Charles Ringma, a Companion in Community from Brisbane, shares an article he wrote for a Tearfund conference in Queensland in May 2013.
G o d ‘ s H e a r t f o r t h e P o o r
It is possible to conclude this lecture in one sentence: God has a heart for the poor and so must we. But a little more is required of us if we wish to unpack this simple assertion. 1] First of all, we need to ask: how do we understand this God? 2] Secondly, we need to ask: if God (who is all powerful) is for the poor, why does so much injustice and poverty continue in our world? 3] Thirdly, we need to ask: how do we get a look into someone’s heart? And particularly, into God’s heart? 4] Fourthly, we need to entertain the difficult question: how has God chosen to act in the world? 5] And finally, we need to recognize that ‘the poor’ in scripture is not a simply category. So who are we talking about? And for whom is God’s heart?
So how many days do we have together to tackle some of these pressing questions? O Yes. One hour.
So here then is format. I will briefly touch on the God-related issues first. Then by way of a terse summary I will show from the church’s praxis that Christians have had a heart for the poor. And finally, we will once again listen, I trust with attentive hearts and minds, to what the biblical story has to say about serving the poor. It is important that you realize that I am talking only within the Christian tradition. People of other faiths and of no faith may also have a heart for the poor.
God has traditionally been understood in the language of distance and power (omnipotence, immutability, infinity) and in the language of intimacy (merciful Father, the loving God, the God of grace). Furthermore, God has been understood as:
- Prime Mover: God creates the world, sets in motion the ‘laws’ of nature, and then leaves things to us. Thus it is our world and it is our goodness and our mess.
- God as power of the future: God moves all things towards their final fulfillment with or without human agency.
- God as immanent presence: God is synonymous (identical) with all the movements in the world towards a general good.
- God as soul Saviour: God’s concern is the inner rehabilitation of the person as preparation for the after-life.
- God as mysterious Spirit: all creative activity is a mysterious sign of spirit.
- God as personal transcendent and immanent being: God has linked his sovereignty to human responsibility. Thus the power of God is linked to human obedience.
- God as Providential ‘Administrator’ of the world: God as sustainer of all things who moves and shapes all things according to his purpose. In the words of G.C.Berkouwer: God’s ‘guidance and purposeful management has today become a profound problem’ (p.11). And S.Grenz: ‘God no longer appears to be governing the corporate affairs of humankind’ (p.119).
- God as revealed in Christ in the power of the Spirit: God as Father, Son and Spirit intimately involved with each other in the work of creation, redemption, and restoration. We are called to embrace this work of God in our lives and then live this out in relation to others.
[G.C.Berkhouwer, The Providence of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961; S.J.Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000; S. McFague, Models of God, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987]
While we may discard some of the above models of God, clearly the last one is most relevant for our reflection today. What this means is that God is neither some vague force in human affairs nor a God who nicely orchestrates all things despite what we do or not do. Rather, God is most clearly seen in Christ (‘The Father and I are one’ John 10:30; ‘for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise’ John 5:19); ‘He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God’ Colossians 1:15; ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ John 14:9) – and therefore Christ becomes the model for God’s way in human affairs and for our being and acting in the world.
This means that God is in the world in the way Christ was in the world and continues in the world by the Holy Spirit. We are called to live in Christ and to live the way of Christ in the power of the Spirit. This is to live in the love of God and love of neighbour. This is to live as witnesses and servants of the Kingdom of God. And this life in Christ-conformity is a life that forgives, heals, builds community, serves the poor, resists the political and religious powers of the day, and embraces suffering in order that new life might come. We are thus in the world not with a powerful God who magically fixes everything but with a God who has chosen that we repeat the paschal mystery of Christ: that of death and resurrection. This means that we are in the world not with positional power but with moral power. It means that we don’t have power over, but power for others (hence advocacy and being a voice of the voiceless) and power with others (power in the Spirit and with others in solidarity, community and grass roots ecumenism). The key concept here is – ‘As you [Father] have sent me into the world, so I [Jesus] them into the world’ John 17:18.
Thus we need to think about whether our ‘image’ of God is a Mr Fix-it, or a Father Christmas, or an Absent Landlord, or a Vague Spiritual Presence, or an Orchestrating Power, or a God who is most clearly seen in the face of Christ. Our image of God has implications for the way in which we act in the world.
KNOWING SOMEONE’S HEART
It is not easy to know what is in our own heart. It is certainly not easy to know what is in someone else’s. And we need to be careful in our claim to know the heart of God. God has made himself known in revelation but is also shrouded in mystery (‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us…Deuteronomy 29:29). And much of the cry throughout the biblical story is ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ Psalm 13:1. So what then can we know of God’s heart, particularly for the poor –
- In the light of who God is and what God does: ‘He [God] raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes’ Psalm 113:7. ‘The Lord maintains the cause of the needy and executes justice for the poor’ Psalm 140:12.
- In the light of what God commands us to do: ‘You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great’ Leviticus 19:15. ‘You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and alien: I am the Lord your God’ Leviticus 19:10. Thus provision is to be given to the poor. But, as we shall see, the poor must also be empowered.
- We know something of the heart of God for the poor in that serving the poor reflects something of our relationship with God: ‘Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord’ Proverbs 19:17. ‘If I have withheld anything that the poor desired…[then] I should have been false to the God above’ Job 31:16,28. Simply put, our love for God has to go through the lens of our love for the poor.
HOW DO WE GET SUCH A HEART?
This is but a very small window into God’s heart. There is more to come a little later. But is appropriate at this point to ask: how do we get such a heart? This is particularly so because God asks us to have a heart for the poor like God has a heart. Isaiah in speaking about God exclaims: ‘You have been a refuge to the poor’ (25:4) but then through the prophetic word challenges us: ‘bring the homeless poor into your house’ (58:7). And you to have a big heart to do this! Here then are some pointers –
- One needs to be deeply impacted by the call of the gospel to do this: ‘But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you’ Luke 14:13-14. Thus we see the poor in the light of the gospel.
- One may need, like St. Francis or Mother Teresa, to hear a special call to do this. Thus we see the poor through a special call of God upon our lives.
- One may need to be moved by seeing the plight of the poor. My first conversion was to follow Christ. My second conversion was to begin to gain a heart for the poor when working amongst indigenous Australians in W.A. Thus being with the poor challenges us.
- One may experience some form of personal deprivation, loss, alienation that draws one into gaining a heart for the poor. Thus we see the poor through our own struggles.
- One may grow into a recognition that being a Christian means caring for the poor. Paul in explaining his mission to the Gentiles says that the Jerusalem apostles: ‘asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do’ Galatians 2:10. And in the words of D. G. Groody: ‘no one can choose to ignore a commitment to the poor and still claim to be Christian’ (p.193). Thus our spirituality involves serving the poor. If we have a heart for God, we must have a heart for the poor.
[D. G. Groody, Globalization, Spirituality and Justice, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2007, Ninth Printing 2012]
CHRISTIAN ADMONITION AND SERVICE TO THE POOR
It is not hard to demonstrate that Christians in their long 2000 year history have had a heart for the poor. But this has fluctuated. At times service to the poor was exemplary. The early African church father, Tertullian (c.160-c.220): ‘Our care for the derelict and our active love have become a distinctive sign before’ others. This love included bringing up the children of prostitutes and gladiators and exposed infants dumped on the rubbish tips of cities in the Roman Empire. This was later confirmed by the enemy of the church, Julian the Apostate (332-363) who exclaimed: ‘These godless Galileans feed not only their own poor, but ours [as well]; our poor lack care.’1)
But at other times the light of service to the poor flickered dimly. The church historian, Carter Lindberg notes that in the Late Middle Ages ‘The distribution of alms was not primarily concerned with the improvement of the social and economic situation of the poor, but with the salvation of the donor.’2) But there is so much that is positive and exemplary.
- St. Clement (c.150-c.215): ‘Put an end to your wickedness; learn to do good, seek out justice, deliver the one who is wronged; give judgment on behalf of the orphan, and grant justice to the widow.’
- St. Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662): ‘We shall be judged for the evil we have done, but especially for the good we have neglected and for the fact that we have not loved the neighbour.’ And ‘the one who imitates God by giving alms knows no difference between …[the] just and [the] unjust.’
- Richard Rolle (c.1295-1349): ‘Two cloaks or one will seem enough to you; if you have five or six give some to Christ who wanders naked in His wretched rags.’
- St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380): ‘no virtue…can have life in itself except through charity and humility.’ 3)
And there is much more:
- St. John Chrysostom (c.347-407): ‘no one ought to have more than another – neither the rich more than the poor.’4)
- 3rd Century ‘Constitutions of the Holy Apostles’: ‘The Lord says, “Give to everyone that asks of you.” It is evident that it is meant of everyone that is really in want, whether friend or foe, whether kinsman or stranger.’5)
- St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) in the ‘Earlier Rule’: ‘alms are a legacy and a just right due to the poor, which our Lord acquired for us.’ 6)
- Anabaptist Leaders: Balthasar Hubmaier (1485-1528): ‘I have always said that everyone should be concerned about the needs of others, so that the hungry might be fed, the thirsty given drink, and the naked clothed. For we are not the lords of our possessions, but stewards and distributors.’ 7) And Peter Walpot (1521-1578): ‘For the same way that we act towards our neighbours and the members of Christ, that is how we will be deemed by the Lord.’ 8)
- Martin Luther (1483-1546): ‘Now there is no greater service of God than Christian love which helps and serves the needy.’9)
[1. Charles Ringma, ‘Liberation Theologians Speak to Evangelicals: A Theology and Praxis of Serving the Poor,’ in L.Wanak (ed.) The Church and Poverty in Asia (Manila: OMF. Lit., 2008) p.20-21; 2. C.Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p.69; 3. The above quotes from Charles Ringma, Hear the Ancient Wisdom (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013); 4. P.Schaff (ed.) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol.10 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994) p.134; 5. A.Roberts & J.Donaldson (eds.) The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.VII (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1975) p.427; 6. R.J.Armstrong & I.C.Brady (transl.) Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982) p.117; 7. W.R.Shenk (ed.) Anabaptism and Mission (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1984) p.34-35; 8. D. Liechty (ed.) Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1994) p.154; 9. Quoted in C.Lindberg, Beyond Charity, p.164]
And the voices of service to the poor have continued to ring out right up to the present, whether those voices have been evangelical ( ‘we…should share his [God’s] concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society’) 1]; ecumenical (‘a proclamation that does not hold forth the promises of the justice of the Kingdom to the poor of the earth is a caricature of the Gospel’) 2); Roman Catholic (‘the Church is called to be on the side of the poor’) 3) and the Liberation theologians: (‘calls the Church to “evangelical poverty” by being in solidarity with the poor … and working to change “unjust social, political and economic structures”’) 4)
[ 1. In Ringma ‘Liberation Theologians Speak to Evangelicals’ p.29; 2. Ringma, p.31; 3. Ringma, p.35; 4. Ringma, p. 34].
And the praxis of the church, while it has varied in that the church has at times been too inward or paternalistic, shines with challenging examples of service to the poor:
- Aidan (died 651) ‘whenever a rich man gave him some precious object as a token of appreciation, he either handed it to the poor, or used it to buy slaves their freedom.’1)
- The Monastic Communities of St. Basil (329-379) provided work in agriculture and craft, founded orphanages, hospitals and workshops for the poor and hospitality for travelers. His core concept was: ‘love of God demands love of neighbour and through love of neighbour we come to the love of God.’2)
- William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and his long campaign for the abolition of slavery. ‘He saw things that existed in God’s reality [in the heart of God]…that all men and women are created equal by God…and are therefore sacred.’ And thus worked tirelessly to make that a human reality.3)
And we can go and speak about Martin Luther King, Jnr., Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Jean Vanier and many other contemporary examples of individuals and Christian movements that serve the poor.
If we may take the liberty to draw several broad conclusions from the above we note the following:
- The Church has long understood that service to the poor is not simply the task of some outstanding person such as St. Francis. It is a calling of the whole people of God.
- The Church has also understood that almsgiving (charity) is only the first move. The second move is to build sustainable realities for the poor. The third move is to peacefully change our social institutions that primarily favour the rich. And the final move is to expose the fallen powers, both spiritual and social, that mar our world and prevent shalom and human flourishing for all.
- The Church has also understood that serving the poor is a way of following Christ into the world and thus our love of God and love of the poor are linked.
[1. Quoted in R. van de Weyer, Bede: Celtic and Roman Christianity (Berkhamsted: Arthur James, 1997) p.39; 2. F. Ciardi, Koinonia: Spirituality and Theology of the Growth of Religious Community (Quezon City: Claretian, 1999) p.94; 3. E. Mataxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007) p.xvi]
LISTENING AGAIN TO THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE
We have already intimated that the term ‘poor’ in scripture is multi-faceted. It can mean those who recognize their need of God and cry out to him (Psalm 40:17). But more often it means the poor as a result of dispossession, of being powerless, of being in need of shelter or food or being needy in the very broad sense of that term (ISBE article ‘poor’). To put that in simplistic terms, scripture recognizes the ‘poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3) and the economical poor (Luke 6:20).
The biblical narrative is not naïve about reality of poverty. Here are some key emphases:
- Poverty can be self-inflicted (Proverbs 10:4; 20:13; 21:17; 23:21).
- Poverty is caused by others through oppression (Proverbs 22:16; 28:3; 30:14).
- The poor are shunned and left friendless (Proverbs 14:20; 19:4).
- The poor are left vulnerable and have to cry for help (Proverbs 18:23).
- The poor may have to be unethical and steal (Proverbs 30:9).
- It is better to be poor than to be rich through falsehood (Proverbs 28:6; 19:1; 19:22).
- All those who serve the poor are blessed (Proverbs 22:9; 28:27; 29:14).
- Serving the poor reflects our godliness (Proverbs 14:31; 19:17; 22:22-23).
- Our task is not only to serve the poor but to advocate for them (Proverbs 31:9).
Everywhere in scripture is the notion that God has a heart for the poor
- ‘The Lord is their [the poor’s] refuge.’ (Psalm 14:6).
- ‘You deliver the weak [poor] from those too strong for them.’ (Psalm 35:10).
- ‘With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’ (Isaiah 11:4).
- And in Christ this God with a heart for the poor has come to us as a poor man, identifying with the poor, empowering and healing them, and showing that the Kingdom belongs to them. Jesus comes to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) and the outworking of this good news is that ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them’ (Luke 7:22).
- The heartbeat of God’s way is that Jesus ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ becoming ‘obedient to the point of death’ and is raised by God’s glory (Philippians 2:1-11). This is made even more clear: ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). God’s way, and therefore our way in the world, is not through our supposed power but through the vulnerability of servanthood, identification and friendship. A key way in serving the poor is to be there with them in solidarity and not only to give them gifts.
SOME REFLECTIVE CONCLUSIONS
- God’s salvation in Christ is for all (Titus 2:11). But we all need to repent from our sins. The rich need to repent of the power of their riches and the poor need to repent of their despair. And all of us need to repent of our selfishness and self-preoccupation. Thus we all need the grace of Christ and all we need to share a community of commonality in Christ (Acts 2: 43-47).
- God’s heart for the poor is such that God became poor in Christ. And God’s way in the world is not through coercive power but through the Spirit’s life-giving power for us to become Christlike and to live in the way of Christ. That means by way of down-ward mobility, identification and service to the poor.
- God’s heart for the poor can only become our heart through purgative processes. Thus we need a conversion from the idea of ‘Christ just for me’ to the Christ as ‘the one for others’.
- In order to live like this we need to live against the powers of our age. In order to do this we need not only a counter-cultural spirituality but we need a counter-community to sustain us on the road to a long obedience.
- Service to the poor is not premised on only doing some good. It is more than giving a tithe or a gift. It is a way a life. It is a way of being godly.
- And a final thought: in serving the poor we are to serve all persons. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389): ‘the rich person [and] the need of the poor; the person who has not stumbled [and] the one who lies fallen and crushed’ (Oration 14, On love for the Poor). For all who receive the love of God, will hear the call to love all, including the needy. Thus conversion leads the poor towards upliftment and the rich towards down-ward mobility and generosity.