Jesus Likes Poor People More

Though discussion of it has apparently been going around for a while, I’ve only recently become aware of it: poverty theology.

Apparently a reaction against the so-called “gospel of health and wealth” or “gospel of prosperity” championed by far too many of my Pentecostal brothers and sisters, poverty theology moves in the opposite direction.  It sees deep value in rejecting riches and, in the words of one Dr. Gerry Breshears, “…considers those who are poor to be more righteous than those who are rich; it honors those who choose to live in poverty as particularly devoted to God.”

Popular rejection of prosperity teachings has been voluminous, but what worries me is the assumption that poverty theology is just as bad.  Take a look at this little parable, wherein a father tries to give a child a bicycle.  The child rejects it, apparently out of fear or false humility.  The child is portrayed as wounding the father and, in the end, being somewhat selfish.

In other news, Francis Chan was critiqued for leaving his megachurch for a more simple life.  Those who questioned him felt he was buying into the suspect poverty of theology, that “sanctification comes through simplicity, poverty, suffering.”  This is, apparently, seen as a great problem.

Nonsense, I say.  Nonsense.  There is no way that poverty theology is anywhere near as damaging as the prosperity gospel.  The case can actually be made that it is a deeply authentic expression of the best of scriptural teaching.

For a while now theologians have spoken of God’s preferential option for the poor, and in general I’m on board with them.  God looks out for the “fatherless and the widow” in Scripture.  Jesus tells us the last shall be first.  The poor, he says, are blessed.  Jesus directs the rich man to sell all that all he has and give it to the poor.  But, of course, as we know…it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (i.e. impossible) than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

With so much discussion of the matter in Scripture, it isn’t surprising that someone had to write a NEW parable to outline the “dangers” of poverty theology.  Turns out matters aren’t so clear when we turn to the Bible or Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount.

Friends, don’t even get me started about Church history.

Now, I understand what critics of so-called poverty theology are getting at.  They feel that we shouldn’t reject things  just to prove something.  I get that.  But things DO get in the way.  Those who have been closest to God have often been those called to give up the most.  They have done this not out of false humility, but in truth and love.  I suspect they will continue to do so until the end of time.

How convenient, though, that we in the West now decide that “poverty theology” isn’t for us.  How convenient that rejecting it allows us to keep all our stuff.  Disturbing.  Despite whatever dangers it may bring, we need some more poverty theology.

Because America, we need to get it in our heads: when Jesus talks to the rich, he’s talking to us.

If poverty theology is a heresy, it is my kind of heresy.

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3 comments on “Jesus Likes Poor People More

  1. “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

  2. Amanda says:

    This is like all they ever talk about at Drew, it seems. Which is kind of annoying because you know what direction the class is going before you even get there. It’s just assumed. Except there it’s more broadly liberation theology. Something I’d love to hear your thoughts on: ” it honors those who choose to live in poverty as particularly devoted to God.” What about those who don’t choose it, but are poor? Why does it seem that in American society, the poor are mainly seen as lazy or are in some other way blamed for their poverty? Maybe what’s at play is that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps/the American dream” myth that I’m not sure was ever possible.

    We as a society fail to recognize the structural forces at play in inequality, and even ignore the fact that the inequality exists or that it’s systemic and not the result of a particular poor person being lazy. Example: almost everyone in the U.S., no matter what income, education level, etc., self-identifies as middle-class. This masks the fact that there is real poverty, and that there is an extreme minority who hold the majority of wealth in our country.

    I guess my point is, how do we as the church deal with this theologically and practically?

    • Heavy questions, to be sure. You definitely picked an older post to comment on today! I don’t think I have anything profound at the moment (busy day).

      I think the “bootstraps” thing has to do with myth, yes, but also the fact that for many it was and perhaps is easier here to make a go at it. But: there are, as you’ve said, systemic issues that should not be ignored.

      I suppose theologically we have to ask in what way the poor are blessed…and ask whether Jesus was talking about the voluntary poor, or both voluntary and involuntary. We further must reflect on the Scriptural witness to God’s care for the poor.

      Practically, well, the church needs to be always aware of systems involved–no matter which political direction it may take them. It means confronting truth as truth, and helping others do it too.

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