Mission in a Context of Poverty
The Revd. Mote Magomba, Anglican Church of Tanzania, speaks out against institutional or structural sin. Pointing out that the situation of those who live in abject poverty is not God’s ideal, he goes on to say that being rich is not, in itself, sinful. The rich who do not care for their fellow human beings, sharing the wealth they have that is a gift from God, are the true sinners. Only through penitence and humility on the parts of both sides can the Kingdom of God ever be truly instituted and the mission of the Church fulfilled.
According to Gustavo Gutierrez a, renowned liberation theologian, poverty in a material sense means lack of economic goods necessary for human life, worthy of a name (1973 pg. 288). In other words, the poor lack basic necessities of life, the goods and services needed for a full human life. Alternatively, spiritual poverty has acquired a contemporary meaning of an interior attitude of attachment to the goods or wealth of this world.
In this paper, I am going to first trace the biblical theology of poverty in the light of what is said about wealth. I will then look at the responsibilities of the wealthy, and consider the key things that need to be said today about wealth and poverty in the light of the mission of the Church in Tanzania.
Poverty: A Biblical Perspective
God was the ideal Israelite king who shaped the history of his chosen people. After the fall and a subsequent universal spread of sin, God chose to enact his long redemption plan through Israelite history. He organized the Israelite redemption from Egyptian slavery by the way of the Exodus.
God abhorred injustice, not only of the pharaohs but of any form, and abhors it to this day. The Mosaic Law aimed at, among other things, preventing social injustice (Deut.6:20ff) so that Israelite society could be without the poor (Deut.15:4).
It is unfortunate that subsequent earthly Israelite Kings failed to adhere to this code and instead monopolized wealth, resulting in an emergency of a big population of the poor (1Sam. 8:10ff; Amos 2:6f). This is what gave rise to the prophecy of the coming “ideal King and Messiah” who would bring justice to the poor (Isa. 11:4).
It is probably not fair to assume that the Isaiah prophecy regarding the poor of his day disregarded the social condition of his time and, instead, only talked of the spiritual state of Israel. To the contrary, the Messiah whom Isaiah prophesied came as a dispenser of justice for the oppressed. Isaiah rightly mentions the blind and the deaf in his prophecy. A detailed discussion of this appears later in this paper.
It is apparent that in the Bible, the poor are basically those with a physical disability. Contemporary theologians have seriously challenged an assumption that economic connotations are not obvious in the Bible‘s references on poverty. Although the New Testament talks of those who are spiritually poor (Matt. 5:3), most other New Testament passages, especially the Lucan material, show that the people in poverty are those who are really hungry, who really weep and those who are persecuted.
It is apparent from these Lucan passages that these poor people undergo oppression at the hands of the powerful. As hinted earlier, the Exodus is a good example of how God intervened to liberate the poor and the oppressed. He had heard the Israelite cries and saw their misery (Ex. 3:7). God acted to end economic oppression and bring freedom because God cares when people enslave and oppress others.
Alternatively, a person who is “poor in spirit” is the one who has been humbled by God and becomes really humble before him. Moses was one such person and was referred to as the “poorest” of all men (Num. 12:3). Also, the Messianic King was prophesied as being a “poor man” (Zech. 9:9).
These overview biblical surveys make it clear that poverty is not a result of chance, destiny or fate. Nowhere does the Bible curse those who are poor. Poverty is the result of the unfairness of men in the social, political, religious and economic ventures with which God is displeased.
Old Testament Themes on Poverty
After building the foundation for a just society in the Mosaic times, God in the Old Testament is depicted as taking an effective side with the poor. He builds up his theology even through the proclamations of the prophets.
In Psalms (82:2-4), God advocates justice for the weak and the orphan. In Proverbs, God does the same when it is said that to oppress the poor is to insult his Creator, while to be kind to the needy is to honour him (14:31). The Proverbs emphatically speak of guarding the rights of the poor (31;8-9). .
Throughout the Old Testament there is no divine pronouncement that links the Israelite poverty experience with fate or curse. However, informal Israelite custom used to count material poverty as a “curse”. A dependent Israelite would go to Yahweh for rescue. Yahweh, the scriptures said, would free the poor who call on him, will have pity on the poor and save their lives (Ps. 72:12f). But there is no ceremony or ritual that appears in the Old Testament to cleanse “poverty curses”. In other words, poverty was simply viewed as one standard of a social life.
This, then, explains why the Jewish custom had laws that aimed to combat material poverty amongst the population. Such laws included those that required dropped sheaves be left for strangers (Deut. 24:19f; Lev 19:9f); and the sabbath year in which the produce of the land was left for the poor and needy (Ex. 23:11).
The prophets abhorred all forms of oppression including dishonest business (Amos 8:5f), exorbitant interest (Hab. 2:6), seizure of land (Mic. 2:1f), non–payment of wages (Jer. 22: 13ff), and the manipulation of justice (Isa. 5:23). The book of Isaiah goes on to dwell at length on the prophecy of the coming Messiah and the scope of his mission.
New Testament Themes on Poverty
While the Old Testament deals with economic relationships among the Israelites (Lev. 25), in the New Testament the poor replace the Israelites as the focus of the gospel. In his mission Jesus shows that his attention is not only on the amount of wealth or extent of poverty that people have, but on the relationship between these two categories of people – notably the economic relationship. Further, Jesus shows how this relationship between the rich and the poor has a bearing on the understanding of the Kingdom of God.
It is worth mentioning here that Jesus himself was born in a poor family and during his upbringing he left his carpentry job and became a preacher of the good news to the poor. In fact, the rich and the powerful within the Jewish society were complicit in his death.
Jesus’ mission was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah who foretold the times when the Spirit of the Lord would be on the Messiah. This Messiah would preach the good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord (cf. Lk. 4:18f). Jesus’ message strongly warned his followers that those who do not feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoners will experience damnation (cf. Jas. 5:11).
Jesus’ message was striking because the economic life of New Testament Israel was dominated by the colonial oppressive Roman power. Taxes were high and corrupt only those who sided with the rulers, such as the Sadducees, could manage to get rich. The Zealots and Essenes were patriotic and poor.
Within this atmosphere, Jesus came and proclaimed good news to the poor calling them “blessed” and the recipients of the Kingdom of God. He applauded the hungry and those weeping (Lk. 6:20f). What he was saying was, in effect, that since the poor suffer socio-economic, political and religious injustice, they are proclaimed happy or blessed because of the liberating act of God in whose favour they are. This should be really good news to them. In other words, God, who cannot fail, has come to stand with them, in their blessing in the Kingdom of God! In the history of the Bible, this was the original state of man before the fall.
On the other hand, the message of the coming Kingdom of God meant that the rich would be losers, and woe goes to them. In other words, Jesus’ ministry was directed to the poor and the less respected, the lepers who had no live outside the camp (Mk. 1:40f; Lk. 17:11f), gentiles who did not enjoy Israelite privileges (Matt. 8:20ff), women and children who had no status in Israel (Matt. 9:20ff), despised tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes (Matt. 11:19f; Mk. 2:16f; Lk. 7:33ff; 15:1f; 19:1f).
On the question of religious spirituality, Jesus spoke among the religious hypocrites, promising to disown all who did not feed the hungry and clothe the naked. These Jesus refereed to as the “cursed” (Matt. 25:41). Jesus’ parables on the Banquet (Lk. 14:13f), the rich man and Lazarus (Lk16:19f), the Pharisee and the publicans (Lk. 18:9f) and the Good Samaritan, explain how Jesus favoured the needy. Jesus was against the few privileged people manipulating economic and political power to their advantage, enjoying natural resources and wealth of a particular nation, etc.
But it is interesting to note that the Bible nowhere says that God loves the poor much more than the rich. Wealth is ethically not a bad thing. In his ministry, Jesus was open to all, rich and poor. He accepted the invitation of the Pharisees (Lk. 13:17) who he openly denounced at times; he healed both the daughter of a synagogue official (Lk. 8:41) and the servant of the centurion (Matt. 8:5). Wealthy women supported him (Lk. 8:2f) and he was buried in the tomb of wealthy Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42ff). However, together with this, Jesus emphatically showed that God lifts up the poor and the less fortunate and casts down the wealthy and the powerful.
One is tempted to ask why God should do this. The Bible hints that more often than not the wealthy have became rich by oppressing the poor or have otherwise failed to aid the needy who are their neighbours. Jesus taught that anyone in need is our neighbour (Lk 10: 25ff). But it is a fact that real concern for the needy has remained a dream to his day!
This explains why James, in his epistle, warns the rich to weep because they have most likely oppressed their workers, hoarded wealth and failed to pay their workers adequately (5:11). The cries of these workers, like the cries of Israelites in slavery, have reached the “ears” of God.
It is apparent then, that God hates and punishes injustice toward and neglect of the poor. In most cases, the rich are the perpetrators of both (Jer. 5:26; cf. Isa 3:13f). If we fail to help the needy, we fall short of our claim to posses God’s love – no matter how spiritual our speeches might be. Jesus expects us to imitate his conduct by pitying those in need (1 Jn. 3:17).
Lessons for our Mission Today
The Bible, on this issue of poverty, apart from showing that God is on the side of poor, also implies that structural sin is against the will of God. A member of a privileged class who profits from social evils and does nothing to oppose the system is guilty before God. We sin when we participate in unjust economic structures. In fact, structural sin hurts more people than personal sin. Participation in structural sin is just as sinful as personal sinful acts, like lying or committing adultery.
Most Christians are guilty of the sin of neglecting the needy. Not always do the Scriptures accuse the rich of direct oppression of the poor, but it does always accuse them of their failure to share with the needy. Sodom, according to Ezekiel, was destroyed partly because she refused to share with the poor (16:49). Although the rich most probably oppressed the poor, the text in question points to the fact that they failed to aid the needy.
Our churches today proclaim more on the sexual misconduct of Sodom, but fail to address to affluent Christians how Sodom sinfully neglected the needy! In the same manner, the Church has not done enough to direct its affluent Christians, countries or societies to aid their contemporary poor partners.
The people of God, if truly so, must also be on the side of the poor. Those who neglect the poor, the Bible says, are really not God’s, however pious they are (Amos 5:21f). Such worship, according to Amos, is a mockery (cf. Isa 58:3ff; 1John 3:17).
To reverse this trend the rich need to repent of their sins, change their lifestyles and live simply and undertake costly commitment to structural changes in secular societies. Locally and globally, the rich should opt for solidarity with the poor primarily because God did the same.
Solidarity with the poor means a sincere change of attitude. While not condemning riches, this change should involve the riches’ attitudes towards the poor as well as adjusting the way these rich people acquire their riches. Zacchaeus won this test when he gave out half of his wealth to the poor and repaid back his illegally-acquired wealth (Lk. 19:8). But the rich young man in Lk. 18:22 failed the test even when he had kept all the commandments. He failed to sell all that he had and side with the poor. In his attitude riches were the main thing in his life.
Apparently, the church in our times has opted to keep quiet on this issue, and by so doing, siding in silence, with the forces that foster social evil and injustice. In Tanzania, the church is constantly threatened by politicians and warned not to “indulge itself in politics” whenever it appears to side with the oppressed. The church, in turn, is scared to collide with the political authorities for fear of being persecuted!
To me the church that is not persecuted amidst corruption, oppression and injustice is not a faithful witness of the Gospel of the poor. Good news is measured by how the poor are treated as sons of God. The oppressed church in Burundi, Uganda during the time of Idi Amin as well as in South Africa during Apartheid, which stood against their respective countries’ tribal and social oppressions, are an example of the true Church of God within our times.
It is also observed that the Church has not broadened its teaching on the real meaning of Christian Spatiality. Christian need be taught that the experience of love of God in our daily social lives and contacts should be broader. We should genuinely help the poor even when we know that they can not pay back our sacrifices. We should offer just wages to people who work under us. We, in Tanzania, and indeed Africa, should see women as “equal human beings” and fully accept them within the ecclesiastical offices. The poor in Tanzania have no right to seek the assistance of the rich first world while it continues to see the woman as second class citizen! Just as Jesus welcomed and blessed all in his banquet, the church today is equally challenged to fight all forms of nepotism and inequality.
In other words, what we do for those in need, whether on an individual or a national basis, must be done not merely because we have a surplus and can afford to give it, not merely because of charitable concern and our need to ease our consciences; but simply because it is just that we have to do so as a Christian Community.
The church in Tanzania, and globally, should be aware that there will always be the poor amongst them; and thus, our mission should never lose sight of the poor brothers and sisters who need our support. Mission without concern for the poor falls short of the divine obligation as demanded in the Bible. The poor need the endless support of the rich. The rich need the poor in order to know the nature and meaning of the deliverance of God. Both need each other – as emphasized by Jesus himself (Rom 15:7). The church should work with the poor, not for the poor.
As discussed, riches are ethically not a bad thing. However, riches obtained through selfishness or oppression is a disgrace before God, because more often than not is a source of making others poor.
Poverty, hunger and oppression are not the will of God because God essentially created his creatures to enjoy his rich blessings in the fullness of life. He does not desire to see some not having enough to eat, nowhere to sleep and nothing to put on.
In the event of this happening, God expects the poor to exercise humility and penitence; the rich to repent and adjust their social dealings (Amos 5); the establishment of a new and just economic outlook that will allow all to be rich in the enjoyment of God’s blessing while at the same time remaining humble, and indeed poor before the face of God (Isa 1:16f). Our mission should involve speaking against all structural sins.
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