Opinion: Poverty—A Christian Reflection
By Marcos E. Garcia
Editor’s note—Views expressed in the following op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Church of God Ministries, Inc., or its affiliates. We publish op-ed features to provoke thought, stimulate healthy discussion, and inspire us to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, and do what Jesus did. We’ve asked to hear from a diverse range of voices across the Church of God movement. This op-ed features one of these voices.
When, as Christians, we examine the complexity of global poverty, it is impossible to escape the responsibility that falls on our shoulders of having to offer answers. I cannot imagine a Christian that does not anguish and worry about doing something for those who suffer the impact of poverty.
However, despite the obvious, let’s not take it for granted that the church is rushing to do its part. On the contrary, it seems to be very easy to respond with indifference and abandonment. This forces us to reflect: what is our response? Because inaction, in itself, is an answer—and not the most consistent with what God expects of us.
On the other hand, we must not rule out that inaction may be related to the fact that the problem of poverty cannot be addressed with easy answers.
Hispanic theologian Elsa Tamez says:
The poor live in a concrete history in which they are the first victims of sin. They are not the only victims, but they are the first, the most visible. This makes the poor the main condemned to death, requiring the church to come with the gospel message of faith and hope.”
On one occasion Jesus said: you will always have the poor among you (John 12:8). If this statement is not understood correctly, it can lead us to the false idea that Jesus taught that poverty is a reality against which there is not much to do, pushing us in a certain way to indifference. This could not be farther from the truth. When Jesus tells Judas that they will always have the poor, it is to show him that the poor have always existed, therefore, Judas has always had opportunities to do much for them.
Faced with the challenges of poverty, the church must offer real and concrete answers. As a first step, we must think about the seriousness of the problem of poverty.
Jesus, our model, understood poverty, because he was born and raised in the midst of poverty. In the society of the time of Jesus, about 1 to 2 percent of the population was rich, meaning the elites of the palace and the temple. The rest of the population was poor. The riches were definitely for the use and enjoyment of a few; most lived in deprivation and survival, and Jesus was included among them.
Despite some attempts to produce a biblical picture of a wealthy Jesus, the reality is that the biblical evidence shows that Jesus was not one of the wealthy of his day. He was born poor in a manger (Luke 2:16), he lived poor, with no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), and he died poor, buried in a borrowed tomb (Luke 23:50–56).
Curiously, his poverty was accentuated during the time in which he developed his ministry. That is why we find that, to give taxes to the government, he required a miracle for himself and his disciples, which he manifested in the coin found in the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27). Even his famous declaration of “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s” requested a borrowed coin from one of those present, because he had no coins in his pocket (Matthew 19:15–22).
Jesus understood the complexity of the poverty of his time because he lived it. He knew what a coin meant to an old woman who offered all she had (Mark 12:42). He knew the value of a coin lost on the dusty floor of a poor house (Luke 15:8–10). He knew what hunger and thirst were (Matthew 5:6). He knew what it was like to rummage through a fig tree (Mark 11:12–14) or ears of wheat (Mark 2:23) to find something to eat. He also knew that, for some, riches were their idol and it was difficult for them to enter the kingdom of heaven, if it meant giving them up and sharing them with the poor (Luke 18:22–23).
Above all, Jesus knew that the worst consequence of poverty was the limitations it created to participate in the life of worship to God in the temple. He knew of the corruption and high costs of the merchants in the temple, who rejected the sacrificial animals presented by the poor people, to force them to buy the overpriced ones they sold. He knew of the opportunism of the money changers who took advantage of the need of those who had to exchange their foreign coins to offer. This discouraged the poor, because it made it impossible for them to worship God, since they had little resources to eat. Jesus confronted this situation by overturning the tables and pointing out that the house of prayer had been turned into a den of thieves (Luke 19:45–48).
On the other hand, if poverty was common to the majority, it was very easy to fall into indifference and contempt. Those with resources possibly felt favored by God and viewed the poor as inferior people.
For their part, the poor experienced frustration and abandonment due to a sense of powerlessness when trapped in poverty.
Today Jesus guides us and challenges us to offer the correct answers to poverty. Theologies that glorify prosperity and riches as evidence of true faith are equivalent to the contradictions that Jesus faced in his time in the temple, and we must confront them in the same way.
We must instill hope, not abandonment; presence, not indifference. We must proclaim the good news that in the kingdom of heaven no one is excluded from God, much less because of their economic condition. We will always have poverty, that’s why we must always mitigate it and try to eradicate it; especially that poverty which makes it impossible for human beings to get closer to God.
If sin primarily victimizes the poor, it is they who must listen strongly to the message of salvation that proclaims a transforming hope. It is they who must discover that they are a priority for God. As a church, we can always offer a response that communicates to the poor that they are not forgotten, and are “blessed because theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3).
Questions or comments? Dr. Marcos E. García can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Marcos serves as the general director for the Hispanic Council (Concilio Hispano) of the Church of God.