“Jesus truly presents himself to me – in the entirely unromantic other, in the exhausting and defeating poverty of my neighbor, in the nuisance of the beggar at my gate.”
Over the last century, American evangelicals have had a somewhat uneasy relationship with social justice. This is due, in large part, to the development of the Social Gospel in the early 20th century. The movement was troubling to evangelicals, not simply because those involved endorsed social action, but because their message seemed to undercut the primacy of the saving work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For many associated with the Social Gospel, abstract theological doctrines were relevant only to the degree that they provided motivation for social justice (in other words, Jesus was looked at as a moral example rather than the second person of the Trinity). These longstanding divisions have tended to drive a wedge between those interested in “saving souls” and those intent on social renewal. However, over the last couple of decades this tendency seems to have dissipated among younger evangelicals who have rediscovered the Bible’s call to care for the needy and dispossessed.
THE POVERTY OF GOD
In light of this new passion for justice, I want to examine how Jesus makes himself known among the poor.
Too often, I think, we look at poverty as merely a socio-economic problem to be solved, rather than an opportunity to be with, and learn from, those in need. I want to begin thinking about these issues by looking at the story of Mary anointing Christ at Bethany. In this narrative Mary takes costly perfume (worth a years wages) and pours it on Jesus’ feet, but Judas objects saying, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”
From our modern utilitarian perspective, Judas’ protest seems perfectly reasonable (even though we know, from the text, that he wasn’t really concerned about the poor). Isn’t Mary’s extravagant display wasteful? Wouldn’t it be wiser to sell the perfume?
The passage challenges our pragmatic assumptions as Jesus responds by saying, “Leave her alone…It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
What are we to make of Jesus’ apparent resignation towards those living in poverty? Didn’t he care about those in need?
In order to understand this passage we need to remember that the one who said, “you will always have the poor among you” was himself poor. Jesus is the poor one. The Son of God did not care for the dispossessed from afar, but emptied himself and entered our world in poverty. His self-identification with the destitute is made clear in the parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus says,
In light of the resurrection, this passage radically inverts all of our pious expectations for what it means to see the face of God. For Christianity offers us an image of the divine, but one visible only in the face of a crucified peasant, and thereby in the face of every neighbor who demands our love. The great scandal of the gospel is that Jesus is most truly known as the God he is, when he dwells among the poor, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, and the powerless.
So why would God choose to reveal himself among the poor? What are we to learn from those in need?
I think the beauty of God reveals itself among the destitute because, for all they lack, they are often unhindered by the illusions of autonomy that money and power afford. The poor understand that they are contingent. They do not have the luxury of flirting with thoughts of self-sufficiency. They are conscious of their finitude. And this is something that our culture, which values success, happiness, and independence, above all else, desperately needs to learn. For no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that we are “self-made” men/women, ultimately, we must admit that our life is a gift. In the end, we must confess with Martin Luther (and Thrice) that:
“We are beggars all.”