• Jesus' approach to poverty

    Posted by Nils

    17 January, 2012

    Towards the end of last year I discussed on this blog how we keep the poor in their place. As I think about this, I immediately think of the contrast between this attitude and that of how Jesus treated people, and how, in doing so, he turned the social order completely upside down. Let’s look at some examples from the Gospels.

    Firstly, there is the story of the woman at the well in John 4. When the disciples return to the well after having gone into town, they are astonished that Jesus had even been speaking to the woman. And what's more, he even asked her for something. The Son of God expressed neediness to a “nobody”, and in doing so, affirmed her dignity as a person of worth.

    Another story to consider in this context is that of the woman with the flow of blood, told in all three synoptic gospels. This is another situation in which Jesus affirms a “nobody”, and he does so in front of everyone. Think of what that would have meant to the woman. Having a constant flow of blood, she would likely not have been able to have children. As a result she was probably divorced, shunned by everyone, and considered not worthy to bother the teacher. Put simply, she was a social outcast. But Jesus overturned the social order by saying, in front of the whole crowd, no, you are a somebody. As a result, her healing was not just physical; it was social, emotional and spiritual as well.

    Another example is the blind man in Luke 18 who cried out from the side of the road. Told to shut up and not interrupt the teacher, Jesus instead healed him, again in front of everybody. Then there were little children, more nobodies, who Jesus said his kingdom actually belongs to. More complete reversals of the social order. Examples like these from the gospels impact you much more clearly in a society like India in which people have their distinct place.
    Make poverty personal by Ash BarkerMake poverty personal by Ash BarkerMake poverty personal by Ash BarkerSomething I learned while in India was that overturning the social order is primarily about relationship. Poverty is not just a lack of material things; it is a lack of dignity, a lack of a sense that you are important. Ash Barker talks about this when he reminds us of the imperative to make poverty personal. Dealing with poverty must be about relationship -   about getting to know people. When Jesus was at the house of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 7), he affirmed the sinful woman who washed his feet with her hair. He made it personal. What a contrast that is to the subtle attitude that pervades much of our culture, which is that if we want to make a difference, we can give to a charity. Doing this is fine, but if by that we think we are doing our bit and giving the poor dignity, we are wrong. It is not enough. Isaiah says to take the homeless poor into your homes (Isaiah 58:7), not to just give a cheque to a charity and then continue to live our distant, aloof lives. By constantly 'helping the poor' in this way, we are keeping them at arm's length and we once again keep them in their place.

    So in a place like India, what do you do when a beggar knocks on your car window (as described in my previous post)? I put this question to the National Director of World Vision India, Jayakumar Christian, a wonderful Christian man who has worked amongst the poor in India for 30 years (Jayakumar was also the keynote speaker at last year's Voices for Justice gathering). What he said once again showed me the importance of relationship in dealing with poverty. He said he and his team often wind the window down and try to form relationships with beggars. They get to know them and ask them questions. Rather than ignoring them, or even giving them a few rupees and telling them to go away, this approach gives them dignity. It is love in action.

    When thinking about these issues I was reminded of two great Indians who also overturned the social order: Gandhi and Mother Theresa. They are heroes, but who follows their example? And why are they so venerated? Because they made a real difference. They had relationships with the poor. They ignored the social conventions that say you shouldn't give the poor too much or they will take advantage of you. They realised that love is stronger than that, that love overcomes that. And again, so what if you are taken advantage of every now and then? Is this really all about not wanting our comfort interrupted at any cost, while maintaining a veneer of doing our bit? I think so. If we help the poor from a distance, nothing really changes. Relationship is what matters. That is the challenge for those of us in the West.


    Nils von Kalm works as a resource developer with World Vision Australia (a Micah Challenge Australia Endorsing Agency). Nils is passionate about the importance of biblical theology informing our Christian worldview, and showing how Christian faith is relevant to the whole of life.