Friday, October 8, 2010

The Faith of Poverty

Progressing through the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew, we have learned many things. We have learned that Jesus wants people to obey God's laws, and that Jesus wants to extrapolate the laws because He (as God) did not fully communicate what they meant the first time. We learned that Jesus does not want you to vow even though God did. We learned that Jesus wants you to willingly submit to and forgive injustice as opposed to seeking justice. And we have learned that Jesus wants you to be private in your religious and charitable acts, and wants you not to ask for specific things when you pray.

Now Jesus will speak of how to live your life, in the brief remaining time that is left...

The Faith of Poverty
If your doctor were to tell you that you had only one week left to live, your priorities, what you choose to do in that week, would probably not be the same as when you thought that death was far off. And if you knew that all of eternity was waiting on the other side of that death? Well, that would carry its own set of priorities.

Lucky us, Jesus realigned our priorities in the Sermon on the Mount. Let us consult what He says.

Picking up just after the previous study, in Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus said that you should store up eternal treasures in Heaven instead of temporal treasures on earth, and thereby align your heart with God. This seems to propose a binary selection: choose Heaven or choose earth. Is that an accurate interpretation, or a little too far reaching? We will find the answer as we keep reading.

In Matthew 6:22-23, Jesus said that if the eyes are good, you will be full of light, but if the eyes are bad, you will be in great darkness. What is meant by the eyes? It is the same metaphor we use today: focus. In other words, where you direct your attention and your life will yield either light (righteousness) or darkness (sin). This message is part of the surrounding context.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus continued the thought, saying that no man can serve both God and money. Because you cannot really “serve” money, perhaps a better rendering is that no man can pursue (or from above, focus on) both God and money. Luke 16:13-15 captured Jesus saying the same phrase in the presence of the Pharisees, who supposedly “loved money.”

Collectively, Matthew 6:19-24 are unanimously speaking against the pursuit of any earthly wealth. While Matthew seems to suggest that it is an either/or choice between God and wealth, Luke's parallel passage muddies the question, making you wonder rather if it is a less-encompassing choice between the loving money and loving God that is really at the heart of Jesus' message.

Fortunately, Jesus provided additional context to clarify the message; context which is largely ignored by Christianity.

Continuing on in Matthew 6:25-34, and considering the parallel passage of Luke 12:22-31, Jesus' message becomes remarkably clear. The birds (ravens) do not sow, reap, or store food, and yet God feeds them. God clothes the grassy fields with beautiful lilies, even though the grass will not last. By contrast, you (believers) are more valuable to God than birds and you have an eternal soul, and so you will be even better fed and adorned by God.

This providence is not through your own labor, but rather by God's grace. That is why twice in each account (Matthew 6:25, Matthew 6:31, Luke 12:22-23, Luke 12:29) it says that you should not concern yourself with what you eat or what you wear.

The key to understanding this passage is that God “will” feed and clothe you, as in the future tense. This is not to be construed as happening in this temporal life, but rather in the next eternal one. Why? Matthew 6:33 (and similarly in Luke 12:31) states this:
“But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” NIV
In other words, when you inherit God's Kingdom, then you will also be well fed and richly adorned at that time. So focus all of your attention and effort on entering God's eternal Kingdom, not on making a living in this world.

Some have twisted the meaning of Matthew 6:33 to be a justification for becoming wealthy while in the service of God. That is so far from the meaning as to spit in God's face. We can be further assured of the true meaning by continuing on in Luke's account, which circles back to the treasures in Heaven theme. Luke 12:32-34 reads:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in Heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” NIV
You cannot possibly build up financial wealth on earth when you sell all of your possessions to give to the poor. Following that logic, you cannot possibly build up financial wealth on earth in true service to God.

A true Christian, a Christ-follower, will live at or near the poverty level, not sowing, reaping, or storing wealth on earth, but rather just living day by day. For those who believed that God's eternal judgement was right around the corner, such a prospect was hard to swallow but tolerable given such an imminent reward.

Now, about twenty centuries later, Christianity has come to realize that the end is not near, and that neglecting the accumulation of at least some financial wealth can be disastrous for you and your family. So this teaching is largely put aside, or simply recast as a message about the love of money.

One final note to consider: Messages like these, even if they are recast as being just about the love of money, likely help to propagate and perpetuate poverty to some extent. How? Study and meditate on those verses, then ask yourself this question: Where does it say or imply that you should at least work to provide yourself and your family with the basic needs before seeking God's Kingdom?

It is perhaps the great irony that the closer to poverty a believer is, the more alluring the promise of an enriched eternal afterlife becomes, and so the desire to change dissolves. So Christianity turns the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7 into a self-fulfilling prophesy: You will always have the poor with you.


  1. Your last paragraph here is beautiful! Really like the line: "and so the desire to change dissolves."

    I think I've mentioned before my idea of an "Ironic Bible Study". With everything I've read so far here, I'm afraid I would just end up copying your work or linking back to your posts. The time and effort with all this is remarkable.

    Really thorough and deep analysis, WF. And, you're just "following where the evidence leads you, " as the saying goes :-)

    1. Thanks Andrew! I appreciate your kind words, and I am glad you have enjoyed my studies.

      Yes, you had mentioned the "Ironic Bible Study." It does not matter to me if you copied or linked back to my posts at all. I would still love to see your study! As you probably have noticed, I just drifted along with the Scriptures wherever they went, so other than within any one post there is not a cohesive message. So even if you were to sole-source from this blog to make your study, I would still love to see how you put it all together!