“God’s Preferential Option for the Poor”

Over the last two centuries wealth has grown in the West. Now it spreads to other parts of the world through a growing globalized economic system. I am a huge proponent of this growth and believe one way of addressing the issues of poverty is through global business and the growth of education and jobs that go along with it. At the same time there are serious dangers associated with wealth, especially in the absence of true virtue.

The Poor Yesterday I referred to the way modern Western Christians began to read the Bible statements about the poor metaphorically once wealth increased and more Christians had more income. This problem has resulted in a number of aberrant responses, one of which was Latin American liberation theology.

I refer often to recently published The Cape Town Commitment. I believe it is the most important global mission statement in the twenty-first century. Here is an important excerpt, addressing the dangers of prosperity emphasis from the West, taken from Section IIE of the document:

We affirm that there is a biblical vision of human prospering, and that the Bible includes material welfare (both health and wealth) within its teaching about the blessing of God. However, we deny as unbiblical the teaching that spiritual welfare can be measured in terms of material welfare, or that wealth is always a sign of God’s blessing. The Bible shows that wealth can often be obtained by oppression, deceit or corruption. We also deny that poverty, illness or early death are always a sign of God’s curse, or evidence of lack of faith, or the result of human curses, since the Bible rejects such simplistic explanations

We accept that it is good to exalt the power and victory of God. But we believe that the teachings of many who vigorously promote the prosperity gospel seriously distort the Bible; that their practices and lifestyle are often unethical and un-Christlike; that they commonly replace genuine evangelism with miracle-seeking, and replace the call to repentance with the call to give money to the preacher’s organization. We grieve that the impact of this teaching on many Churches is pastorally damaging and spiritually unhealthy. We gladly and strongly affirm every initiative in Christ’s name that seeks to bring healing to the sick, or lasting deliverance from poverty and suffering. The prosperity gospel offers no lasting solution to poverty, and can deflect people from the true message and means of eternal salvation. For these reasons it can be soberly described as a false gospel. We therefore reject the excesses of prosperity teaching as incompatible with balanced biblical Christianity.

Where prosperity teaching happens in the context of poverty, we must counter it with authentic compassion and action to bring justice and lasting transformation for the poor. Above all we must replace self-interest and greed with the biblical teaching on self-sacrifice and generous giving as the marks of true discipleship to Christ. We affirm Lausanne's historic call for simpler lifestyles.

I titled this blog “God’s Preferential Option for the Poor.” It must be stated, in complete candor, that this expression comes from the published preceedings of a Catholic conference held in Mexico in 1979, right in the midst of the strongest influence of liberation theology. I happen to agree with this way of putting it and thus would like to show you why and what difference this emphasis and understanding might have in reforming the thought and life of churches and Christians.

First, you will note that the statement does not say that God is only interested in the poor. The word used is “option.” This does not mean “optional.” The point here is that in the kingdom of God the poor are the first, though clearly not the only ones, on which God’s attention is focused. For this reason the church should also focus on the poor by demonstrating deep solidarity with them in their plight.

But there is a real danger here. In suggesting that there is “a church for others” (in this case for the poor) instead of a “church with others” we can give money and aid to the poor but not embrace them as Jesus in our midst. All this reflects on what I wrote yesterday about having the genuinely poor inside our churches when we gather.

The point I am making here must not be missed. It is not so much a case of the poor needing the church as it is that the church needs the poor. Why? If we wish to stay close to our Lord then we need to stay close to the poor. The poor are not the objects of our mission or the means but the agents and bearers of our message. God has a predilection for the weak and the abused of human history and we stand with the Son of God when we share in his predilection!

The Gospel of Luke seems to make this point in numerous ways. In the third Gospel the poor are a kind of “all-embracing category for those who were the victims of society” (David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 436). The poor are “marginalized and this marginality comprises all spheres of life and is often so extensive that people feel that they have no resources to do anything about it” (Bosch, 436-7). Women, widows and orphans get the same place in Luke.

There can be no doubt that in both the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus there is a significant emphasis upon the poor and their plight. Much of this was preserved in the first three centuries of church history. Basil the Great was “an indefatigable champion of the poor” thus a misiologist in our lifetime could write, “the rediscovery of the poor . . . is also a reaffirmation of an ancient theological tradition.” (Bosch, 436).

Traditionally, Western theology emphasizes one’s relationship with the poor in terms of ethics, not of theology or epistemology. I believe theology and ethics cannot be separated in this way. Simply put, once we recognize that Jesus lived among the ,and loved the poor so deeply, we can no longer consider our own relationship to the poor as a matter of simple ethics when it is really a gospel/mission question.

This does not mean that God loves only the poor. He loves the rich too. But the conversion of the wealthy calls them to humble themselves in a way that leads them to turn away from the idols they have made of their wealth (money), race and prestigious positions of power.

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