We’re going to start varying up the format of the podcast a little bit—we’ll be trying out some shorter episodes like this one once in a while along with the longer, interview-driven ones. Drop us a comment on Facebook or Twitter to let me know what you think of it.
Mentioned in the Episode
“Lord of the Middle Rings” by Dustin Messer
Light to the World: Making Politics Safe for Christian Community
Last weekend, at the Gospel Coalition Mid-Atlantic Conference, I had the chance to give a presentation on “Radical Responsibility: Fostering a Culture of Mercy in a Representative Democracy.” I got to spend an hour with a room full of people exploring ways that our churches can be part of healing our political culture. There was a lot of ground to cover and not enough time—could there ever have been enough time? This is such a big topic, you can spend years swimming through it and never hit the deep end.
But as we talked about ways that we as congregants can make our churches into places that foster better politics, there was one point in particular that came up but that we weren’t able to look at in any kind of depth: The fact that the same practices, the same attitudes that turn our churches into engines that drive healing in our communities’ politics ALSO turn our churches into places that are welcoming to the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor, and the voiceless. The people who fill the same roles as the widow, the poor, the orphan and the foreigner in ancient Israel—the people many biblical scholars call “The Quartet of the Vulnerable.”
And since we didn’t have enough time to pause and think about that fact during the presentation, let’s take a couple minutes to do that now.
This was an important and relevant idea to explore because the theme of the conference was understanding and practicing biblical mercy—what a lot of churches call mercy ministry or diaconal ministry. Ministry that focuses on meeting the needs of our poor, vulnerable or marginalized neighbors.
Why Will The Poor Always Be With Us?
When we talk about making a priority of accommodating the poor, or attempting to alleviate the symptoms of poverty in people’s lives—and especially when we talk about being motivated to do that because of our Christian faith—one question that I’ve been asked a few times is, “Didn’t Jesus say the poor would always be with us?”
The first and most obvious response to that question is that the whole sentence is, “The poor will always be with you and you can give to them whenever you want, but I am only here for short time.” The conversation started because a woman poured out expensive perfume to anoint Jesus, and the disciples chastised her for wasting it. She could have sold it and given the money to the poor.
This was obviously an act of extravagance. The type of perfume she poured out was expensive and relatively rare. Some scholars speculate that, to put things delicately, the perfume might also have been part of the woman’s “professional equipment,” and that pouring it out may have been a renunciation of her former work.
Either way, it’s important to remember that Jesus wasn’t rebuking the disciples for their impulse to think about the poor. We know that, because his response indicated that they’d continue wanting to give to the poor in the future and that they are morally and practically able to do that. If anything, he was rebuking them for trying to tamp down on this woman’s zeal. For not stopping to take stock of just how wonderful his presence is. Regardless of whether the perfume was a “professional aid” or not, it was an expensive luxury. It was an item of great value, and maybe an indicator of or vessel for social capital. For glory. She was laying her glory down at Jesus’ feet, just as the kings of the world will one day.
That’s the low-hanging fruit. I’m not equipped or qualified to claim that I’m giving any kind of definitive read on this passage, but it’s probably not wise to move on from it until we’ve looked at one other fact: When Jesus told the disciples they would always have the poor with them, he didn’t make that phrase up. He was quoting scripture.
Deuteronomy 15 is addressed to Israelites who might be tempted to be less generous to the poor among them because they know that a year of debt forgiveness is coming up.
Let’s look a the passage real quick:
At the start of the presentation, we talked about mercy existing at three scales: The inter-personal, the corporate, and the political.
The interpersonal scale is direct interaction, close relationships. Relationships that exist because of frequent and ongoing interaction between specific people. It’s either familial or voluntary (or in some cases, both).
The corporate scale are the relationships between people who might not be very close, but are associated with one another in some significant way. A club, a team, even a church. Our team member Dustin Messer wrote a great blog article for us recently about “middle rings” of American society—you should all visit our website and read it—but the corporate scale is basically the scale of middle rings. This one is also basically voluntary.
The political scale is the systems that hold together the relationships between people who might never actually meet, never actually share a specific experience. It doesn’t tend to be strictly voluntary. You’re part of a broader society by default.
The poor were always going to be in Israel by matter of practicality, because Israel existed at a political scale. Go into most societies that existed at the political scale throughout most of human history, and you’re likely to end up lumping in at least some people who have significantly more than others. Some people start out with less. Some people accumulate more. Some people lose a lot or have a lot taken. And some people end up going through all of those things over the course of their lives.
But the apostles were not a nation. Their relationship to one another existed at the personal scale. And they were about to be commissioned to become the founders of the Church, which exists at the corporate scale. If we wanted to, we could probably all structure our lives so that, at the personal scale, we don’t have to interact very much with people who are much richer or much poorer than us. The same is true of our lives at the corporate scale. And, honestly, that’s maybe not that surprising. It’s easier to do that.
So, if the apostles’ relationships to one another were at the voluntary scales, but Jesus said that they’d be as sure to have the poor around them as Israel was sure to have poor among them at the involuntary scale, why did Jesus expect them to always have the poor with them? How could he expect that of them?
God’s laws and commandments, his instructions to those who believe in him for how we should best order our personal and corporate lives to reflect his intentions for our flourishing, have ALWAYS resulted in his people forming communities that are attractive to the poor.
In Egypt, at the political level, it was a proactive program to ensure food security during difficult times. In ancient Israel, it was a laws concerning gleaning of the fields, protecting laborers, and periodic economic resets.
But the church is not a nation. The church is smaller communities scattered within and throughout all of the nations at the corporate level, and testifying to his glory at the personal level through Christians living in line with his character amongst people who don’t know him yet. When we’re doing that well, our churches will have no choice but to become attractive places to the poor.
The Roman Emperor Julian attempted to revive a form of Roman paganism as a civil religion, a point of national pride, a sort of rallying point for Roman cultural identity. This wasn’t the first time in history that a monarch wanted to see God’s community wither and die. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to assimilate to God’s people out of existence. When the Babylonian king wanted to digest the people of Israel into the body of his country, God’s people were preserved and kept distinct by God’s intervention on behalf of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel.
When Emperor Julian wanted to do the same thing, God didn’t preserve his people through supernatural miracles. He did it through the persuasive beauty of his character being made visible by the people who had been grafted into his body. Julian couldn’t get his new paganism to take hold because of the way Christians were behaving in Roman cities.
“They don’t just take care of their own poor,” he complained, “But ours as well.”
Their behavior was making them attractive, dear and even precious to the poor. The poor flocked to them, and resisted attempts to persuade them away from Christian identity.
The presentation mostly focused on practical ways to foster Christian community across party lines within a church, and how we as Christians can demonstrate the gospel more clearly when we engage with the public square. The thing we hit on was that the same practices that make us better at dealing with one another and with politics more Christianly are also things that make our communities more attractive and welcoming places to the poor—and that shouldn’t be a surprise.
One day, our Lord’s very presence will provoke political healing. The lion and the lamb will lay down together. All the kings of the earth will kneel and lay their crowns at the great King’s feet. But our Lord is also, in his very nature, relief to be anxious, food for the hungry, hope for the destitute, comfort for the afflicted.
And the church is not just a club of people who are big fans of his. The church is commissioned to actually be his body in this world, his very hands and feet, until he returns. He lives in this world, he makes himself visible in it and interacts with it within and through the local gatherings of members of his body.
Being a healing influence on the culture of our political communities and being the kinds of people or communities that make the poor feel welcomed, the desperate feel like they’ve found refuge—those aren’t two different things. They’re both evidence that we are walking in line with his character. I think we mention this in our Bible study guide, Light to the World, but Scripture calls love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruits of the Spirit. That’s not a typo or an accident. God’s Spirit doesn’t only show evidence in one aspect of our lives. We all have particular gifts and skills, but none of us are one-dimensional. None of us are perfect in every way but one, and none of us are meant to be healed less or restored less or made less glorious than one another when the resurrection comes. If we’re only demonstrating Christian character in our conversations about politics, we’re not actually demonstrating Christian character—we’re impersonating it.
As we grow in our understanding of what it means to be the breath of life to the public square, to our neighbors and communities at the political scale, we will also find ourselves serving as the breath of life to people at more personal scales, too.
Those of us who are not already poor will find that the poor will go from being people who are in our lives once and a while—maybe at our monthly volunteer project, or when our church hosts the occasional mercy meal—to being people who are always with us. People who are regular parts of our hearts and our minds and our lives.
And those of us who are poor, as we grow in grace, as the people around us grow in grace, we will find ourselves less afraid, and less alone. Poverty can be stressful, especially in an individualistic culture in which, for a lot of us, wealth or work or productivity are tied pretty closely to our ideas about a person’s worth, value or dignity. And even if that weren’t true, the practical realities of poverty make it hard to share time with other people regularly. The emotional and psychological effects of poverty make it hard for the time we do spend with people to be comforting or restful or restorative.
Christian character growing not just in the lives of individual Christians but in a specific community of believers serving as Jesus’s hands and feet, his presence, his body in this world, yields spiritual fruit by giving people the opportunity to experience a lighter yoke, a more merciful master. As one of my favorite Christmas carols puts it—and can you believe it’s already getting close to the Christmas season?—but as a Christmas carol might phrase it, Christian character growing within a local gathering of believers offers people a thrill of hope. The weary world rejoices when they see that new and glorious morning.
Q Commons: The Power of “We”
In just a minute, we’re going to close by praying together, but first, I want to give a quick update on a special event we’re hosting in DC on October 25.
The event is called “The Power of ‘We’: Radical Hospitality in a Hostile Age,” and it’s going to bring together thoughtful Christians from all around DC. If you’re listening to this, I hope you’ll be one of them.
We’re partnering with Q Ideas—an international organization dedicated to helping Christians work through hard questions—and this is part of their annual Q Commons event, which happens in about 140 cities all at the same time. We’ll get to hear globally-syndicated talks from Bob Goff, Jo Saxton and Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity:Water. And if you join us in DC, we’ll be hosting exclusive live presentations on-site from three tremendously exciting speakers, including the vice chair of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, who will be helping us better understand the relationship between the arts, hospitality and community identity. We’ll also get to hear from Rev. Thomas Bowen, the director of the DC Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, as he discusses specific ways churches throughout our city have helped their neighbors experience Jesus’ healing and flourishing—stories that don’t usually make the news or the local blogs.
There are aren’t many opportunities to meet so many other like-minded disciples in our community, and this is one I hope you won’t miss. Please commit to join us for this exciting evening, where we can learn together, grow together, and leave with at least one specific next step we can take to be agents of God’s healing and flourishing in our city.
Rich and glorious King,
For our sakes, you became poor, that by your poverty, we might become rich. You poured your glory out for us, but we are honestly pretty often afraid to make ourselves vulnerable to people who lack the things that we take comfort in. We’re afraid that our glory will be tarnished, or our resources depleted, or our comfort disrupted. You’ve promised us that’s not the case. You’ve promised us that your glory is more powerful than our degradation. Your healing is more durable than our brokenness. The flood of your love is more overwhelming than the desert of our hearts and minds. Your resources are vaster than our need.
And our need is great. We are deep into a season of open enmity in our public life. We know that this didn’t happen suddenly—that this is only new evidence of a deep brokenness that has been working its way up to the surface for years. We can’t heal ourselves of this sickness, and we confess that we’ve left it untreated for too long. We come before you humbly, expectantly, and confidently, asking for you to extend your hand and touch us, so that your contagious health can take root in us in this way.
You’ve trusted us to be Christians in this time and this place. You’ve put your name on us, your banner in our hands, and our names on your hands. Help us live out your grace in our lives and in our life together, being the influence on our communities now that functions as a foretaste of the influence you will be on the world when you return. We ask these things so that your name will be made beautiful and glorious and humbling before the peoples and the nations.
And it is in that worthy name we pray,
Donor Thank You
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