Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Poor Must We Be To Be "Blessed"?

I got this email from a friend:

I have become highly critical of the cultural and spiritual repurcussions of the dominant message of Christianity in America being defined by middle and upper class churches, magazine publishers, book publishers, radio station owners, and radio preachers. Modern translations of the Bible themselves have copyrights which presumably would help to pay the research costs, which must have long ago been paid for. The NIV publishers are simply making a profit now off of the word of God. This has led me to value poverty.. both fiscal and of spirit. But I wonder how to measure it. When am I poor enough? Jesus viewed fiscal poverty as a virtue. What is the qualitative measure of being poor-enough to be virtuous? Is it income? Possessions? Dependence? What factor does state-dependence play? I'm interested in fiscal answers, not psyche. We'll save poverty of spirit for another time.

My response:

I don't know that Jesus actually put a measure on poverty. Paul did, he said, "If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content." I Timothy 6:8, but Paul also didn't say that having more than this was necessarily wrong.

The concept of "poverty" is typically wrong, I think, if we try to apply a fiscal measure. A great economist, Amartya Sen, said that poverty has less to do with what one has, than the societal measure of what one has. For instance, a family may live very well in Africa without electricity, but to do so in the U.S. is to threaten your children to be taken away from you.

Jesus' measure of poverty seems to be two things: first of all, being an outcast for the sake of Jesus and for those who need love. In other words, this measure of poverty has to do with social acceptance rather than any economic measure. This is a matter of persecution, which always has to do with the meeting of one's needs, as social acceptance to a certain degree is part of having one's needs met, but isn't necessarily about how much money one has in the bank. I am reminded of Clarence Jordan who, because he had a community of mixed blacks and whites, was not allowed to shop in the local stores even though he had the money for it. He was certainly poor, even though by a fiscal measure he was not.

The second measure Jesus puts to poverty is the surrender of what one has to meet the needs of those around us. This is where there is a contrast between the rich and the poor in the NT. Not so much that the rich have wealth, but that they keep it for their own personal use. There were a number of well-accepted wealthy people in the church, but these wealthy people also used their homes, servants, finances, food, possessions for the sake of those who were needy, as well as for their family and friends and their own power. They used what resources they had for those who didn't have as much. Jesus talks of it as a "surrender" of one's possessions. So I can have a house in my name, which makes me wealthy, but I use that house to bring in homeless folks. I have a DVD collection, but I use it for my household and church. Thus, it is not strictly "poverty" we are seeking, but extreme generosity-- a lifestyle of charity.

What the disciples did-- simply walking away from their homes and their business resources-- was acceptable. It was still a surrender. But I think that Jesus' command to surrender to the needy is the greater command.

I hope this answers your question. Somewhat.

No comments: