Good News to the Poor

Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois on January 27, 2019

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“[Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

“Good news to the poor.” This phrase, or something like it, comes up over and over again in the Gospel of Luke and indeed throughout the Scriptures. It’s a major theme. But it’s easy to hear it as a sort of stereotyped phrase. To take it for granted. But who are “the poor” anyway? And what does it mean for Jesus to “bring good news” to them? 

To hear this phrase a little more clearly, we need to know what it meant to the people in Jesus’ world. rather than what it means in our world. 

In the Bible, “the poor” is a rather expansive category. It referred to people who were deprived of important necessities, to be sure. But it went beyond that to people who were not destitute or deprived in the moment but who were, so to say, defenseless. People who may have been stable or even slightly prosperous but who had no protection against a bad harvest, a cruel landlord, or a hostile government. It was a group that included beggars or paupers, but also dependent people like widows and orphans, and a lot of what we might call “middle class” people, too: small farmers, skilled laborers, and so on. They might do well in good times and get by in regular times, but they were never very far from disaster. 

And so much of the Bible is about them. In the Scriptures, God is often the defender of the defenseless, the patron and sponsor of the helpless, the father of the orphan. When the great and mighty trample on these poor, God hears and God avenges them. In the story of the Exodus, the people of God are oppressed by taskmasters set over them by Pharaoh, who make them work without reward. Their cries go up to God and God hears them and God rescues them. Over and over that is the story of God’s people.

But in the centuries after the time of Jesus, the meaning of the word “poor” started to change. Instead of describing a whole mass of humanity that lived in precarious conditions, it started to mean something more like “deprived” or “destitute.” True paupers—people with no land and no source of income—became separated from the whole group of the “poor.” And eventually, “the poor” came to be understood especially as those people who had surrendered all their worldly possessions and gone to serve God in the monastery or convent. So Christian charity–the duty of a Christian toward the poor–changed. It meant either giving money to the enrolled and official beggars of the parish, or it meant giving money to monastic houses for the maintenance of the poor of God.

This idea has lived on into our world. We speak about “poverty” or “the poor” as a special case, a special group. When we pray for “the poor” we sound like we are praying for some other group of people out there—people in developing nations, people in the “inner city,” people who have no job or no home. This group of “the poor” becomes an object of theories—why are they poor? Is it because they make bad choices? Is it because no one taught them how to program a computer?—and they become the object of the generosity of people who do not think of themselves as poor.

In that sense, “good news to the poor” might be something like “here’s a job” or “here’s some money” or “here’s a place to live,” which we as good Christians are providing you out of our goodness. Or it may mean someone in my position saying “brothers and sisters, you don’t have to be poor; all you need to do is ask God for what you need in faith.” Or “all you need to do is get your personal habits right, and you’re not going to be poor any more.” 

But I want us to get that picture of “the poor” out of our heads. I would like us to think back to that older idea of the poor as people who are vulnerable to shock, who are living close to the margin even if they are doing just fine right now. Even if they have everything they need and some money for luxuries and some money put away. 

Because here’s the thing: as we have learned abundantly since the 2008 financial crisis, even people who have a job and a home and a decent income and money saved can be very, very close to losing it all because of something happening that they have no control over. People who got steered into predatory subprime home loans. Or people who bought at the wrong time and lost their home when the housing market went south. People who saved and saved only into retirement accounts chosen by their employers only to find their 401ks vaporized. People who got cancer and had to spend everything they had for treatment. People who borrowed to go to college–as they were told to do–only to find out that their loan rates went up so much that they could never pay down their principal, even if they never missed a payment.  Prison guards who couldn’t afford gas if the government shuts down and they have to show up at work for no pay.

Just the other day I heard a news story about mom and pop mobile home courts being bought out by huge investment firms, who then quickly raise the rent on the land underneath the homes that people bought there. They talked to a retired nurse who needed an inexpensive home after her divorce and could not afford the doubled rent for her unit, and could not afford the money it would cost to move her mobile home somewhere cheaper. You get trapped by the decisions other people make.

That’s what it means to be “poor” in the sense that we hear it today. And the hard truth is that this is a condition that is generated by the world and the economy we live in—just as it was generated by the world and the economy Jesus lived in. The experience of vulnerability is usually profitable to someone. By design, the world produces greater wealth for a very small group, and greater insecurity for most of the rest. This staggering inequality contributes to so many of our conflicts. When we feel insecure or vulnerable in our own lies, it is easy to be persuaded that some other group of insecure people is a threat. When societies become extremely unequal, our institutions start to break down. The assumption that people have some kind of common interest starts to fail. Just as it was when the Prophet Isaiah spoke centuries before the time of Jesus.

And what you learn from this experience of insecurity is that the way we talk about this stuff—what we’ve “earned,” what we “deserve,” what we’re “entitled” to—is just words. There’s only what we’re willing to give to each other, and what the world can take away. The rest of it–all that “earning” and “deserving” and “being entitled”–is smoke and mirrors. The child in our care can see a doctor when she needs to and get the medicines that help her breathe because Americans pay for her, through Medicaid. And if we as a society are ever convinced that medicine for a child is a luxury we can’t afford, it can just go away. She got wonderful toys for Christmas from Angel Tree donors, just like we do here–beautiful toys for a child who is in a difficult circumstance. But there’s no amount of stuff that can keep her from being vulnerable. And what you learn from this experience is that it is all just degrees of vulnerability. My children are insured in a different way than she is. But that can all go away too, very easily. And all the stuff I have, more than I can ever use or enjoy, can’t protect us either.

So two thousand years ago and today, Jesus is talking to a lot of us. And Jesus is saying that he has been anointed to bring Good News to those who are only a couple of missed paychecks or a loan rate adjustment or a job loss away from desperation.

But what does “good news” mean? It starts, I think, with Jesus being part of the poor, part of this group that was so broad and deep. “He was born among the poor to bring the riches of God’s grace,” as one prayer of the church says. God does not help, from a distance, as a wealthy philanthropist. Instead God joins those who are are on both sides of the thin edge of insecurity–neither coming among us as one of those at the peak of privilege, nor as one who has nothing, but as the child of an ordinary laborer.

And by coming as a poor person among the poor, Jesus embodies the promise and the hope that God will come to their aid–to our aid. That God will restore the world as it was in the beginning and will be in the end: a community of love in which God provides justly for all. We see this first in grace and the forgiveness of sins, where what we “earn” or “deserve” or are “entitled to” does not matter, but only God’s good will toward us. We see this in bread broken and wine poured without cost, in a celebration that will stretch to accommodate any who come for it with repentant hearts. 

The church carries this good news to the world in our actions—worship, sharing the sacraments, proclaiming forgiveness. Through this good news the world is called to repentance and new life, called to turn away from the dangers that it creates. Through us, Jesus shows the world that things do not need to be the way we’ve known them. That we don’t need to fix ourselves, that we don’t need to fix each other. Instead we are asked to trust that God provides our daily bread as freely as God provides forgiveness of sins. And we need only to participate in God’s work of healing the world, and bringing justice to poor and rich alike. Amen.

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