RICH AND POOR
Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-10
September 10, 2000 by Tad Mitsui
An idealistic young man went to Africa. He wanted to bring light into the darkness and to educate natives to have a better living. He was appalled to see how poor people were. He was sure that the cause of their poverty was laziness. He saw a young man having a snooze under a palm tree in the middle of the morning. "Wake up," he said. The man opened his eyes and said, "What?" The man from overseas told him, "Get up and get to work." "Why?" "You can earn some money." "Money? I have enough." was the response. "But, if you have more money, you can eat better food." "I can eat what I like. There are lots of bananas and mangoes in the tree." "You can buy things with money." "What things?" "Nice clothes, furniture, and stuff." "Stuff? What for? I have enough stuff." "But if you have more money, you will have security. If you have security, you will have no worry. You can relax." By then, he was quite fed up. He spat out, "Relax? What did you think I was doing before you rudely woke me up?"
This story illustrates an old debate about religion and wealth. Which is more important; to have enough or to be saved? Should the church work to eradicate poverty, or to bring people to Christ to save their souls? The United Church of Canada has always been strong in Social Gospel. Many people in our church consider bringing justice to the poor people a Christian duty. The former Moderator Bill Phipps represents that section of our church. He believes in helping the poor and the suffering, and fight for social justice everywhere. Meanwhile Evangelical Christians, (there are many Evangelicals in the United Church too,) emphasized the importance of the spiritual aspect of the Gospel and accused the people like Bill Phipps of being too much humanist not enough Christian. But
the Bible is not much of a help to solve this dilemma either. Compare the difference, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Luke. Matthew 5:3 says "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Here Jesus, according to Matthew, is speaking about people who are in need of spiritual fulfilment, not about people who are poor as such. But Luke 6:20 says, "Blessed are you who are poor." There is no mention of Spirit. In other words, Luke seemed to have heard Christ”s concern for the people who were poor. What do you do when you find such radically different versions of the words of our Lord?
Social activists love the Luke version of the Sermon on the mount, because it affirms their concerns for the poor people. Meanwhile, the Evangelicals find an affirmation of their belief in Matthew, because Jesus was concerned about spiritual needs, not material needs. But when you become familiar with the way the Bible tells you about the relationship between what is material and what is spiritual, you will find no contradiction between Luke and Matthew. Body and soul are one in the Bible. In other words, our religion does not see separation of spirits from the material. We express our spiritual values in the way we use material things. This is why we are willing to spend a fortune for someone we love. Love is very spiritual, and money spent for the sake of love represents that love. If you don”t know the spiritual values, you will never feel rich even if you are a billionaire, because you don”t know where the goal of your life is. So you don”t know when to stop. This is why so many rich people are still unhappy, because they feel they never reach the goal in life and frustrated. On the other hand, people who seek spiritual values often know how much is enough, and often quite happy with what they have. Remember the African man snoozing under the palm tree? Persons like Mother Teresa never owned anything in their lives, but they died happy, admired, and loved by many people.
This is why today”s scriptures, both the Book of Proverbs and the letter of James, are saying that the question of the relationship between a rich man and a poor man is not just an economic matter, but it is an important matter of our faith. This also means that the Bible is very much concerned about those people who do not have enough to enjoy decent living. The Bible never says, "If you endure the hardship of this life, you will be rewarded in heaven." Everybody is entitled to a decent living here and now. We all have responsibility to work for justice, so that everybody has go in earning a decent living. A work for justice is a spiritual work.
I end with a story told by a man who spoke about his experience of poverty. He said, "Three days ago my brother Randy died. Two months ago, my first grandchild Jacob was born. The holiness and the beauty of those two events are gradually sinking in. I"m sure I will never fully understand the mysteries in them. But the Spirit has been speaking to me. Jacob came to us in the poverty of birth. He was so small, weak, and naked. He was completely dependent on others. He had nothing but his need. But one day, soon after he was born, I lay down on the sofa with him asleep on my chest. I wept for no reason. I can”t explain. It was just overwhelming. I guess I was overcome at the wonder of it all. Like the poor widow who gave all she owned – a few copper coins, Jacob had no idea the size of his precious gift of love and trust and joy he gave me. And my brother too, there on the hospital bed, the morphine shutting down his eyelids, we spoke to each other from the poverty of his dying and the poverty of my grief. All I could say was, "I love you Randy." And from the pain-racked poverty of his dying, Randy gave the most precious gift he had ever given me. "I love you, too," he said.
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. They are so rich that they could give such a precious gift. They have nothing to give but themselves. So they give all they have – themselves. We should do the same.