I have never met a Christian that didn't care about the poor. I'm sure they exist, but in my limited experience, they are thankfully few. But a recent dive into the book of James has taught me that caring for the poor is worlds away from caring well for the poor. And while lots of thought goes into ministering to the poor, not enough thought is being given to poverty itself. As many have observed, the right heart with a wrong foundation can often do more harm than good.
James' letter (which is sadly most often discussed in comparison to Paul rather than being read on its own merit) has stark and deep things to teach us about poverty. Much like his brother Jesus, James teaches in powerful vignettes, dropping bombs of truth and letting his readers sort out the nuances. His teaching on poverty is no different. Taking what he learned about poverty from Jesus, James gives the church three general lessons about poverty. In this post we'll examine each of these briefly and in the next post, suggest ways for the church to begin to adapt her thinking and practice.
James 1:9-11 teaches the principle of the great reversal, that in heaven's view, the poor are exalted and the rich are humiliated. Such a paradox shouldn't be shaken away as merely poetic overstatement. Everywhere in the Bible we see a God who loves to turn the thinking of this world all the way on its head. So we should accept James' words at face value. Simultaneously encouraging and warning, James' principle is true and logical, but only insofar as the gospel is true. In other words, if heaven is real and Jesus is the only way there, those who are rich in this life have, logically speaking, very little to boast about when it comes to their wealth; rather, they should understand their low position in the kingdom of God. Conversely, God's love for the weak and poor mean that those who are poor in Christ have every reason to boast in their current and future position.
Beyond the Gospel itself, it's hard to imagine anything more radically counter-cultural than this. We dwell in a nation "...in which the producing, purchasing and consuming of objects provides the ultimate horizon of meaning for persons…These values are the ethical lenses through which we are conditioned to perceive our wealth and importance." (John Kavanagh, quoted in Richard Bauckham's James: NT Readings) This take on poverty and the poor is more than a slight correction of course: it is a radically different way to identify and value human beings.
In 2:1-9, James teaches the principle of the great foundation, that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. The exhortation is in verse one: "Don't show partiality." The example is in verses two through four: the poor man being neglected in the assembly of the church (an exhortation and example, by the way, the church has directly disobeyed at many points in her history). But the foundational principle is in verse five, that "God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom..." This principle could be seen by James in Jesus' teaching (Lk. 21:1-4), in God favoring Israel over much greater, wealthier and stronger nations (Dt. 7:6-7), and in the apostles' teachings about the ways of God (1 Cor. 1:27).
Thus, while the kingdom of heaven does not exclude the wealthy, it certainly favors the poor. James' challenging teaching is only surpassed by Jesus', who taught the near-impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven (Lk. 18:25) and that the poor were blessed because that same kingdom belonged to them (Lk. 6:20). And while we can't absolutize James' teaching to mean every poor person is saved and every rich person isn't, the general pattern of the kingdom is clear. It is the poor (or at least the poor in spirit) who are saved by the poverty of Christ (2 Cor. 8:9). The simultaneous growth of our culture's unprecedented wealth and yet suicidal sadness should be proof enough of this.
In 5:1-6, James teaches the principle of the great danger, that God's choice to side with the poor means coming judgment upon the rich. Taking the warning of 1:11 to its logical conclusion, James calls the rich to "weep and howl for the miseries coming upon them." This coming misery is, in part, because the rich have placed their trust for the future in their wealth (5:2-3), a hope which will tragically leave them eternally poor. He goes on to catalogue their offenses against the poor, including delaying wages and thereby practically sentencing to death those who live day-to-day. What they fail to realize is that in their use of money – in their use of the power that money really is – they were picking on the tiniest kid on the playground who has the biggest older brother.
The wealthy in James' day, and the wealthy in our day, fail to reckon with the fact that God hears the cries of the poor and will bring full justice on those who oppress them. Yes, caveats exist. Yes, there are wealthy who use their wealth and power to bless many. But the stark truth remains: God's on the side of the poor. Choose carefully which side you want to be on.
The next post will consider some ways for the church to live out heaven's view of the wealth of poverty. Both posts are from a longer paper I've written on the subject. If you'd like a copy, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.