Sassy Friday – Poor Language

I recently heard a pastor announcing a church’s outreach project to a local impoverished neighborhood.  He invited parishioners to come spread love to “those that are far from God.”  He talked about the various projects that would be completed during the outreach and then moved on to the next announcement.

But I didn’t hear the next announcement, because I could feel the heat rushing to my face.  This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a pastor or church leader talk about the poor as being “far from God” or “nonbelievers” or “outside of the family.”

Suburban church, let’s get something clear; just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they don’t know Jesus. 

Think about that for a minute.

Do you often think that your local urban mission projects are an outreach to spread the message of Jesus to those who need to hear it?  While your service may be a physical demonstration of the love of our Savior, the recipient of the service may already know Jesus.  The recipient of the service may have known Jesus longer than you, or more deeply than you, or more truly than you.

Physical poverty doesn’t imply spiritual poverty just as physical wealth doesn’t imply spiritual wealth.

And yet somehow, from our privileged pews, we have constructed a notion that our volunteerism to the poor is for their physical, financial, and spiritual benefit.  Are we open to just serving someone for their physical and financial benefit?  Or would our service be less serve-y if the recipients already had Jesus? Is it even worth our service to help someone physically if they already “have Jesus”?

Are we willing to accept that the poor, the disenfranchised  the marginalized, and the down and out might be even closer to God than we are?

Think about it: In Matthew 5, that famous sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”  I’ve met a lot of poor folks, both in the United States and in third world countries, who are closer to God than I am.  I’ve heard many Americans return from mission trips to say, “The people in [insert whatever city they just visited] were just so happy.  They were content with their lives, they helped their neighbors, they had a joyous faith…”  Many poor people have great spiritual wealth.

Theirs is the Kingdom.  Very truthfully, my wealth may very well be keeping me from fully participating in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24)

So who are we to make judgement calls about the condition of another’s soul?   We may have more physically, but they may have more spiritually.  We won’t know the state of someone’s spiritual life unless we get to know them deeply.

The reason we get this all turned around in our heads is based in stereotypes, pride, bad theology, and a series of other spiritual ills.  But the deeper reason that our thinking hasn’t been corrected, is our lack of knowledge.  We would know the spiritual condition of a neighbor if we simply got to know her.  It’s hard to meet our neighbors if we never leave the doors of our homes and churches and own communities.  And even if we do leave our doors and go into the community, we won’t get to know our neighbors by picking up their trash or painting their walls, we’ll get to know them by spending time with them regularly and intentionally.

The reason we get this all turned around in our heads is that many of our community service projects aren’t relationship-building projects.  We would know about the spiritual condition of our neighbor if we talked to him on a regular basis.  We would probably learn a lot.  We would probably throw out the notion that we were serving him and we would learn that we were serving each other.

I think the real reason pastors, church leaders, and church attendees assume we are serving those “far from God” when we serve the poor, is that we feel superior, more put together, and more in the know.  We don’t admit that, and we might not even know that we believe that, but most of us do.  From our higher position, we come to serve and bring Jesus to those lower than us.  We have something to offer them.

One of my favorite authors, Bob Lupton, puts it this way, in his amazing book, Theirs is the Kingdom:

“When my goal is to change people (and I would like to add serve people), I subtly communicate: Something is wrong with you; I am okay. You are ignorant; I am enlightened.  You are wrong; I am right.  If our relationship is defined as healer to patient, I must remain strong and you must remain sick for our interaction to continue.  People don’t go to doctors when they are well.

The process of “curing” then, cannot serve long as the basis for a relationship that is life producing for both parties   Small wonder that we who have come to the city to “save” the poor find it difficult to enter into true community with those we think needy.”

 What do you think?  Does this agree with you, disagree with you?  Talk to me.

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6 thoughts on “Sassy Friday – Poor Language

  1. So true, Allison. Our nephew organized a trip to New Jersey to help clean up and repair right after Sandy. They were also planning to witness heavily. While I understood what and why they were doing it, I couldn’t help but think they needed physical ministering more than spiritual, get to know them first, then begin to share. First credibility then sharing. Sometimes silent witnessing first goes a long way!

    1. Thanks for wagering in, Carol. It seems that a lot of times Christians feel that they need to “witness” to justify serving those who need help. Where the big rub is for me is in assuming that the poor or out of luck that we’re going to serve don’t know Jesus. We don’t know because we don’t know them. If while we’re serving we get to know someone and find that they don’t k ow Jesus we can share away.

  2. I never really thought of it this way before. Whenever my church decides to do some local missions, we often go to the poorest communities. There are a lot of opportunities to serve there, but I agree with you – it’s not like they are all hell-bound heathens needing to hear the Gospel. Sometimes it may feel like a bait-and-switch, though. Yes, we will paint your house and pick up trash, but only if you let us preach to you for a while first.

    1. I’m all for going into the poorest communities. Scripture commands us to care for the poor. It’s just the mentality in which we serve and the mindset that we bring that can be troublesome. Let’s get to know an individual and a community before we determine if they need to know about Jesus. Scratch that, we all need to know about Jesus, let’s not think we have more to share about him because we have more. Bait and switches are the worst!

  3. In the Old Testament, in God’s covenant through Moses, God promised to bless Israel with a fruitful land if they obeyed Him. Christians read this and think it works the same for us; our prosperity shows our godliness. But you note that Jesus’ first blessing in Mt. 5 is for “the poor in Spirit.” Usually this is translated as “the poor in spirit” and interpreted as meaning “humble” and aware of one’s spiritual poverty and need for God. But I think it is best translated “the poor in the Spirit;” there is a Greek article (the word for “the”) before Spirit. And in Lk. 6:20 is the similar blessing: blessed are the poor (where, as in Mt. 5, Jesus is focusing on disciples); Lk. 6:24 also has “but woe to you that are rich.”
    So when we read a parable later in Matthew, like 25:31f., about the sheep and goats, we wealthy Christians identify with those who (should) help the hungry, thirsty, strangers, and imprisoned. Jesus, however, after being anointed with the Spirit from heaven (and thus confirmed as the new king of the kingdom of and from heaven) at his baptism (where John said the new king would baptize people with the Spirit), was led (by the Spirit) to suffer hunger in the desert, and to be tested by the evil spirit. After that he begins to call disciples to leave prosperous fishing businesses and follow him, a poor “Messiah.” When Jesus sends his disciples (his budding kingdom) out on mission, he tells them to depend on the hospitality of others (to feed and house them), but warns that they will be persecuted and sometimes treated harshly. So who would they identify with in Mt. 25?

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