Do We See the Poor?
Preached Sunday, January 23, 2022, at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church.
2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God 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 him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” No,w if you do not commit adultery, but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.(James 2:1-13, NRSV)
In 2011, while I was studying as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I applied to be the coordinator of a soup kitchen one night a week a few blocks from Queen’s Park, if you know the area. It was called the Gathering Spot, a weekly drop-in food ministry that operated in the basement of Walmer Road Baptist Church, an old historic church in the downtown. I applied because I wanted a simple, one-night-a-week gig to earn a few bucks while I did my studies. What I got was a lot more than what I figured for.
That is kind of like what we see here in the book of James. This packed little passage will give us more than what we figured for as well. James is a book that does not let us off the hook when it comes to difficult questions about how we treat others. This passage in James gets us to ask difficult questions like Just who are the poor? What is our responsibility toward them? And have we failed at this? Have we forgotten and shunned those of different status from us? These questions are what we are going to explore today.
Who are “the Poor”?
So the first question: who are the poor? Growing up in a middle-class suburban neighbourhood, I never really saw “the poor” in any tangible way. I was aware that we were not rich and some of my friends had it worse off than me, some were better off, but that was about it. Some of my friends had smaller houses than me, and others had bigger ones. I grew up in a conservative family where common dinner conversation was complaining about taxes and about how poor people were just lazy and didn’t deserve any of our hard-earned money. So, I had an assumption that if you did not have a job, it was because you were lazy and if you were collecting unemployment or a related service, you were essentially a leech on the system. That is who the poor was.
Well, at the Gathering Spot, my job was the program coordinator. I bought groceries and helped prepare a meal. I greeted people once they arrived, and I put together activities after dinner, usually learning seminars on city programs or helpful skills like first aid or price matching. On an average night, we would serve about 30-50 guests, most of which were people who lived in low-income housing in the area, but also people who were homeless and found their way to the Gathering Spot. All of a sudden, every Tuesday night, the “poor” had a human face. It was startling. I soon realized what poverty was. The poor was a gay youth that his parents had kicked out and was now on the streets. The poor was a senile elderly lady, who had a successful career as a nurse, but now in old age started hoarding things and her family stopped caring for her. The poor was an elderly man with the intellectual age of a 12-year-old, but with no family and not “disabled enough” to require more help in the government’s mind, he was left on his own.
Who are the poor? As I got to know a lot of the individuals, what they were going through was mental illness, plus abuse, plus addiction. Inevitably their choices were their own at some point. And yes, there were dishonest people that just wanted to use the system, but even their stories were not just straightforward as I assumed. Everyone had a story. Poverty had layers.
Who are the poor? I realized that poverty is the systemic consequence of the loss of family. A homeless person is “home-less” well before they are found without a roof over their head. Many of the homeless of Toronto were mentally ill individuals that had been deserted by family due to their erratic behaviour, such that they did not have a single person that they could crash on their couch or lend a few bucks or whatever. I had to think to myself: If I had something terrible happen in myself where I lost my home or health, I could still impose on my two siblings or even my uncle and aunt or even a few college buddies that would help me out. I had people to fall back on. They didn’t.
Who are the poor? I think about the fact that I was born into a loving family. I was raised with discipline and responsibility. I went to good schools. I am able-bodied and able-minded. I was financially supported through high school and college. But all of these factors that contributed to me getting where I am, I did not choose. I did have to work hard, but my father modelled that for me. I could have been born into a family that cared nothing for instilling basic virtues. I could have been born into the foster care system, getting bounced around. I could have been born with a mental illness or with a physical disability. Or take the instances where a person acquired a disability: a car crash, developing severe depression later in life or something like that. That could happen to any one of us, and that could mean at any moment we could be without a career or livelihood in the traditional sense, dependent on the care of others. We, as people that prize our achievements and autonomy, don’t ever want to think about the possibility of becoming dependent and unable. If we really understand that many of the people that face poverty were born into the absence of a support system of family and friends or have been stricken with a lack of mental and physical ability, then there is that nagging possibility that this could have been me.
This is why James connects the love of the poor with the love of neighbour as yourself (even if your neighbours aren’t particularly poor): 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He calls this the “royal law” (the law that is king over all the others) – it is the criteria Jesus gives as to whether any law of the Bible applies and how it should be applied. Why do we love the poor? The logic is simple: because that could have been us. And if that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, if we can place ourselves in their position, what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of church would I hope to be there to help me? Whatever our answer is, much like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we are bound deep down in our conscience to then go and do likewise.
Have We Forgotten the Poor?
Working in a soup kitchen in many ways caused me to reevaluate how we are responsible to others in society how we may have forgotten the poor.
Our society wants to shun the poor. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The biggest, I think, is fear and guilt. There is a simple disgust at looking at a dirty homeless person. We see them and are afraid because they could be dangerous, we tell ourselves. But as I said before, I think the real fear is that their lives are unthinkable to us. The thought of being homeless is so terrifying, and the fact that it could happen to us if we had been born into a situation without family, with a circle of support, with challenges that make housing difficult. That could have been us, and we can’t even think about that. That fact scares people deep down, and so, we have to rationalize their situation to make us feel better: They obviously made bad choices, we tell ourselves. Just as the would-be friends of Job find it easier to blame than to help, it is because we cannot face the truth that calamity could have happened to us. Job replies to his friends, “Now you too have proved to be of no help, for you see something dreadful and are afraid” (Job 6:21).
If we get past the fear, there is usually an unproductive sense of guilt. The guilt of seeing poverty is that intuitive sense of feeling obliged to help but turning a blind eye. We do this often when we see a panhandler begging at a street corner, and we pretend not to see them. Or we give them some small token of money, which is more about appeasing our guilt than actually taking steps to help them often. And what if we did try to help them? Many of us would be overwhelmed at the amount of care many require: housing, medical needs, counselling, education, job placement, etc. The poor are a lasting reminder of the impotence of our civilization, our abilities. Ironically, the homeless make us feel powerless.
Frankly, most cities then decide that they just need to segregate the poor from the rest of us. Take the instance of Orlando, Florida, where it is now illegal to be homeless. If you don’t have a home, cops will just drive you out to the middle of nowhere, dump the person there, and tell them don’t come back. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it is illegal to give food to the poor on the streets. A 90-year old Christian man, Arnold Abbot, in 2014 refused to comply, and he went out to give out food and blankets. Cops arrested him, and he faced either a 500-dollar fine or up to 60 days in prison.
The government of Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Abbot illustrate two very different responses to poverty. One wants to reduce poverty by getting rid of the poor, the other by serving them. But we have to ask ourselves: Why take Arnold Abbot’s way? It can be uncomfortable, frustrating, even dangerous. And many of us know there is a strong likelihood that our attempts might not end with success. In a world that prizes autonomy, helping the poor is seen as too great an expense to oneself and even enabling those who refuse to “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In other words, why should I give my hard-earned money and time to those that I think won’t help themselves?
To ask this leads me to conclude that I think to care for the poor is made possible by something like a religious conviction. I say “religious-like” not because all religious people care for the poor – they don’t – or that only religious people care for the poor – which is not the case either. I felt a great kinship of goodwill with the atheists I worked with, sadly a closer kinship than them than with my fellow Christians, who were hard-hearted. I say religious conviction than because the drive towards empathy and service, whether in a religious person or an atheist, is spurned by a conviction that cannot be reduced to the world as it is. If it was, apathy would take over. The poor are just there, and that is just the way the world is: Too bad, so sad. We learn that true loving actions, as C. S. Lewis argues in his book The Four Loves, are “other-worldly” in some sense. Why should I empathize with people I do not know? Why should I experience unnecessary heartache? Why should I give at great expense to myself, not just a feel-good charity as guilt-relief exercise, but to help others that may not even say “thank-you”? The choice to care, to empathize, to serve beyond what we are naturally predisposed to do, what is naturally advantageous to us, beyond what we culturally are obliged to do that has to be in some sense a religious decision: a choice to act in the world in a way that is different than the ways of the world typically run. It runs against the grain.
Yet, sadly, as I said, many Christians have found reasons, couched in religious language, to forget about the poor. The “prosperity Gospel” is very popular in many streams of Christianity, far more popular than what we typically realize. Its central tenet is that if God loves you, you will be blessed, and blessing means health and wealth. Corrupt preachers have capitalized on this where, for instance, in the case of Toronto based preacher at the “Prayer Palace,” the pastors there have manipulated their congregation into thinking they should earn exorbitant salaries, drive fancy cars, and own mansions since this is a sign of God’s blessing. Then the preachers state that if people want to be blessed like they are, they need to give money to the church (to God, but really to them) and trust that God will bless them. While that is manipulative enough, the implication is that if you are not financially well-off, then God does not favour you. This means the rich are loved by God, and the poor are forgotten.
Of course, many of us know that this way of thinking is wrong, and we would never go to a church where a minister owned several mansions, hopefully. Let’s just say if there was a Bethany Memorial Baptist Palace, I would not attend it. But we all know there are subtle ways we forget the poor in our midst. We fall into similar mentalities.
I remember speaking with a church leader. While he was an honest person, he sincerely believed God would never forsake anyone who believes in him, and so, what that meant for him was that if you did not have enough in your life, you just did not have enough faith. I remember saying to them, “But what about the passage that says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your comfort’ I remember him turning back to me scoffing, “Oh ya, where is that in the Bible?” And I said, “That is Jesus saying that in Luke chapter 6.”
I remember talking about our responsibility to the poor with a group of pastors, and I talked about what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). I remember one pastor, not hearing that I was quoting the Prophet Isaiah, getting upset at me that I was promoting socialism. In his mind, that was obviously one of those Old Testament Scriptures that did not apply anymore. That struck me as a very convenient interpretation.
James, similarly, has to contend with congregations who are showing favouritism to the rich, and it sounds like they have created a few excuses for their apathy towards the poor. The example he gives is the treatment of people who look wealthy when they come to a church gathering. The rich are given places of honour. Meanwhile, those who are not being told to sit on the dirty floor. And from a worldly perspective, who’s to blame them? What church doesn’t want to woo some potentially generous tithers? Such wealth obviously means they would be good to serve on a management board or may even be deacon material, we tell ourselves in excitement.
I remember being told by one pastor who did church planting: don’t bother much with the poor of your area. They have way too many problems. They take way too much of your time, and in the end, they don’t have any money. You can’t build a church with people with no money, so let the poor be someone else’s problem.” Frankly, what he said explicitly many believe implicitly.
What is interesting about James is that he says that when we treat people differently based on their wealth, their social-economic status, we do something actually terrible: have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? He says. He calls this evil. He goes on to say this:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now, if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
A transgressor of the law? If you notice the way James is talking about the matter here, you will notice his rhetoric is subtle but severe. He talks about the neglect of the poor alongside those that commit adultery and particularly those who commit murder. Ouch. That hits hard.
Have we thought about it that way? I think most of us think of charity work as a kind of the cherry on top of what is required, something that is not expected, but if we do, that’s an extra jewel in our crowns in heaven. Many of us have inherited a kind of checklist spirituality, by which we measure whether we are okay with God. An old Baptist saying is, “I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and I don’t date girls who do.” That is a bit silly sounding, but many of us have these: I know I am good with God because I don’t sleep around. I don’t use bad language, even at work. I don’t watch HBO. I don’t get wasted on the weekends. Whatever that is for you. We can set a simple bar for ourselves.
That is not how James sees it. If serving the poor, including the poor, is the way that is most in tune with Jesus’ law of love, the way of conscience and empathy, the way that most honestly admits to the fragility of our existence and why we are bound to others in life, then going against that, well James does not mince words: Its not just bad or inappropriate or rude, but evil, he says. He begins the passage by asking: My brothers and sisters, do you, with your acts of favouritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? This is a legitimate question for James.
When you allow God’s word to do its work in you, you wake up to our responsibilities to each other in ways most don’t want to think about. Have we forgotten the poor? The worst night I ever experienced at the Gathering Spot was a night of a deep freeze in January (not unlike what we felt this week). In front of the store where I would get groceries, I saw one indigenous fellow who regularly attended. He had told me previously that he and his sister had been abused in the residential school system. His pain from what happened there was so much that he lived with a constant hatred of God and everyone else for what happened. He could not stand to go to a shelter. It would cause his anxiety to explode, and he would get in a fight. “What are you going to do tonight in the cold?” I asked. “Same I do other cold nights,” he said. He panhandled enough money for a bottle of whiskey. As the night fell, he would down it and sleep behind a dumpster. He would drink to the point that his blood turned to anti-freeze in order to survive in the cold. Can you imagine living like that, drinking yourself half to death just to stay alive?
What is our responsibility as Christians as well as Canadians to right the wrongs of the residential schools? We might be quick to say, “Well, I have never used a racial slur, or thought racist thoughts, or intentionally did harm to an indigenous person.” James might push us further: Ya, but what if that was you?
As I thought about this man, that same night, we had an above-average amount of guests, so the food ran out. One man came in late out of the cold, and you could tell he was hungry. A young man had lost his apartment because he unexpectedly lost his job. We scrounged up something for him, not much. He told me that he had lost his apartment and had nowhere to go. I told him where some of the shelters were, but also, I suspected they would be full by now. He figured he would try anyway. We prayed together, and he left. I remember riding home on the bus back to my home in Bradford. I wanted to go with him, to be honest, but there was a cut-off for the last evening bus from the downtown back to Bradford (which was an hour and a half bus ride away). I could barely sleep that night. I worried about him, and I felt terrible, going to bed in my warm home.
In the morning, I read reports that 35 people were found frozen to death throughout the city. It did not make the papers since the city does not really want to know about this kind of thing. When a homeless person is found dead in an alleyway, no one cares. No one wants to be reminded that the tax breaks they got from the politician they elected were made possible because they cut funding throughout the city to programs that people needed to survive. No one wants to consider that if people are freezing to death in our city, maybe in some way it is our responsibility. The poor are our responsibility, and sadly, we have forgotten them.
So What Do We Do Now?
James says, in verse 12, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
James hints that there is a way of obeying God, doing his will, following his way that is freeing, liberating, the law that brings liberty. Then he says that if we live without mercy, we will be judged accordingly. It is similar to what Jesus says about judging others: by your own standard, you will be judged. Or think of Jesus’ words that on the day of judgment, he will tell us, as you did to the least of these in this world, you did onto me. In other words, if you can live your life with a kind of comfort and apathy about those in need, God wants to prod us a bit, and said, what makes you think I won’t show you apathy then? The lord’s prayer says, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. God is trying to say something here: If you really believe in God’s grace, forgiveness, and mercy, you have to show it. If you don’t, really saying that you don’t actually understand it.
We might be tempted to think that God is doing this to strong-arm us into being obedient, but the truth is that this is fundamentally a better way to live: the law of liberty, a rule or way that is liberating. When we show grace to others, when we are always ready to forgive, when we make room in our lives for those in need, putting others ahead of ourselves, while it is difficult, potentially dangerous, is fundamentally a better way to live. It is a way of living in clear conscience. It is living in the way that best appreciates that this is how God treats us.
Dwelling with the poor at the gathering spot also gave me some of the best memories that year. I watched people that had very little always be willing to give something, help in some way, or say a kind word. I saw some of the worst of human depravity, but also some of the best of human decency.
James remarks something: Has not God 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 him? I don’t think he has a naïve or too rosy view of the poor here. I remember meeting with a woman who had suffered from severe addiction her whole life long. I asked her, “What does your faith mean for you?” She said, “I know God loves me because he gave himself for me. I know I can’t get up in the morning without acknowledging his grace in my life. Without it, I can’t live.” I remember thinking, I am pretty sure I got out of bed and forgot to pray and got going on my daily grind of stuff. I was too busy that day to acknowledge my need for God when I got up. The thought occurred to me that I was the one, not her, that really needed to think harder about the nature of God’s kingdom. I had it in mind that I was there to help her, but I was the one blessed.
Christmas time was beautiful. Now my mother had died the previous year at Christmas time from cancer, so that season was something I was not looking forward to. I remember going into Christmas thinking the Grinch was really a misunderstood figure. However, having dinner – a feast actually that the kitchen manager, a frugal and stern but gracious Dutch lady named Marijke, made – was one of the best meals I had ever had. I tell you that lady could penny pitch and make the best meals with next to nothing. We ate, and we all got up and sang Christmas carols. Hearing a carol like “Joy to the World” sung by people that have nothing other than the simple thanks for a good meal and good company renewed my love of the season.
There is this wonderful permission to be yourself around people that have accepted they are imperfect. As I began to joke to people who couldn’t understand my work, I would say, “It is amazing how hanging out with mentally ill people each week keeps you sane.” I meant it as a joke, but it was true. “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
Loving God, God of the oppressed, the poor, the outcast, reminds us that our lives are fragile. That where we are is made possible by so many privileges. Convict us in the various ways we want to forget these facts and forget those around us.
Do not let us sit and wait for needy people to just show up in our church. Stir us to see the ways we can go out and meet them. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear the ways people cry for help, yet often without words.
Give us the wisdom to serve, to have big hearts, to endure the heartache of the tragedies we see in people’s lives. Allow these all to bring us closer to the mystery of what you endured for us at the cross in Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is excellent Spencer!
Thank you, Spencer. This is food for much thought. I will probably have opportunities to share some of your thoughts, and I will give you credit. I pray that you and your family are well. Kathleen Aitken
Thanks Kathleen. I hope you are well also.