God takes the poor's side

John Pridmore's reflection for the third Sunday of Epiphany.

Nehemiah 8. 1 - 3, 5 - 6, 8 - 10;

1 Corinthians 12. 12 - 31a;

Luke 4. 14 - 21.

We���re told that at the time of Jesus Nazareth was only a tiny village, home to a couple of hundred at the most. Here Jesus spends his ���hidden years���. His emergence from obscurity is dramatic. Jesus goes to the synagogue as he usually does on the Sabbath. He takes part in the service, as perhaps he did frequently. He reads from the prophet Isaiah. Then he preaches. So far nothing exceptional has happened. Anyone versed in the scriptures could be asked to give the sermon and we have no reason to suppose that Jesus hadn���t done so previously. We get the picture of a sleepy morning service unfolding in much the way it has always done. Pleasant memories come to mind of Sunday mattins long ago, where one���s day-dreams were rarely disturbed.

But today the sleepers awake. Jesus reads about one to come who would set God���s poor people free. They���d heard that before. It���s what follows which is so electrifying. The gist of his sermon is simple. ���These words are about me and today they have come true.���

Jesus announces the purpose of his mission. He comes, ���his spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism���, to bring ���good news to the poor���. The rest of Luke���s story is the account of how Jesus fulfils that mission.

Who are the poor and why are they poor? There���s much talk today about the difference between ���absolute poverty��� and ���relative poverty���. Jesus doesn���t talk like that. His understanding of poverty is not shaped by economic theory but by scripture and suffering, by reading his bible and by making the pain of the afflicted his.

Not that Jesus agrees with everything the Old Testament says about poverty. Swathes of it reflect the view that the poor are poor as a punishment. Deuteronomy teaches that it���s the godless that end up in the gutter. That is not how Jesus sees the poor. Later in the bible we have a different view of poverty. Poverty comes to be spiritualised. ���The poor will eat and be satisfied,��� sings the Psalmist, ���and they who seek the LORD will praise him��� (Psalm 22. 26). The parallelism implies that the poor are pious and the pious are poor. This is not a connection Jesus makes. Jesus may advocate selling up and giving everything away, but he never suggests that being poor of itself makes you a better person. The scriptural tradition in which Jesus stands is that of the prophets. For them the poor are the materially destitute and socially oppressed. Whether godly or ungodly, it makes no difference. They are equally victims of the rapacity of the rich.

The poor whom God loves are not just ���the deserving poor���. Alfred Dolittle of Bernard Shaw���s Pygmalion was proud to be one of the ���undeserving poor���. In answer to Professor Higgins��� question ���Have you no morals, man?��� Dolittle replies, ���Can���t afford them. Neither could you if you were as poor as me.��� Jesus���s ���good news to the poor��� is as much good news to Alfred Dolittle as it is to rather more pious dustmen.

So does God care for the poor more than he does for the rich? It seems so, though we find it hard to say so. Instead we resort to coy circumlocutions, such as God���s ���preferential option for the poor���. When we turn to Isaiah, as Jesus does, we meet a God who takes sides. Just how far he does so becomes clear in a striking text which loses in translation. God warns those who deny the poor justice that they will be punished. These poor, says the Lord, are ���the poor, my people���, or ���the poor who are my people��� (10. 2) The usual translations, ���the poor of my people��� and the like, mask the extent to which God identifies himself specifically with ���the least, the last, and the lost���, the kind of people we meet on many pages of Luke���s gospel.

Some have seen Jesus���s sermon as an announcement of the ���jubilee year���, the year - every fifty years - in which, in an ideal Israel which never was, all debts would be cancelled and all slaves set free (Leviticus 25. 10 - 18). The vision of the jubilee year was the inspiration of the remarkable ���Jubilee 2000" campaign, which pressed for the cancellation of the debts which cripple the poorest countries as does its successor, the Jubilee Debt Campaign.

How far the idea of ���jubilee��� was in Luke���s - or Jesus��� mind - is a moot point. Jesus does not campaign for the abolition of slavery in the Roman empire and his treatment of indebtedness, at least as expressed in ���the parable of the unjust steward���, was eccentric (Luke 16. 1 - 8). What we witness in Luke���s gospel is not the overthrow of an unjust social and economic order. Instead we see someone going about doing good. One by one he sets us free.

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