This week the Christian tradition enters the fourth week of the Easter season. We celebrate the triumph of God in Jesus Christ who conquered sin, death, and the grave. It was four weeks ago, Christians around the world participated with the host of heaven, creation, and echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“Behold your God! Behold the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him, He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are young” (Isaiah 40: 9b-10).
In this fourth week of Easter, Christians continue to celebrate Jesus Christ who used his might (power) and his rule not for the use of unbridled power and conquest. He used his might (power) and arm to gather people together in his presence. Jesus Christ gathers persons made in his image and likeness. He gathers various ethnicities, nationalities, economic, political, and social groups into this new community which is defined by love, sacrifice, and a shared vision of concern for all persons, especially those who are the poor and orphaned.
A faith which resides in Jesus Christ who uses his might and power to announce good news to the poor is significant. One can understand this living faith involves participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table. Christians demonstrate faith as they join Christ dying in water and rising in new life. Secondly, they demonstrate faith gathering together around the table and ingest within their bodies the body and blood of Christ. Yet there is another demonstration of a living faith. A living faith which echoes the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ himself, a life which uses power to embrace the poor.
In James 2: 12-26, James the Just takes to task the notion of a faith which is exclusively a profession in God yet lacks the works addressing the needs of the poor. He has set the tone of his letter concerning the poor in two places,
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas 1:27).
“Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom…” (Jas 2:9).
James questions the inability of persons who have the resources to alleviate another person’s poverty condition. In Jewish thought, “a poor person is considered like one who is dead” (Devarim 15:10). Jewish commentators state, “so one who gives charity lights up the eyes of the poor and receives his blessing from him” (Devarim 15:10). What are we to learn then from this question and about ourselves? Our goods and our ability to use these goods to help a person experiencing poverty is similar to raising a person from the dead. Our charity and justice can be the very act which gives light to the eyes of people and in their raising up, we have the opportunity to receive a spiritual blessing from them.
As is usually the case, in America, and when addressing the human experience of poverty, objections arise. Even in the first century, in the infancy of the church, James had to address those who simply wanted to remain comfortable in the use of words and not the execution of action to help neighbors in poverty.
Are there any examples of persons using power and resources to help the poor?
I want call your attention to Job. He was a rich man turned impoverished which can convince us of the use of power for the cause of the poor thus demonstrating a living faith. So Job himself testifies,
“I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy and I searched out for the cause of him whom I did not know” (Job 29:13,15-16).
Why is this so important to the Christian journey? The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ produces in his people an ethic to embrace every person because we are all men and women of the dirt. We are shaped out of soil and united with the imago Dei. We are neighbors. Men, women, and children who possess a shared humanity. Thus we are to work. Why? Anglican pastor Harold T. Lewis, writing on “Christian Social Witness” stated, “the God who is incarnate in Jesus Christ is,…a being who is at work in the world-not a remote deity, but a God who is close at hand and active in the lives of all humankind” (p.34).
This mass of humanity exists inside the Christian community and outside of this wonderful community. Inside and out, men and women who share the imago Dei are afforded the opportunity to work for the poor. Inside this community of faith, when one becomes aware of the needs of poor brothers and sisters Christians are to act and therefore confirm the professed faith and in a sense reenact a dying in baptism and unity around the table. Outside this community of faith, when Christians become aware of the needs of the poor, they are to act, confirming this professed faith to a watching world. In either case, Christians are demonstrating a faith which indeed saves the person's own humanity and offers people the life to say “Behold our God!”
But there is so much on my Facebook feed, my twitter feed, my IG, the television, and in the news, there is this need everywhere. I can understand that when we are exposed to so much suffering and poverty from across the world, we can be desensitized, and become numb.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stated, “Our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom?” (Sacks, p.30)
A living faith for the poor expresses itself in actions which are the combination of verbal blessings and the sharing of our goods. The body of Christ animated by a living faith demonstrated in baptism, the Lord’s Table, and care for the poor offers the clearest picture of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians continue to celebrate this Easter season and head into the celebration of the promise of God’s Holy Spirit during Pentecost, we should be observing a professed faith and use of power to help the poor. As persons profess faith in Christ, they should wrestle with James the Just probing question,
“If you gain knowledge of a poor person or family and pray for them without giving them what they need, what good is that?”