If God is so rich, why are there so many poor?

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A sermon I preached at Briercrest College chapel, September 18, 2012

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If God is so rich, why are there so many poor? September 18, 2012 – College Chapel

I begin this morning with a confession. I grew up in a time and place where, frankly, I was pretty sheltered from the reality of poverty in our world. It’s not that I grew up in a privileged, rich family. My dad was a farmer who had to work a second job just to make ends meet. That said, I never remembered a day when Mom and Dad said, “Sorry, kids, no supper tonight because we ran out of food today.” So though we didn’t have a lot of cash, we never went hungry. I usually had something new to wear to school in the fall, we always got Christmas and birthday presents, and Mom and Dad always gave their tithe to the Church and to missions. I don’t think anyone would have confused us with the poor but neither would anyone have mistaken us as rich.

Fast-forward to the mid-90’s. While attending a conference in San Francisco, I had opportunity to walk around the streets in the downtown core. I was struck by all the panhandlers and their creative signs designed to empty my pockets of spare change. (My favorite was the guy who had a sign that read, “Spare some change for a beer?” as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “No use lyin’!”) Oh, sure, I had seen panhandlers before, but I had never seen whole streets full of them, many of whom were living in cardboard boxes…or less. So by then, I thought I had seen poverty. I think it was then that I finally began to ponder the question of why it was there were so many poor people and how it is that God allows that.

Eight months ago, I was privileged to spend a week together with a dozen or so students from Briercrest in the little country of Ecuador, South America. I had gone, along with Myra Daughtery and a couple of the leaders from Compassion Canada, to learn about children’s development ministry first-hand.

Ecuador is an amazingly beautiful country, but it is also a country where there are many, many poor people. We visited some of the little brick houses in which these people lived, sometimes with 10 or 12 people (and sometimes a few chickens or other animals to boot) living in a house barely the size of my own living room. Surely, I thought, I had now seen some of the poorest people in the world! So I asked Aaron Gonyou (who, by the way, I can be proud to say, was a former student of mine way back in the first class I taught in Briercrest in 1993) if he could rank the villages we were visiting on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the “best” of the poor and 1 being the utterly destitute. I knew that Aaron had seen poverty the world over, and that even though we probably weren’t seeing the world’s poorest yet, I was hoping that he would say something like these people rated a 4 or 5 on the poverty scale. You can imagine how my heart fell when Aaron said, “Oh, these are about 7’s or 8’s!” And so, even now, I feel like I know so little about what poverty is really all about, or what it is really like to live in such desperate situations.

When I was growing up in rural Alberta, we used to sign a chorus named, “He owns the Cattle on a Thousand Hills.” It goes like this:

He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
The wealth in every mine,
He owns the rivers and the rocks and rills,
The sun and stars that shine,
Wonderful riches more than tongue can tell
He is my Father so they’re mine as well
He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
I know that He will care for me.

It hadn’t occurred to me why those in our church liked that song so much, but it makes sense now, especially since I married the daughter of a cattle farmer! To say that God owns the cattle on thousand hills is a pretty impressive and poetically compelling way for farmers to grasp that God is rich beyond our wildest imaginations. As for me, that song gave me warm comfort that God would take care of everything that I needed, even though in reality, I didn’t ever feel like I was in deep need. But there is something utterly true about that song, isn’t there? God is the Creator of everything and as Creator, owns all that there is. So, I don’t have to worry; God will provide. But as I gained gradual first-hand introduction to poverty, I am now sometimes left wondering: If God is so wildly rich, why are there so many who are so utterly poor?

So now I have a second confession to make. The fact is, the more I have contemplated this question, the more the answers I would have been satisfied with before seem to fall flat.

As a theologian, as I read Scripture I tend to move quickly to the fall of humanity into sin as giving some important insight into this problem. Consequently, it is easy for me to say that it is because of human sin and evil that there are so many poor people in the world. There are so many poor people in the world because there is so much sin and evil in the world. Right?

Now make sure you hear me correctly: I am fairly confident sin and evil has at least SOMETHING to do with poverty. There’s little doubt in my mind that a good portion, if not the entire problem of poverty, stems back to the first sin of Adam and Eve, a sin which could be characterized as a failure to live in gratitude for that which God has already given. In fact, Karl Barth argued that pride was not the first sin, as many have argued, but ingratitude. And where there is ingratitude—thanklessness—there the sin of greed is close behind. And where there is greed, poverty is not far off, as one group of people hoards more than they need, leaving another group with not enough. And so, in that respect, we shouldn’t be surprised if God takes the question we’ve put to him and turns it straight back to us. We ask, “God, if you are so rich, why are there so many poor people?” and it is as if Jesus says right back to us, “Yes, indeed, why ARE there so many poor people?” It causes me to swallow hard to think that God is in fact waiting for me to answer my own question…

But despite the truth that the Fall is at the root of poverty, I am not yet convinced that even an appeal to sin and evil settles the question. Maybe there is more to it. As I reflect on some other scriptures, I think there just may be. For just a few moments, turn with me to James 2:1-7. Let me suggest that we need to take two things away from this passage.

First of all, notice this: James doesn’t actually deal with the question as I have posed it. In our politically correct ways of looking at things, we have been taught to see inequity between rich and poor as a good occasion to shout, “Injustice!” But here James seems oblivious to what we see as obvious. Indeed, James doesn’t seem to take it as odd at all that a rich man might come into the Christian assembly and unlike so many Christians today, he certainly doesn’t berate the rich man for being rich. On the contrary, he lets everyone else have it for how they treat the rich man. He chastises the church—which would have likely been predominantly made up of poor people—for caving in to what the rest of society already believes: That the rich are somehow better than the rest and to be given a place of deference, even in the midst of the Church. So James doesn’t see injustice as the existence of the rich over against the poor; rather, James calls it unjust—discriminatory!—when the church behaves as if the rich are those who have been especially blessed by God and need to be honored above everyone else. Such thoughts, he says, are the thoughts of self-appointed judges who perpetuate the world’s view of riches.

So what then, IS the answer to our question: If God is so rich, then why are there so many poor? Well, unfortunately, James refuses to give us an answer—at least not in the way that we might hope. Fortunately, he does go on to tell us something quite significant. In verse 5 we hear the following: “Listen my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?”

As I prepared this message, it was here that I got smacked between the eyes with something I am still struggling to understand.It seems to me that as long as we keep asking, Why are there so many poor people? we still assume that being poor is something inherently bad, inherently evil. That shouldn’t surprise us, of course, because that is the economic gospel we are taught over and over again in our Western world: Salvation comes to those with thick wallets, and damnation has already come to those who have no wallet at all. As long as I assume that the poor are at a spiritual disadvantage, it is unlikely that I will ever understand that they may have a kind of advantage that I do not have. And the advantage the poor have, if they have one at all, is simply this: Those with nothing have everything to gain in Christ; but those with everything fear little else but losing that which they already have.

Of course, it would be an entirely inappropriate exegetical and theological leap to conclude from this that rich people are in every way barred from the kingdom of God. Jesus never says that rich people will be barred from heaven, but he does point out just how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. And here, I think, James picks up on that very point that Jesus makes: For some reason, people who are poor by the standards of the world are the very ones who are able, much more easily than the rich, to be full—to be rich—in faith. Is it any surprise, then, that it is the economically poor of the world who are, in droves, entering through the doors of the Kingdom, while droves of the rich stand by in our comforts, or worse yet, are dragging the poor into courts and throwing them into the jails (v. 6-7)? It is these poor who we have discriminated against, James says, thinking that somehow they have little to teach us and that we have something to teach them. I’m just starting to see how very wrong we are!

Last January in Ecuador, I met a giant of the faith. This giant physically measured a towering 4½ feet in height and was chronologically a ripe old 15 years in age. But spiritually, I estimated her to be about 10 feet tall and an elder in the faith. Her name is Nelly and I had a chance to meet her with some of her family in their home together with some of your fellow Briercrest students. As Nelly talked to us through a translator, we heard her tell us not so much that she was grateful for the help that Compassion Canada was giving (which she was grateful for!) but moreso for the fact that through Compassion and the Church she attended, she had been introduced to Jesus and His Word—and that this was the most important thing for her, the greatest treasure she had!

I think it was here that I finally began to understand what James meant: God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith. Nelly was so rich that I began to feel spiritually impoverished in her presence. I have so much yet to learn. I went to see poor people, but discovered just how poor I am yet in my own faith. Who, then, is the rich and who, then, is the poor?

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