By Zachary Ritvalsky
My community includes people who are both materially poor and “poor in spirit.” However, what exactly does it mean to say that people are “poor in spirit”? To be “poor in spirit” is not the same as being economically poor, yet both kinds of poverty matter, and the church must address both. In his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland interpreted the phrase like this: “The poor in spirit would be those who sense the burden of their present (impoverished) state and see it in terms of the absence of God; who patiently bear that state, but long for God to act on their behalf and decisively claim them as his people.”
Nolland understands the poor to be the impoverished who are looking for God to rescue them from their poverty. This means the church, as God’s representative here on earth, has the responsibility to do the same. Therefore, one of the first ways we can serve the poor is by genuinely loving them. I know this sounds like an overly simplistic cliché, but we need to love the poor as much for them as for ourselves (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19). Pastor Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, shares the story of a homeless man who came to his church on Easter. The day had been long, and, after the final service, the man, bearing the proof of his homeless condition, approached Pastor Cymbala, who responded to his presence as many of us probably would have. He reached into his pocket to give the man a few dollars to which the man replied – “I don’t want your money preacher, tell me about this Jesus you preach.” At that moment, Jim Cymbala said, “The smell of the street became the aroma of a garden.”
How we love the poor is a clear indicator of how we understand God’s love for us. Too often, in misunderstanding God’s love we make the poor the object of our charity, the front cover of our programs, the focus of our grant requests, or the target audience to fill our seats. We make them listen to sermons before we feed them, ask them to join the church before we clothe them. We use them as objects instead of people loved through us. God is love, and by being endowed in his image, as they are, we ought to love them for who they are in God’s kingdom here on earth. It is important to do this because Jesus loved them enough to die on the cross for them.
Through what sort of actions does this love express itself? After all, don’t believe for a moment that anyone poor wants to be poor.
First, we need to educate the poor about the Bible’s storyline, and I don’t mean through the sound bites and video clips that all too often characterize Sunday morning. We must help them understand the metanarrative of scripture, what Vaughan Roberts calls “God’s Big Picture.” This sense of the Bible’s storyline informs the poor that when everything is said and done, they win because Christ won the victory over sin, death, and the grave. The “not yet” of the kingdom in the Bible’s story speaks about foundations made of precious stones, gates of pearls, and streets of gold as the new Jerusalem comes from heaven to earth. The poor need to know that poverty is not forever when you’re in Christ.
Second, we need to educate the poor and our youth in preparation for the current and future job market. We need to advocate for better education, including vocational skills training in step with the market. This means we need vocational high schools that link students to sponsors who will provide on-the-job training so students can graduate from high schools with life skills, trades, and, hopefully, jobs. Not everyone is going to college, and this means an increase in education funding. The church should be working in the public square to make this happen.
Third, we the church can also serve the poor by making our facilities accessible to them. In most cases, the biggest asset a church has is its facilities, and often they are underutilized. Therefore, it is important to consider using our buildings to meet the needs of the communities we serve. Often, the people we don’t reach on Sunday mornings have needs starting on Monday. They may need computer lab access to develop resumes and apply for jobs. Students may need a place to complete homework assignments or just to play computer games. Local community development organizations that link with a church’s vision may need a space to host meetings or deliver their services.
Fourth, the church needs to serve the poor by offering educational opportunities that enable them to secure a GED and receive personal finance training. Our church provided such training through partnerships with other organizations. It was amazing to see the many community residents who came looking for instruction. This training is critical, as nobody needs personal financal education more than someone whose resources are limited, stretched to the breaking point each month. I’ve even seen Muslims from the community, who normally won’t enter a church, attend the program. We held twelve-week training sessions and 150 community members participated. Citizen’s Bank did the training using the Money Smart curriculum offered by the FDIC. Fidelity did our retirement and investment training, while our legal clinic partners provided instruction on wills and taxes. Meeting the needs of the community is a wonderful way to bear witness to the kingdom of God.
Fifth, the church must serve the poor by availing financial resources to them in times of crisis. Our church doesn’t focus on relief efforts, but life happens, and, occasionally, people need financial assistance. Rent money is short, babies need coats, utilities get shutoff, and food is in short supply. This can easily happen when take-home pay barely meets expenses or survival depends on a welfare or Social Security supplement check. The Bible is replete with passages on this topic regarding the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, 26:12; Isaiah 58:7, 10; Matthew 5:42, 19:21; Luke 3:11). This doesn’t mean we just hand out benevolence, though in some circumstances that’s okay. Instead, the church can serve the poor in times of financial crisis by becoming their temporary employer. We can provide opportunities for them to earn what they need by working around the church. The worker is worthy of his wages and, in many cases, the work provides them with a sense of dignity because an economic exchange is taking place as two people meet each other’s needs. In my book, that’s not charity. Overall, the work of our church is about providing development opportunities as opposed to relief and rehabilitation. Relief and rehabilitation efforts are important in a crisis, they’re just not what we do given the prevailing conditions among the poor in my community.
The ways our church serves and loves the poor are not exhaustive. There is one gospel of Jesus Christ, but there is no one way to love our neighbors. Only through the gospel’s understanding can people learn contentment in states of plenty or want. Only through the gospel can people rightly form hope. The gospel is about transformation – positive, progressive, life-altering change that produces good fruit. Let the church of Jesus Christ be the catalyst for facilitating this change by loving, advocating for, educating, and sharing with the poor of this world.
This commentary was excerpted from the author’s longer essay in Oikonomia Network’s Economic Wisdom for Churches. Download a free copy of the new 184-page book here.
About the author:
*Zachary Ritvalsky is a professor and the Philadelphia site director at Lancaster Bible College
This article was published by the Acton Institute