Poverty and Justice, Part 1


I didn’t write yesterday.  Sundays are not counted in Lent, but Mondays are.  I just couldn’t put it together.  I committed to writing about justice and injustice this week, but when I tried to start…I didn’t start.  

I used to talk about justice a lot.  I had many opinions.  Then I moved here, where I see injustice every single day, and now I am a lot quieter.  

I do still speak of it.  I feel it’s our responsibility to bear witness to what we see. Many people help make it possible for us to do our work here.  This is not a part of the world, or a standard of living, most of them have experienced.   One aspect of living here is being the eyes of our community from there, to give them a glimpse of what we experience and how God is at work. 

I am quieter because I don’t know how to solve anything.  I see horrible problems every single day, living conditions that it’s unlikely any of you reading this have experienced or maybe even been exposed to.  Twelve people living in a tiny, one-room hovel with scrap-wood walls, scrap-metal roof, and a dirt floor, sitting downhill so that, when the rainy season comes again, the water will spill in.  

I remember a conversation I had once with a young adult in my group who was somehow arguing that, though yes, the people here are poor, there is “less burden on their income.”   I think he meant that there are fewer things in their lives competing for each dollar.  I would call that an example of being right in the specific while terribly wrong in the general.  

True, their meager income of $3-$4 a day–or less–has no insurance premiums for their home or health or vehicle.  Most of the bills that come into your home are not payments they ever make.  So true, they don’t have to make $90-$120/month cover everything middle class U.S. people pay for.  “Less burden on income” is itself a sign of poverty, because having health insurance and receiving decent health care, for example, are two indicators of not living in poverty.  

The household I’m thinking of eats rice and beans for every meal, every day.  There isn’t any health care other than for extreme emergencies, when they go to a public hospital which offers care so rudimentary that patients lay on cots in the hallway with sheets that haven’t been changed from the previous patient–or in the hallway with no bed at all.  Of course they don’t have a car.  They don’t have a refrigerator nor indoor plumbing.  

Alcoholism is rampant in our barrio.  So is teen pregnancy.  Abusive fathers have multiple children who don’t go to school or drop out very early and must find some means of helping support the family (and the addiction).  Too often that means prostitution.  More fortunate children spend their days selling tortillas or sitting at an ice cream cart.  I’m not giving you generic descriptions here, though I’m not including names or photos, I’m picturing the people I pass every day on our street.  One little boy, probably five or six, spends his days collecting scraps of firewood that his father can sell.  

I know it’s better for us to live here and try to make a difference than to look away.  Every time we buy something from our friend’s fruiteria or any of the tiny pulperrias on our street, when i bought the five tortillas this morning for our family at 2 cordobas a piece and then a few more anonymously for the borrachos who hang out in front of our house, we’re part of the struggling economy of this place.  We put dollars into their local economy and it circulates here.  We have a little preschool and we try to help kids start their education so they have some chance to continue it.  

We try to provide a safe place for a woman who is beaten by her husband.  We support and encourage her in taking computer classes so she might have some chance of supporting herself and, if she is ever willing, getting herself and her children away from him.  

These are small things we can do because we live here:  A tiny loan which makes starting a new business possible, one that we can give because we’ve built trust with the family and we live right across the street; driving children to the clinic when they’re very sick so they don’t have to take unimaginably crowded bus; trying to network to find new employment and offering odd jobs   in the meantime.  

Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you and you can
help them whenever you will.”

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that Jesus had become a fatalist when he spoke these words.  If I were cynical, which I’m not, I would say someone realized that Jesus would be much easier to follow if he meant here that you’re never going to fix poverty, so you may as well accept it.  If you feel so inclined sure, help out, but it’s not like you’re going to solve anything.  

Of all the misinterpretations of the Bible, this one probably infuriates me the most.  

In context, a woman had come in where Jesus was eating with his disciples and broken open a sealed bottle of very expensive perfume or ointment, which she then poured on Jesus’ head.  She was honoring him.  

The disciples were indignant.  “That could have been sold and the money given to the poor!”  They had grasped some of Jesus’ words about caring for people in poverty.  Or, perhaps, Judas was stealing from the common purse the disciples shared and didn’t care about the poor at all.  

Here is Jesus’ response: 

 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

First, Jesus defends and advocates for this woman.  She is honoring Jesus and Jesus refuses to let her be shamed or rebuked.  He declares that what she has done will be remembered and, as is often the case, he is right.  Second, Jesus declares that it is for his burial.  “You will not always have me,’ in a physical, bodily sense, is certainly true, since immediately after this Judas went to arrange to betray Jesus to his enemies.  

But for our purposes, Jesus is in the home of “Simon the Leper.”  Jesus healed Simon.  If he hadn’t, Simon would not have a home, he would be a outcast and he certainly wouldn’t be having dinner parties because he would not be allowed to have contact with anyone else in Jewish society.  This supper is happening because Jesus had cared for Simon in Simon’s extreme state of poverty–a horrible, decaying physical condition, rejected from his society, no means of supporting or taking care of himself.  

We could just as easily take Jesus’ words to say, “You will always be with the poor; you won’t always be with me.”  Jesus meant exactly this: as my followers, of course you will be with the poor.  You wouldn’t be my followers if you weren’t.  

When you compare these two interpretations, 1)Which is more consistent with how Jesus speaks about–and treats–people in poverty? 2)Which is more consistent with Jesus’ tone overall, i.e. which one has Jesus, who speaks almost wildly hopeful (love our enemies? Pray for those who persecute us?), believing in the change his Kingdom proclaims, 3)which makes sense in its immediate context, where Jesus is affirming a woman and reminding his disciples of the moment at hand–he is about to be betrayed and crucified–yet even so speaking in the home of someone whom Jesus has raised out of poverty. 

I don’t believe we are the perfect model of faithfulness.  We live here because we responded to how we believe God led us.  I do believe that every follower of Jesus finds active ways to be with, care for, and empower people living in poverty.

God sees poverty as an issue of injustice.  Bringing justice to people living in poverty means taking their cause.  We will always be with them.  Jesus never asks us to judge whether they are lazy or if they’re hard working enough for our standards.  The Bible doesn’t address whether the poor are “worthy” of help, God’s or ours.  

 If you’ve read my blog at all, you know I don’t believe in using guilt as a motivator:  you might get results, but it bears rotten fruit.  People may respond to guilt trips, but soon they grow resentful and either internalize this or rebel.  Neither leads them to know God’s love more deeply.  

This is Lent.  We are acknowledging and seeking to repent of our sins, the ones we see and the ones up until now we have not seen.  Can we ask God to show us what we need to change?  Can we ask for open hearts to make those changes, even when they make us uncomfortable?  Can we move beyond guilt and respond to Jesus because his words are life for us?  


4 thoughts on “Poverty and Justice, Part 1

  1. Trish

    “God sees poverty as an issue of injustice” ~ I am looking forward to hearing more from you on this.

    For an American city, Memphis has unusual levels of poverty and related blights. I know for a fact our society blames this poverty on the poor. I am beginning to see more of the injustices that play into the situation.

    I am interested in hearing you expand on your theology around this statement, arguments that can be made in defense of the poor. (Glad it’s the topic of the week) ~

  2. Pat

    Again, your word pictures are very eye opening & great reminders of the words & intents of Jesus. Thanks for making a difference for those around you& all the lives your Family touch.

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