Freedom from Penury
‘…The poor you always have with you…’ (John 12, 8)
I have chosen my word carefully. I could have opted for the more straight forward ‘Freedom from Poverty, but therein lies the difficulty. Penury is not just poverty, it is abject poverty. Just as too easily the poor have become demonised by many, so poverty has become weaponised too easily by politicians of all shades and none. But penury, abject poverty, is not a matter of politics, ultimate it is a theological matter, a matter of faith; it should matter it has to matter to anyone who owns the name, Christian. While others might debate the relationship between poor and rich; might trade insults over what is an acceptable level of poverty, either in terms of individual wealth or as a proportion of the population, might even seek to drive a wedge between the so-called deserving and the undeserving poor; Jesus sums it up in His uniquely, world-weary way – ‘the Poor you always have with you’ – a fact of life but what should not be a fact of life is that anyone at all should have to live in abject poverty. It is primarily a theological matter, why?
“People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God's will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed.” (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).
However rich we are, however materially self-sufficient we might be, indeed however laudable it might be to encourage people to become self-sufficient in such regard, it should never be at the expense of the essential reality that without some form of religious experience, without some sense of the Divine, without some appreciation of the contribution that faith can make to one’s life, without some kind of spiritual awakening, one will always be impoverished at least to a degree – hence Jesus’ remarking that ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, they shall see God’ There is no such thing as ‘spiritual self-sufficiency’, to suggest otherwise is a complete contradiction in terms. However, Christianity takes us a stage further, in Jesus it offers the embodiment of an incarnational spirituality, one in which the boundary between the spiritual and the material is bound to dissolve within us. And so again, Jesus speaks to a young man who is desirous of wanting to experience, to ‘inherit’, eternal life. He passes the Spiritual test with flying colours but then Jesus senses that just perhaps the young man has not grasped the practical implications of what he is wishing for himself, and so Jesus says to him, ‘one thing you lack, go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor’ – and we are told the young man went away sorrowful, because he was ‘very rich’…
“God's Word teaches a very hard, disturbing truth. Those who neglect the poor and the oppressed are really not God's people at all—no matter how frequently they practice their religious rituals nor how orthodox are their creeds and confessions.”
(Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity).
We can argue until the cows come home regarding the relative poverty of one person over another; there is no time to argue when we are considering those who live in abject poverty – in penury – and they are many, and they are as close to home as they are far away. It behoves us as Christians to do what we can to ensure that…
- No person goes to bed hungry at night,
- That no person gets up in the morning and does not have water for bathing,
- That no person has to go without clothes suitable to the climate in which they live,
- That no person is denied sufficient warmth to be comfortable,
- That no person is denied access to the health care necessary to keep them alive and well,
- That no person is denied the opportunity to use their God-given gifts, talents and abilities productively for the good of all,
- That no person is denied the privilege of living out their latter years in peace,
- That no person is denied the right to a dignified funeral.
Abject poverty, penury; for as long as any one individual is forced to endure any of this, then it is a stain on society at large, and the judgement of God will hang over us, for our failure in respect of just one of our sisters and brothers – even the least of them – is a failure to serve Christ as we ought…
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower).
We do what we can, because we can, because we should, because we must. Jesus demands nothing less of us; if anything, He demands even more of us. We can never do enough for Jesus. For He has done for us that which was and is always beyond us. He has saved us from ourselves, that we might serve Him in the service of others.