selfishness, I hope you find such a vision comforting and worth working toward.

So let’s all repent and get to it! Peace be with you!