Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love God? – James 2:5 (NRSV)
Am I the only person who worries when the Bible says this type of airy-fairy thing about the poor? Like the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor whynow? Are we sure they know? I think you should go find someone caught in grinding multigenerational poverty and tell them how blessed they are. Let me know how it goes.
Sometimes the Bible ends up sounding just a little too pat about the poor, like church people who pay a thousand bucks to go on a work trip to a developing nation and come back saying how much better the poor people there have it than “we” do.
I grew up poor, surrounded by poor people, and yes, poverty can come with gifts that are hard for the rich to receive: clarity about what really matters in life, clarity about the nature and structure of society, compassion for others who suffer. Poor people often know secrets about God that the rich should be clamoring to learn. But dare you to find me a single person caught inside it who wouldn’t trade the spiritual blessings of poverty for material security in a heartbeat. Find me one.
And, biblical authors, riddle me this: what happens if you’ve been poor your whole life but haven’t learned a damn thing about God because you’ve been too busy trying to survive?
Sometimes the poor are not spiritual, just desperate. Do they need to be incandescent with the knowledge of God to be worth helping?
Sometimes, like anyone (but perhaps with more reason), they are grumpy, or unpleasant. Do they need to be holy and kind to deserve regard?
Sometimes the poor scheme, or break laws, in order to survive. Do they need a clean rap sheet to be loved?
Poverty is not a Sunday school lesson. It is hard beyond imagining. It is degrading. It might refine the soul sometimes, but at least as often, it just grinds it down to a nub.
Wipe away pleasant fictions and comforting platitudes, O God. To those who have not learned by experience, grant a full and certain knowledge of the nature of poverty, so that we know the enemy we fight. Amen.