The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Jesus’ preference for the poor (my sermon for January 28, 2007)

with 2 comments

apsemosaicstcatherinesmonasterysinai-c565.jpg[FYI: this sermon is a combined version of two - we were snowed out on January 21. You'll see quotes here from Disclosing New Worlds, video The Miniature Earth, screencaps from Global Rich List, and Syed Abbas (supreme leader of north Pakistan's Shia) from Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time. Hope you find some good stuff!]

Early in his ministry, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. As any observant Jew would do, Jesus goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, where he’s invited to read the Scripture aloud and teach. Here’s what he reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“To preach good news to the poor …”

What if every church in the world represented itself that way? What if our buildings said (on the outside): GOOD NEWS FOR THE POOR.

I hear those words with some discomfort. Because, to be honest, I have often scarcely heard them at all.

Jesus – ever different than me! – goes to that theme again and again. And he’s not just talking about “poor in Spirit.” Think of it:
– He spends his time with the hated, the outcasts.
– He lives in Galilee, despised as rustic and ordinary.
– He tells of a rich man and a poor one, and how the poor man goes to heaven and the rich man doesn’t.
– He tells of others who’ll be surprised they didn’t get into paradise because they didn’t take care of him when he was hungry or in prison. They object that they never saw him that way; he replies that whenever they neglected the hungry or imprisoned or unclothed, they neglected him.
– He says it’s harder for a rich person to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
– He tells a rich man only one thing is between him and the Kingdom: he needs to sell what he has and give it to the poor.

Yow.

In fact, Jesus preaches redemption from “all that is less than the Kingdom of God.” (I think that’s a quote, but I’ve lost the citation!) And apparently Jesus’ intent is to begin with those who have the least and then extend his message to the rest of us. The people who had Jesus put to death were people of privilege (and a small minority of Jesus’ fellow Jews) who realized they had much to lose from this message. Jesus isn’t talking about an abstract theological redemption – he offers special care to those who have had none. And it implies reduced privilege to those who have much.

Hear it well said by Lawrence at Disclosing New Worlds:

The difference between Jesus and the prophets on this subject is a bit like economic theory. How can everyone in society benefit? The conservative answer is trickle-down economics: make the rich richer, and the “overspill” will eventually trickle down to the very poorest. The liberal answer is about the greatest good of the greatest number: organise your economics for the benefit of the greatest number possible. Jesus’ answer is far more radical: include the least first – those who fall through every safety net in the system – and you’ve actually got a real chance of including everybody.That’s grace, and that’s God.

“God is Love” means that God’s concern is for the neediest first. That means that those of us who are less needy – and who are least used to having to stand aside for others – have to get in line behind the neediest. It’s a descending order of need: neediest first, least needy to the back of the line! It’s loving our neighbour as ourselves – which means not being prepared to accept less for our neighbour than we would for ourselves. It’s about doing to others as we’d like to be done to – putting neighbour before ourselves to ensure that, whatever happens, our neighbour doesn’t go without. It’s about losing our lives in order to save them – about abandoning a system of just deserts in favour of a system that privileges the neediest, and in so doing, sharing in God’s kingdom.

“OK,” we say cautiously. “But who is rich?” (Reminds me of the fellow who questioned Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”)

Miniature Earth Click on this short video at left. It’s helped me think over an answer.

And here’s another way to think of it: This little Global Rich List website will tell you, based on your income, how rich or poor you are compared to the rest of the world. I urge you to use it. But I’ve made a few screen captures from so you can see how it works.

For instance, say you earned US$100,000 per year:

100,000Here’s how you’d compare.

Note the 100 people across the bottom – see how the last one is red? That’s your group – you’re in the top 0.66% richest people in the world if you earn $100,000 per year.

“OK, get real,” you say. OK, some of you reading this make $40,000 per year - watch the red person and see how much lower you are on the scale:

40kDidn’t move much, eh? Still in the top 3.17%.

Let’s try $20,000:

20KTop 11.16%. At $20,000 per year, you’re richer than 89% of the world.

Hmm. Starting to see something here? Cut it by half again: $10,000.

screenhunter_006.jpg At $10,000 per year, you’re in the world’s top 12%.

5k At $5,000, still in the world’s richest 15%.

And if you make even $2,000 per year – and some of you live with Mom and Dad for free and make that at your part-time job -

2kYou’re richer than 80% of all people in the whole world!

When Jesus talks about “the rich” he’s talking about me. You, too?
Read him again:
- He tells of a rich man and a poor one, and how the poor man goes to heaven and the rich man doesn’t.
– He tells of others who’ll be surprised they didn’t get into paradise because they didn’t take care of him when he was hungry or in prison. They object that they never saw him that way; he replies that whenever they neglected the hungry or imprisoned or unclothed, they neglected him.
– He says it’s harder for a rich person to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
– He tells a rich man only one thing is between him and the Kingdom: he needs to sell what he has and give it to the poor.

And listen to more from Lawrence:

Many Christians are offended at the notion of “taking sides” with the poor and oppressed. [No doubt - since most Christians I know are rich! - M.] They suppose that the Christian way is to be neutral and disinterested – to see good and bad in both or all “sides”. The notion that we ought to “side” with the Palestinians in the present conflict, for instance, [an impoverished minority hemmed in by the high-tech army of a high-wealth nation] causes offence and worry.

The issue of sides, though, is a key one when you’re talking about power relationships. Jesus is here at Nazareth. He’s talking about the ways in which people who have power abuse those who haven’t. He takes sides – he privileges the victims. “Blessed are you poor”, says Luke’s Jesus, “and woe to you rich!” We will encounter a Jesus who cuts across easy, liberal notions of even-handedness.

Yet that is not to say that the gospel is not for everyone! It’s about how it is Good News for rich and poor alike! Let me put it this way: for Jesus, the liberation of the oppressed and the eradication of poverty is ultimately Good News for all. It liberates the poor and oppressed from the things that make their lives a living hell. And, at the same time, it frees the rich and the oppressors from their own enslavement to wealth, privilege and power.

Christian unity is not just about people from different denominations being nice to each other and learning to value each other’s insights. It’s also about the eradication of divisions of race, class, income, gender, sexuality etc that divide the Christian communities and make a mockery of the unity we proclaim in Christ through the Spirit – and live out and celebrate at the Lord’s table.

Pakistani girlsI’ve been reading Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It’s a terrific true story of a mountain climbing fanatic (Mortenson) who gets lost and ill coming down K2 – the world’s 2nd highest peak – in Pakistan. He ends up in a remote mountain village, where he’s nursed back to health, and where he finds his life’s work: building schools in remote villages.

Then comes our day of infamy: 9/11. Shortly after – and not far from Afghanistan – Mortenson is in the village of Kuardu to attend the inauguration of that town’s first primary school. The speaker was Syed Abbas, the supreme leader of northern Pakistan’s Shia. Here’s what he said:

“Bismallah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim,” he began, “In the name of Allah Almighty, the Benificent, the Merciful.” “As-Salaam Alaaikum,” “Peace be upon you.

“It is by fate that Allah the Almighty has brought us together in this hour. Today is a day that you children will rmember forever and tell your children and grandchildren. Today, from the darkness of illiteracy, the light of education shines bright.

“We share in the sorrow as people weep and suffer in America today, as we inaugurate this school. Those who have committed this evil act against the innocent, the women and children, to create thousands of widows and orphans do not do so in the name of Islam. By the grace of Allah the Almighty, may justice be served upon them.

“For this tragedy, I humbly ask Mr. George and Dr. Greg Sahib for their forgiveness. All of you, my brethren: Protect and embrace these two American brothers in our midst. Let no harm come to them. Share all you have to make their mission successful.

“These two Christian men have come halfway around the world to show our Muslim children the light of education. Why have we not been able to bring education to our children on our own? Fathers and parents, I implore you to dedicate your full effort and commitment to see that all your children are educated. Otherwise, they will merely graze like sheep in the field, at the mercy of nature and the world changing so terrifyingly around us.

“I request America to look into our hearts, and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah the Almighty, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in.”

The writers continue:

After the ceremony, Kuardu’s many widows lined up to offer Mortenson and McCown their condolences. They pressed eggs into the Americans’ hands, begging them to carry these tokens of grief to the faraway sisters they longed to comfort themselves, the widows of New York village.

Well, wealthy ones, what shall we do? You? Me?

May God help us to dare to take the course that has for us – a course that gives preferential treatment to the poorest of our world.

Related posts: Time to Pay Up, A brief history of Iran-US relations, Books not bombs

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Written by Monte

January 30, 2007 at 1:27 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m a Romanian Christian writer, a poet of Crist. I have a little In English section of Christian poetry on my blog:
    http://ionatan.wordpress.com/tag/in-english/
    Do you want te see it? Thank you and God bless you.

    Monte Says: Ce faci, Ionaton? It is an honor to meet you. I have been to Romania twice, both times to Sighisoara and Bucharest, and fell in love with your country. I was there to work for a couple of weeks at a time in a church in Bucharest at a place called Centru Nazareneanul. [Please forgive my terrible Romanian spelling!] It seemed to me that Romanian Christians added much to their worships through poetry. We Americans have little experience with it. Thanks for coming by, and I will certainly read your poems. La revedere!

    Ionatan

    August 18, 2007 at 12:40 am

  2. Monte, I am honoured – and amazed – that you should quote me at such length! But you’ve created a powerful sermon here! I’ve been way behind in the blogging world of late – how do you put video into the site??? God bless. When are you visiting the UK?

    Lawrence

    February 9, 2007 at 7:33 pm


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