Good News to the Poor

When it comes to the poor and poverty, from one perspective, there is a LOT of good news over the last few centuries. In 1820 the world population was just under 1.1 billion people. And just over a billion of them lived in extreme poverty. That’s incredible, isn’t is? In 1970 we had a population just over 3.5 billion and almost 2.25 billion were living in poverty. Still bad. But by 1990 there were fewer people in the world living in extreme poverty than people not living in extreme poverty. And today, with a population over 7 billion, only about 700 million people are living in extreme poverty.

While there is remarkable good news here, there are three things to consider. First, extreme poverty is currently defined as people living on less than $1.90 a day. So, while there’s less extreme poverty than ever before, there’s still huge numbers of people who are very poor in the world—living on 2 or 10 dollars a day or on 2 or 10 dollars an hour. And right here in the United States there are an estimated 40 million people living in poverty and millions more one missed paycheck or hospital stay away from financial ruin.

Second, this definition of extreme poverty only considers an individual’s purchasing power. It doesn’t consider access to education, social equality, healthcare, happiness, or even access to food, which are also important parts of human welfare.

Third, even though extreme poverty is down around the world, income inequality is up—way up—in the United States and in some other wealthier countries. In 2013, then President Barak Obama called income inequality the defining issue of our time.

So, falling levels of extreme global poverty brought about by industrialization, globalization, and consumerism are one way to think about good news to the poor. But the very same system that is helping to reduce extreme poverty is not concerned with a person’s or a country’s total welfare. It’s also increasing income inequality and putting more and more power in the hands of a super-rich, global elite.  And, we cannot forget, so far, it’s been terrible for the ecological health of the whole planet, which is bad for everyone and worst for the poor. But maybe there’s a more holistic way, a Pauline way, or a One-Body way of thinking of poverty, and what acceptable levels of poverty are, and how we should be addressing and defining poverty.

As I participated in the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign last year, as I went to protests in Albany or participated in events here in New York City, as I met the people who were getting involved in the campaign, poor people who were taking leadership to make change, I found myself reflecting a lot on what the reality of poverty means to me as a middle-class Christian pastor who does not now and who never has lived below the poverty line. And I found myself coming back again and again to Paul’s words about the one Body made up of many members:

If one member of the Body suffers, all suffer with that member. If one member is honored, that honor should benefit the whole body, not just the one member. It should be a reason for every member to rejoice, because it should bring benefit to all.

The way I’ve come to think of poverty is as an imbalance in the way that we as a Body invest our resources in all the parts of our body. For some people in our world and in our country, we do not invest our resources into them in a way that provides them with the maximum opportunity to succeed in our culture or to answer God’s call in their lives to develop themselves into the person that they are destined to become—a journey that requires support. We know for a fact that when a kid has food, and a house, and parents who aren’t working three jobs each to keep the family afloat, and a good education, and adequate healthcare that they are far more likely to discover what gives them joy in life and to be able to turn that joy into a mission that gives back to the whole world.

On the other hand, we have other people who have so, so much wealth and opportunity that it’s wasted on them. They have money and property and possessions and opportunities so vast that most of it is just in storage, not actively being developed or used. And when the world is there to satisfy your every desire, it can also be hard to figure out how to actually find the thing that brings you true joy. When you don’t have to produce anything, it can be hard to figure out how to give something back to the world.

For me, as a Christian, this is a moral issue. We have to find a way to balance out the body better than we have. We cannot have the feet saying, “Teach me how to walk, and run, and jump, and dance, but don’t teach those eyes how to see, or those ears how to hear! Don’t teach that head balance!” How could that work?

We can’t have hands that have grown so big that the arms they are attached too can’t lift them up. It won’t work. It doesn’t work for the hands, it causes the arms to suffer terribly, it’s detrimental to the mouth that wants food and the nose that needs scratching. We suffer from a myth of independence in our culture—an idea that we can make it on our own and we don’t need other people to succeed, that other people are competition to be beaten down, rather than friends to cooperate and coordinate with. And this attitude is weakening us, it weakens our whole body, and it impoverishes us all.

The story of Jesus teaching in Nazareth is a story that is recorded in three gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. But Luke’s telling, which I just read from, is special. The way Mark and Matthew tell it, Jesus is traveling and teaching all over Galilee and he does a whole lot of stuff—he calls the disciples, and he heals people of leprosy, paralysis, demons, and even death, he preaches in many places, and teaches in parables—all before he makes his way back to Nazareth, his hometown.

But Luke says, No, that’s not quite the way it happened. Luke jumps from Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness straight to Nazareth. So, according to Luke, teaching in Nazareth is the very first act of Jesus’ public ministry and it comes even before any mention of the disciples, before a single miracle, before one word about mustard seeds, or yeast, or sparrows—any of it.

Now, when one of our spiritual ancestors decides to tell a story differently than all the rest of the folks telling that story, that’s a sign that we ought to be paying special attention to what they’re trying to tell us. Because the way Mark and Matthew tell it, they just say Jesus was teaching and preaching in the synagogue. No biggie. He was just doing his usual thing. You get the drift. They don’t bother to record what he said to the hometown crowd.

But Luke tells the story differently. In Luke’s version, Jesus’ first words in public ministry come from the scroll of Isaiah. And his very first words are these: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

Our word “Christ” comes directly from the Greek “christos” meaning “the anointed one” which comes from the Greek verb for anointing which is “chrio.” So, a poetic way of translating Jesus’ first sentence in his entire ministry, so that we can hear what Luke’s Greek-speaking audience would have heard, would go something like this: “God has Christed me to bring good news to the poor.”

I mean, you can’t get much more plain in your meaning than that, can you? Luke is telling us, Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah) and this is what he’s here for—for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. These are his people and this is his mission.

Luke, in a way, had something in common with us. He was writing to a Gentile audience in the Roman Empire at a time when Christianity was not at all popular. In fact, Christianity was considered a threat to the social order and Christians were being persecuted. And there were lots of wild rumors floating around about who Jesus was and how Christians behaved. Sound familiar?

Back then they were accused of things like eating babies, being an incestuous cult, being atheists, and being lousy neighbors cursed by the gods and causing disaster to everyone around them. There was a real need, Luke felt, to set the record straight, and to be clear about what kind of a person Jesus was, what he lived and worked for, and the proper way to understand the priorities and behaviors of his followers—us.

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re also living in a time when Jesus is misunderstood and maligned. We live in a time when 85% of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. If you were writing a gospel for them to read, you might well feel it was important to start it off the way Luke has. Let’s get something straight right from the beginning! This whole Messiah thing, our religion’s major concern ought to be about good news to the poor and oppressed.

For Luke, this is Jesus’ coming out, his mission statement, the piece of scripture through which Luke wants us to interpret everything that will come after. Certainly, Jesus is going to have a lot to say, he’s going to do and say some mysterious, and enigmatic, and confusing things, he’s going to die and be resurrected, he’s going to be interpreted and reinterpreted, but here it is, says Luke, fulfilled in your hearing, preached in his boyhood synagogue, the sacred scripture that marks the very center of Jesus’ mission and helps us define its boundaries: Good news to the poor.

So, we can safely say, Beloved, (even though we’re patient liberals who always listen respectfully to others and value a diversity of opinions) that acting in a way that is bad news to the people most at the margins of our societies and economies is antithetical to being a follower of Jesus Christ. And at the very center of who we are as Christ followers there must be a concern over the issues in our time that are most marginalizing to us and our neighbors—systemic racism, poverty and economic inequality, ecological devastation, war and militarism.

As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a sermon at Riverside Church declaring his opposition to the war in Vietnam one year before his assassination, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values… When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Poor people, and the powers of this world that makes the poor suffer first and most—systemic racism, inequality, ecological devastation, war and militarism, the prison industrial complex, a border wall, a government shutdown, for-profit immigration detention, healthcare inequality, and the list goes on—these people and these issues are the central focus of Jesus’ ministry, says Luke, they are why he is “Christed,” and they ought to be central to the mission of every church and every Christian heart.

You and I, Beloved, don’t have to do it all. We don’t have to fix everything. But I think it is expected of us that we will find a way to DO something that makes (perhaps small but tangible) real good news to the poor. Jesus didn’t say to the crowd at Nazareth, “I think this scripture is really great because it shows us all the right way to think and believe.” No. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, this is not what I believe, this is who I am. And I’m going to walk out into Galilee after the service is over and I’m going to actually fulfill these words, I’m going to do something about it as best I can. Because even the Messiah is not independent of the rest of humanity. Even Jesus Christ is fully human, and fully connected to the rest of us. And that connection demands moral action.

Beloved, we need to do the same. As individuals and as a church we must challenge ourselves to up our game. Broadway UCC gets it. That’s a great thing about our church. We know what Jesus is all about. And we also know that we have the resources to do more about actually making the good news happen. We can’t fix everything. God knows we want to. But we can’t fix everything. And we can’t let the size of the problem stall us from doing what we can do now. We don’t have a choice. We’re a part of the Body. We don’t need a perfect plan or a perfect event or a perfect anything (Jesus’ ministry wasn’t perfect), we just need to go and do something. We need to pick up our little piece of the Isaiah scroll and say to Jesus and our neighbors, “We got this bit.”

Amen.