This post originally appeared on my blog, Koinonia Revolution.
I was reading a really interesting and really disappointing article about poverty and our perception of it yesterday. It does not say anything I did not already know, but it did get me thinking about something when I read this:
Prejudice against the poor increases during hard economic times, said John Dovidio, a Yale University psychology professor.
“Our society is based on the idea that if you work hard, you get more, and if you have less, you deserve less,” Dovidio said.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the case, and you can just turn on one of the major news stations or a political talk show to see it. I personally see it even among members of my own family, which is funny because my family is not very prosperous to begin with. Our society has the assumption that everything is the result of an individual’s actions, which seems to be product of our emphasis on individualism to me. If you are poor, it is because you are lazy, not because you might be mentally ill, handicapped, born into poverty, or unemployed. And if you are rich, it is because you are a “job creator” who works hard. It literally saturates American culture and media.
Before I go on, I do want to state that this assumption has been proven wrong by sociological studies, which have shown that most in poverty have full-time jobs, but are just not paid enough to actually live life. I first learned this while taking a sociology class, and it shocked me when I first read about it. Of course, I should not have been surprised, since I know people who have very little even though they work very hard.
Returning back to this cultural assumption about poverty, it is amazing how common it is, and how well-accepted it is. It even often influences our government’s economic and tax policies. We are taught that the rich are the good guys who have worked hard, continue to work hard, and deserve more, and we are taught that the poor are bad guys, who refuse to work hard, and deserve less. I would say that it is an interesting cultural phenomenon if it was not so sad and distorted.
As someone who loves to study liberation theology and the Social Gospel, and as an ecumenical Franciscan, I got to wondering about our culture’s assumption about rich and poor and Jesus’ assumptions about rich and poor. I have spent a lot of time on these subjects before, but seeing this article really made me want to think it through again.
When it comes to the teachings of Jesus in concern of assumptions of rich and poor in our class society, I think the logical place to begin is the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. These two collections of sayings attributed to Jesus are perhaps some of the most thorough and widely known. They are absolutely fundamental to many people’s understanding of Jesus.
In the Gospel of Luke, which is where the Sermon on the Plain appears, Jesus says:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)
This passage is directly comparable to Matthew 5:3-5, but Matthew gives it a bit of a spiritual tone by saying “poor in spirit” instead of just poor like Luke does. Despite this difference, the same essential message appears. Those who are seen as “poor” are given favor by God, whether this is material, spiritual, or symbolic poverty. The least of society are in God’s Kingdom blessed, which is the opposite of how the world usually functions. Jesus then contrasts this statement by saying:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24-25)
Unlike the Gospel of Luke, Matthew does not include this second clause, but still, we see the same general message, those who are hated and despised by the world are given God’s blessing. We assume the opposite. We assume that the poor are cursed and the rich blessed, but the Sermon on the Plain, and the Sermon on the Mount, reflect the opposite. I am reminded of a few other passages from the gospels that also reflect this. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says:
So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45; cf. Matthew 20:20-28, Luke 22:24-30)
Once again, Jesus appears to take our assumptions about class, and flipped them upside down. For Jesus, to be a leader, to be honored and respected, you must be a slave or servant of others. Jesus takes the conventional understanding, the American Dream, that we should work hard and become rich and powerful, and he completely rejects it. For Jesus, the poor, the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46), and the servants are the truly blessed, but not the rich. In fact, Jesus had some really harsh words for the rich. In one story that appears in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-31; Matt. 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30), Jesus is asked by rich man about how to enter the Kingdom, and the man gets an answer he does not like. He is told by Jesus that he must sell what he owns, and “give [the money] to the poor, and [he] will have treasure in heaven.” It is in this story that Jesus makes his famous statement that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for the rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.
Since Jesus’ time, a lot has changed. We are no longer a slave-based society, but are instead a society based upon the wage system and capitalism. And since Jesus’ time, technology has greatly developed, and as a result, the plight of the poor and the luxury of the rich have greatly transformed. However, I do think that Jesus teachings here are still very relevant. Since Jesus’ time, warfare has changed drastically, and the empires have become more republican in their appearance, but Jesus’ nonviolent and anti-imperial tones are still most relevant for a Christian today.
As Christians, we should not embrace the popular notion that the rich are blessed and deserve praise, and that the poor are just lazy and subhuman. Rather, Jesus calls us to seek solidarity with the poor and the least of these. I am reminded of what Indian theologian T. V. Philip said:
The coming of the kingdom of God creates a crisis in human society. It challenges our accepted political, economic and social order. . . .
This is the new thing about the kingdom of God. When the kingdom comes, the foundations of the old order will crumble. The mighty will be cast down and the lowly lifted up. Blessed are those who are poor, hungry and those who weep. They will all be satisfied. But, ‘Woe unto you that are rich, for you have received your consolation; woe unto you that are full now, you shall mourn and weep’. (“The Kingdom of God Belongs to the Poor”)
This is what the Kingdom looks like; this is what the Gospel in practice looks like. It is a message that does not conform to the socio-economic expectations of the world, but practices the counter-cultural implications of following the teachings of Jesus.
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