“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 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, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?” (James 2:1-10)
“The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2).
We get it wrong so often in our society. We assume that a person with higher education and/or income must be of higher character. The more letters after the name, the more prominent the seat at the table. Contrastingly, we lay all manner of labels on a person living in poverty. Forget a place at the table–that would require one being invited in. Let me be clear, though: I loathe blanket statements and I am certainly not making one here. Not all who are rich are evil; not all who are poor are godly. The world holds a lesser view and perpetuates these biases, and sadly, we in Christ’s Church are apt to do the same. Leviticus 19:15 instructs, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” If God is no respecter of persons then we must follow His lead.
In his commentary “The Letters of James and Peter,” William Barclay states, “If you pay special honour to the rich, you are torn between the standards of the world and the standards of God and you can’t make up your mind which you are going to apply.” Sometimes we are unaware that we carry these prejudices in our hearts and that they need to be excised. I am ashamed to admit that I unwittingly struggle at times. Do you? I recall a divine appointment several years ago when the Lord first revealed my unconscious bias to me. We had taken our youth drama troupe to an inner city homeless shelter as we did each month. The teens had performed their human videos, which were followed by our time to visit with the guests in hopes of sharing the Gospel. On this particular day, I was engaged in casual conversation with a stout, 70-something gentleman who had a weathered and welcoming face. As we chatted, I glanced down to see what may have been all of his earthly belongings stowed tightly in a two-wheeled wire shopping trolley. Securely fastened to the outside by a network of tattered bungee cords was a fat, well-worn Bible. Feigning nonchalance, I pointed to it saying, “I see that you have the Word of God there.” He looked up with twinkling eyes, thumped a chubby palm against his chest and said, “I have the Word of God in here.” In that instant, the Lord revealed my misjudgment. I had assumed that because this gentleman had a financial deficit, he must have a spiritual one as well. As if reading my thoughts, my newfound brother smiled. I had nothing to share with him that he did not already possess. He too was a child of God.
I have been blown away time and again by the generosity of spirit exhibited by the financially poor. The most extraordinary example of this occurred while on a youth mission trip to West Virginia. Upon arrival, we received our assignments from our Habitat for Humanity Team Lead, who explained that the house we would be working on was designated to a local family who had fallen on hard times. Not needing more detail than that, the teens dove in with steely determination to serve Jesus and honor the family who would soon reside there by transforming that house into a home. They crawled under the foundation to clear debris, hung from ladders, swung hammers and paintbrushes, swept and scoured. No task was too big or gross or scary. Each work day began with prayer, asking God to guide our hearts and hands, and to protect the family we would never meet. The kids invested a ton of sweat equity that week to fulfill their mission. What they were unaware of was that God was about to turn the tables.
Unbeknownst to us, our Team Lead had invited the family to meet us on our final day. Or at least part of the family. A 40-something single mom named Sue and her teenage daughter stood in the postage stamp-sized front yard and wept as they took in the fresh coat of paint and much-improved exterior of the house. They then turned their eyes to the sweaty pack of teens who had gathered around them, each one smiling from ear to ear, not with pride, but with joy that the object of their prayers and efforts now stood within arm’s reach. Sue pulled each kid into a long, hard hug. Before turning to leave, she invited us to dinner. Our immediate reaction was to decline, thinking that it would be a financial burden to prepare a meal for twenty extra guests. But the Holy Spirit was on it. This woman needed to bless us, and we needed to receive it.
After quick showers at our host church, we drove to the family’s temporary home. It was smaller than the Habitat house, but there was no doubt that love lived there. I watched as seventeen teenagers respectfully kicked off their shoes inside the front door. We crowded into the kitchen, making small talk as our hostesses busied themselves with meal prep. Dinner, consisting of single cans of various vegetables–peas, green beans, corn–and hotdogs, was prayed over and devoured by our hungry crew. In the eyes of the world this would have seemed meager fare, but to us, it was a virtual feast. It had been given out of the abundance of this mom’s heart. It was the best her pantry had to offer. And her hospitality was world class. We savored the tasty meal and warm fellowship, knowing that we were the honored recipients of “the widow’s mite” as exemplified in Mark 12:41-44, where Jesus observed a similar gift and exalted the generous giver. This was the essence of Sue.
When our bellies were full and the dishes done, our hostess ushered us to a side bedroom. A TV mounted high in the corner broadcasted colorful cartoons. There were few furnishings in the tiny space, and as I scanned the periphery, I soon understood why. Centered against one wall was a hospital bed with all of the standard wires and poles. Snugly resting under a thin blanket lay a young man, awake and alert, but unable to move or communicate beyond inaudible utterances. What he could do, however, was smile and that he did. A lot. Sue introduced us to her beloved 19 year old son, Ricky, while his sister tucked and fussed over her big brother. She then shared the story of the unexpected journey that led him to his current state. He had been a healthy teenager who had contracted some sort of infection. With tears, she recounted how he walked in to the emergency room on his own two legs, only to leave months later in a near-vegetative state. Since returning home, she and her daughter had become his full-time caregivers, preventing them from working outside the home. This is why Habitat for Humanity had stepped up to prepare a home for them. It would provide ample space for the equipment needed to properly care for Ricky.
Humbled and moved, our teenagers encircled the bed and began to engage Ricky in lively teenage conversation. And although he was unable to respond in kind, he reveled in their presence. As the chatter died down, I saw the compassion in each of our kids’ faces as, one by one, they moved closer to the bed. Some laid hands on their new friend. We stormed the gates of heaven that day on behalf of this family: For Ricky, his mom and sister, their faith, their new home, their journey ahead. In all of our teens’ eyes I saw the sobering realization that Ricky could very easily be any one of them. In retrospect, I imagine that through some of Sue’s tears at the work site she was envisioning Ricky as one of the able-bodied teens who stood before her. But that was not to be. The evening ended in hugs, tears and mutual thanksgiving. And on the quiet ride home, we praised God for the blessing we had received at the hands of that rich and beautiful family.
Each of these encounters echoes the true meaning of poverty: To be poor in spirit, which is to recognize our sinfulness and need for a Savior. As Jesus unpacked the Beatitudes it was the first on His list, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:2). That is the poverty we crave. We all arrive at the banquet empty-handed, whether elegantly dressed or in tatters, smeared with sweat or well-groomed. In Him, all are equal. The point is not how we come. It is that we come. The “rich” strut like peacocks with arms full of accolades. They skip Christ’s dinner invitation for lack of space in their day planners. They are busy being important. And when they fall, which eventually they will, the weight of emptiness will be crushing. However, for those whose identity is in Christ, our poverty has been exchanged for the greatest riches imaginable: Jesus Himself and His glorious kingdom. Whether wealthy or poor, that is all any of us needs.