Historians have long written of what they call “The Great Reversal.” By this term they are referring to a time in the early twentieth century when evangelical Protestants turned away from their earlier position about the poor, a position that had a lot more in common with the language I used yesterday about a “preferential option for the poor.”
But thanks to men like John R. Stott the global evangelical Protestant church began to move back to its earlier emphasis in the last few decades of the twentieth century. This movement is still going on and the younger leaders of churches in North America are calling for this stance more and more. I believe this is a healthy development all around.
Put in theological terms there is an intrinsic link between theology and ethics, thus the way we respond to the persecuted and marginalized demonstrates whether or not we are acting in faith and obedience to Christ.
But is God on the “side” of the poor? And if so what does this mean?
The term “poor” is a comprehensive term in the New Testament. What makes persons poor in the biblical sense is that they have been treated unfairly, unjustly. This is often done by the wealthy and powerful. These are those who cannot help but be anxious about tomorrow (Matt. 6:34) or about what they will eat or wear (Matt. 6:25). The standard wage, a denarius a day, was barely enough to keep a small family at the subsistence level. If such a laborer could not find work for even a few days his family was destitute. This is the context of the Lord’s Prayer and the fourth petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” It is a prayer for survival!
Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and he did it among the poor, the lowly and the despised. This astounded his critics. What Jesus is doing, and thereby saying, is that the wretched life of the poor is contrary to God’s Kingdom purposes. What is amazing here is that Jesus’ Kingdom embraces both the rich and the poor, both sinners and saints (so-called). His mission breaks down hostility between races and classes. This is how we should understand the command to love undoubte4dlyone’s enemies, which has often been called the most characteristic saying of Jesus!
David Bosch wrote:
Luke undoubtedly wishes to communicate to his readers what is today often referred to as God’s preferential option for the poor, but this option cannot be interpreted in any exclusive sense. It does not exclude God’s concern for the rich, but in fact, stresses it for, in both his gospel and Acts, Luke wishes his readers to know that there is hope for the rich, insofar as they act and serve in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. In their being converted to God, rich and poor are converted toward each other. The main emphasis, ultimately, is on sharing, on community (David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 104).
This is what has been rightly called “whole-life discipleship.” Jesus will not save those who reject him as Lord over all of our life, public and private. This is why the Lausanne Committee, under John R. Stott’s influence, has underscored a call to a simple lifestyle from the beginning. And the World Evangelical Fellowship has taken this initiative further by stressing both God’s “preferential option for the poor” and his judgment upon oppressors. Jesus’ own identification with the poor, which is undeniable to anyone who reads the Gospels, is also rightly stressed in these growing movements that have addressed the problems brought about by “The Great Reversal.”
In summary, the poor are not loved more by God than the rich. The “preference” for them is not rooted in their being “better” than any other class or people. The “preference” is itself a display of God’s deep love for all people, especially those who are trampled on and mistreated by the rich and those who oppress.