“Poverty is not a sin.”
He spoke these words boldly, as if he was saying something prophetic. Then he gave a pregnant pause, and waited for the audience to delight at this great revelation. These were the words uttered by a pastor while I was attending a workshop at a church planning conference for leaders. While this statement is true, I didn’t find the words that followed particularly insightful.
He approached the topic of poverty in the same way that I have heard many American pastors and Christians quote the scripture:
“The poor will be with you always…”
When I hear both of these statements, particularly in the contexts in which they were given, I have great concern that the pastors are not challenging themselves or their hearers to respond to poverty in any tangible way. The problem with these holy references is they are both incomplete, and an incomplete truth can be just as harmful as a lie.
The Truth about Poverty
The full statement is quoted both in the Old and New Testaments:
When Moses gave the law to the Israelites, he clearly communicated God’s intention to bless them and how God positioned them to bless others. Moses’ instruction was this:
Give generously to him [the brother in need] and do so without a grudging heart;
then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in
everything you put your hands to.
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NIV)
God’s solution to poverty is for his people to give generously to those in need. That’s the whole truth.
In John Chapter 12 verse 7, Jesus corrected the people who were chastising Mary for pouring an extravagant amount of perfume (worth a full year’s wages) on him. Jesus said to them, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” He was giving his hearers perspective. He was honoring the sacrificial act of Mary—this woman who anointed him for his burial, who welcomed the necessity of the cross, and who agreed that a new kingdom was coming. This is the perspective that was given through her prophetic action.
In the same scenario, Mark’s gospel inserts a phase in the middle of Jesus’ statement, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me (Mk 14:7).” Jesus was saying to them very clearly, “If you truly care about the poor, then do something about it. You can help the poor anytime that you want.” That is the whole truth.
The Poverty Challenge
The challenge with Christians in America is we are all consumed by a promise of our own rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We live in a culture where protection of the middle-class (whatever that means) and wealth is a priority. We define success by material things like home ownership, nice cars, clothes, and our obsession with gadgets. As Christians, we like to give to charity, just so long as it doesn’t interfere with our accumulation or require that we give up our stuff. When we become aware that more than 10% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 US dollars per day, God does not ask those of us—those who are well fed, with the ability to work, health insurance, 401Ks, and shelter—to simply give to charity. He asks us to pursue justice.
Charity may provide some relief to poverty through services like soup kitchens, shelter, food banks, and Christmas gift boxes. Charity is ointment on an open wound. It helps; it consoles, but it is not surgery. Justice asks the question, “Why are people impoverished?” and seeks systemic solutions to that question. Justice requires that all humans created in the image of God are given the opportunity to participate in the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1 by exercising dominion, by working, using their passions, gifts, and talents to cause all of God’s creation to grow, multiply, and flourish. We are closest to understanding God’s heart for the poor not when we answer, “The poor will always be with us,” but when we respond to the realities of poverty with a passionate pursuit of biblical justice.
When Children Speak the Truth
On May 24, 2014, I took my daughter to a Joyfest concert at the Carowinds amusement part in celebration of her seventh birthday. At the concert, we enjoyed Christian artists like Lecrae, Tamela Mann, and Kirk Franklin. Before the concert ended, a representative from Compassion International shared a testimony and spoke about child sponsorship. I watched as volunteers gave out packages with the names and stories of children in need of sponsorship, and before the volunteers arrived to our aisle, my daughter was already raising her hand to receive a package. I leaned over slightly and whispered to her, “We are already sponsoring two children.” To which she replied, “I know momma. We can always do more.” I didn’t have a comeback response to my daughter who was without a job, yet always well fed and never hungry, and who had spent a full day indulging in games, joy rides, and laughter. She had spoken the truth, so I texted her father to inform him that we just sponsored another child.
Compassion International is not a charity organization. Through their child sponsorship program, they passionately pursue biblical justice by having a holistic approach to offering spiritual and physical care, education, and leadership, which eventually sets a sponsored child up to obtain employment which supports their families and communities. When my family started sponsoring children, we knew it would be a long-term commitment that directly addressed the issue of poverty in various parts of the world. Because of this commitment, we get the opportunity to care for impoverished humans in need and to watch God make provision through us. Because the issue of poverty is so great and strategic change takes time, occasionally it is difficult to hope for a future without this reality.
A Way Out of Poverty
Olive grew up in poverty with her siblings and cousins. She was previously a sponsored child through Compassion International, and when she completed Compassion’s program, Olive attended South Carolina State University in my hometown on a volleyball scholarship, where she graduated with honors. Currently, Olive is a social worker and speaker for Compassion. I was reminded of God’s heart and his grace as I listened to Olive’s story about her son, who she regularly takes on her speaking engagements. On one occasion, this child said to his mother, “Mom, I hear you talk about poverty all the time. What’s poverty?” Just like that, in one generation, God has provided an answer to the partial truth that “the poor will be with you always.” His answer is people like you and me giving prayerfully, generously, consistently, and sacrificially to organizations that address systemic injustices and understand God’s heart for the poor.
The #RubyWooPilgrimage is partnering with Compassion to empower a child to triumph. This is how you can provide a way out of poverty today. THANK YOU FOR YOUR PRAYERFUL CONSIDERATION.