The lectionary readings for this coming Sunday offer stringent words about justice, and the people of God will be shaped by their response to the poor. “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:8-9). Likewise the epistle reprimands early Christians for preferring rich to poor in their assemblies, and it warns against favoritism with these words: “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?” (James 2:6).
In this political season, the population of the US is restive as people protest the widening gap between the rich and poor. Those who struggle financially feel helpless to change much about their situation as their low wages and lack of educational privilege prevent any actualization of the “American Dream,” which is rapidly losing its luster. Voters find little hope in candidates’ slogans and promised policies, and a level of cynicism emerges as they realize how much of an election is controlled by those who bankroll those who run.
The migrant crisis in Europe mirrors the situation of undocumented residents in the US; desperate people will undertake desperate measures to secure their lives in the midst of untenable situations. Fleeing violence, displaced people often face greater extremities at the hands of those who seek to profit from their migration.
As our nation has observed the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we want to avert our eyes from the devastation that remains and those persons still waiting for justice. It is so easy for the comfortable to move on, forgetting those for whom it is not possible.
It is always easier to blame the poor for their circumstances rather than appraising the systemic realities that make upward mobility nearly impossible. We prefer that they remain invisible, even in our churches. When the prayers of the people at my church mention one who is out of work, a slight tremor runs through the congregation, and we find it hard to imagine that this trauma has occurred to one of “ours.”
The biblical writers remind us that the poor have a claim upon the people of God and that our giving is determined more by their need than our desire to give. Luke Timothy Johnson warns people of faith against simply conforming themselves “to the acquisitive compulsions of contemporary American culture . . .” (Lake Family Institute on Faith & Giving, “The Life of Faith and the Faithful Use of Possessions.”)
So, how are we responding to the poor in our midst? If we do not know any who fit the bill, we are living insular and perhaps overly self-protective lives.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.