Helping the Poor Isn’t Biblical. . .But Serving Them Is!

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I spent five years of my ministry among the poor.  The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter.  The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country.  It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty.  And it isn’t their fault.  Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level.  Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts.  Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people.  We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.

We are taught that those with money  are perfect in every way.  Those without money are flawed.  The “have’s” are godly.  The “have-nots” are worthless.  The rich are smart.  The poor are dumb.  The wealthy work really hard.  The poor are lazy.  Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.

As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things.  One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!

In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance.  We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words.  Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.”  We have interpreted that as “help the poor.”  Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied.  But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.

The word “help” implies I am the rescuer.  It means I am here to save you.  The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together.  I am the knight on the white steed.  You are the damsel in distress.  I am worthwhile and you are worthless.  Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.

With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor.  Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong.  The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that.  What if they spend the money on drugs?  What if they waste your gift?  You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you?  We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that.  What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you?  Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of.  It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything!  So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’  Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”

Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical.  But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!

The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that.  It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive.  So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive.   I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough!  So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.

That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical.  In Scripture the fit do not survive.  They perish.  The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive.  The crucified criminals are saved.  The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive.  The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace.  Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.

We do not help the poor.  But we do serve them.  We do wash their feet.  We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).

And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.

So what’s the difference between helping and serving?  Let me give a few examples:

Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”

Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”

Helping lectures.

Serving listens.

Helping gives money to a local service organization.

Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.

Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.

Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.

Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.

Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.

Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.

Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.

And finally,

Helping doesn’t care about their name.

Serving learns their name.

In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:

I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.”  Actually it’s not about either.  A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something.  A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place.  Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out.  If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you.  Forget the handout or the hand up.  Just reach a hand across.  Let’s be equals and partners.  I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me.  My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”

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Holy Wednesday Reflection: Dead Fig Trees

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Today is Holy Wednesday.  Wikipedia also calls it “Spy Wednesday,” having something to do with Judas agreeing to betray Jesus.  Another blog I read calls it “Holy and Great Wednesday,” reminding me that today the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the poor women who anointed Jesus with her tears.

Yet the rest of my Facebook feed and Twitter account are talking about another “holy” day, namely April Fool’s Day, a ridiculous day I try to ignore.  In it pranks are played for the sake of St. Fool’s or something like.  Maybe it is one of those national holidays where we remember those who have died defending our country, or maybe this is an ironic “Child Appreciation Day.”

But all week I have been wanting to write or talk about the one prank Jesus played in Mark.  It was on a poor, unsuspecting fig tree that was just starting to bloom.  Today seems as fitting as any to discuss it.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, on Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and people got all excited.  Then Jesus looked around and went back out to Bethany.  The next day he walked into Jerusalem and the text tells us he was hungry.  He saw a fig tree in the distance and it was blooming like crazy so he ran over to see if there were some figs to eat.  There weren’t any because fruit comes in the Summer and Passover is in Spring.  So Jesus got angry and cursed it.

The next day, Tuesday morning, Jesus was again walking into Jerusalem and his disciples noticed the tree was dead.  Jesus used the opportunity to lecture them about the power of faith and prayer or something like that.

The fig tree doesn’t come up again until Mark 13:28.  Jesus is in the middle of a long discourse about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  He tells them to remember the lesson of the fig tree, that when it blooms it signals the nearness of summer.  Yet when that tree bloomed it signaled its imminent destruction.

So many scholars hold quite firmly that the fig tree is a living metaphor for the city of Jerusalem.  Its destruction is an early warning sign of Jerusalem’s fate.

The fig tree calls to mind Micah 7:1-2 where the prophet teaches that Jerusalem is like a fig tree with tons of leaves but no fruit.  One scholar even suggested the “leaves” calls to mind Palm Sunday.  The people came out and waved their branches for Jesus, but no fruitfulness came about because of it.

This is all further solidified by the fact that the temple curtain was torn in two when Jesus died, a sign that Jerusalem was no longer the center of worship but that God’s spirit was being blown to all parts of the world.

Killing fig trees and destroying cities and ripping temple curtains is very dark stuff, especially on a bright and sunny day usually devoted to harmless pranks.  Yet it is important in Holy Week to remember that the teachings of Jesus in Jerusalem were dark. Jesus spends much time talking about how horrific the imminent destruction of Jerusalem would be.  He calls it the “desolating sacrilege” and describes brother betraying brother to death.  And indeed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans only 40 years later was as horrific as Jesus described.

But the destruction of the temple in 69AD by the Romans did not hold back the presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit had all ready gone out from that place into the known world.

So it came about that the death of the fig tree that would not bear fruit caused much fruitfulness the world over.

As we draw nearer to the cross, to the great destruction of Jesus’ body, which itself is a temple, as we join in the suffering, the humiliation, the complete vulnerability of our God, may we know that Easter morning is about to triumph over the darkness and destruction and blow us to all parts of the world to bear much fruit.

See you all tomorrow for Maundy Thursday.

The Stuff Jesus Never Always Did

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I read a lot of pastoral leadership resources, also known as pastor self-help books.  I fly through at least 20 a year and they cover the bases on how to be a better counselor, preacher, administrator, leader, follower, mentor, mentee, disciple maker, disciple becomer and spiritual guide.

Many of them come from the same stock.  A pastor somewhere in America discovered some principle or practice that really changed his or her church for the better.  They started sharing it with others and eventually a publisher asked them to write a book about it.  So they went to write a book and felt obligated as a preacher to make it sound like the idea came straight from Jesus.  Though, when you dig deeper than their shallow arguments, you find the idea actually came from a conversation or through a prayer meeting or from another book.  After having the idea, the pastor went to the gospels to find out if Jesus practiced this principle and found a case where Jesus may have done it.  Then they concluded, “Jesus ALWAYS Does this.”

The first chapters of these books describe these things that Jesus always did and ask the question, “Don’t you want to always be like Jesus?”

One book about pastoral counseling concluded that Jesus always asked questions.  .  .except for the fact that there are plenty of conversations recorded in the gospels when Jesus asks zero questions.

One book about “self care” said Jesus always fought off temptation by quoting Scripture.  Except we only have three examples of ways in which Jesus was tested.  That is hardly a trend.

One book about spiritual disciplines argued Jesus always made people feel warm and cozy around him and never insulted anybody.  .  .except in Luke 6:24-26 and the other passages like it.

One book about board meetings said Jesus was super patient with everybody and never lost his temper.  .  .except that one time in all 4 gospels when he beat people out of the temple with a whip.

One book about social justice concludes Jesus was always eating with poor people.  .  .except that one time he crashed Zaccheus the rich tax collector’s house.

The Children’s Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with little kids, except the “let the children come to me” incident only happened once.

The Youth Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with teenagers.  .  .except for the fact that to be a tax collector, which a few of the disciples were, you had to be a bit older than a teenager.

The anti-church growth books say Jesus always had 12 disciples so we shouldn’t have mega-churches.  Except the disciples are numbered at different times as 12, 72 and 120 and never once did Jesus command his 12 to only have 12.

And speaking about those megachurches, people were always leaving Jesus so if you preach the Jesus-truth people should always be running away from you.  .  .except for the fact large crowds were always following Jesus too.  It was kind of a wash as far as the numbers went.

They all say that Jesus always led by example.  .  .except that one time he told his disciples to bring a sword and then yelled at Peter for using said sword.

If you read all four gospels, you will find the only thing Jesus always did was breath.  .  .except there were 3 days that he wasn’t even doing that.

Instead what the gospels give us are incomplete accounts of the things Jesus sometimes did and sometimes taught.  And those things changed from context to context.

The problem seems to be that in a church still desperately struggling to rid itself of the CEO Ministry Model, we still think Jesus can be boiled down to a formula of leadership self helps for the 21st century.

But when I read the Gospels I find a Jesus who is so much greater than a formula, even if that formula “always works every time.”  When the Sadducees come at him, he answers their questions with questions but when Nicodemus the Pharisee comes at night, Jesus issues proclamations about new birth before Nicodemus even asks the question.

To some crowds, Jesus spoke in parables.  Other times he adopts the formula, “You have heard.  .  .but I say” and when it is just his 12 disciples listening in, he utters mysteries about the Spirit.

Sometimes He says, “come follow me.”  Other times He flees to the desert before anybody can, though they did try.

One time He said, “let the children come.”  Another time He waited before going to a child so that he could heal an elderly woman.

All of this would make it seem that in the full person of Jesus we do not have the confines of 21st century leadership practices.  Instead we have a full and free personality whose life and teachings could not be adequately summarized even in 4 books (see John 20:30-31).

This should give us great freedom to adapt to our changing culture without having to proof text every principle and practice through the gospels.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always asked questions,” we should note that psychiatrists conclude in our time and place successful therapists ask good questions.

Instead of saying, “Jesus only had 12” we should note that currently several pastors report that having more than 15 people make discipleship groups unmanageable.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always hung out with one age group” we should note that in the right context children and youth can provide wonderful gifts and insights.

And instead of boiling down Jesus to 21st century leadership principles and practices, we should recognize that we worship and follow an eternal Savior who invites people from all contexts and all times into a loving relationship with the Triune God.

Sometimes that means listening to children.  Sometimes it means befriending those poorer than you.  Other times it means hanging out with tax collectors.  Sometimes we tell stories and sometimes we utter mysteries and sometimes we ask questions.  But at all times we pick up our crosses and follow.