While in Denmark I got an e-mail from a friend. I had explained to my friend that the tax system in Denmark had basically (not completely of course) eliminated poverty. The Danes pay 25% sales tax and anywhere from 50-67% of their income is taxed. The result: national healthcare at a significant level. Perhaps as complete of care as one can find in the world. From the cradle to the grave basic healthcare is provided by the government. My friend wrote back and said something along this line: “The system is so good there there’s nothing left for the church to do.” This got me to thinking… what is it that the church does?
Let’s take it as an assumption that a central concern of Christians is to care for the poor. What if one lives in a nation, such as Denmark, or in a suburb, such as we live in, where there aren’t many poor. Of course, if you get your ear close enough to the ground, there are still some poor in these places. But, there aren’t that many. So, what is the church to do? How central is care for the poor and the downtrodden, or the sick and unhealthy, to the mission of God in the way of Jesus? To carry out the mission of Jesus do we have to relocate to where the poor are?
I spent more than a little of my time, especially when walking or daydreaming, while in Denmark thinking about the question of my friend. My response goes way beyond what he asked and what he probably intended, but here it is….
Making care for the poor, along with any marginalized person, central to the mission of God in the way of Jesus misconstrues the gospel and the missional life. I want to contend that making care for the poor the center of it all gets things backward.
Here’s my contention, and I’d like to know your response:
Jesus’ mission was to love God and to love others — and you can express this central motif of Jesus in a variety of ways — and only because Jesus expanded the meaning of “others” do the poor come into the picture. In other words, we love the poor not because they are poor but because we love them as Eikons of God (made in the image of God). We love the poor because they happen to be Eikons who are also our neighbors. We don’t have to make the poor our neighbors in order to love the other.
Because we love others we love the poor; loving the poor is not the only “other” we are called to love. We are called to love all others, including the poor, but not only the poor. Our mission is to love the other, whoever that might be.
The genuinely loving person loves all others. In fact, that person finds the needs in others and knows that needs cannot be limited to socio-economic condition; some need friendship, etc..
Wealthy people, who are loved by God, deserve our love. Established people deserve to be loved by God. Disestablished people deserve to be loved. Poor people deserve to be loved. The poor are loved, not simply because they are poor, but because they are our neighbors and we are called to love the other. The problem is that many shrink the meaning of “other” to where it means “those I like.”
What is a pastor in the heartland of Iowa to do if in his or her parish people are doing fine? What is a Christian in a Danish village to do if everyone is middle class and there are no poor around? Do they leave where they live in order to find the poor? [By the way, I have no problem with some who leave such securities and relocate so they can spend their time ministering to the poor.]
Or, and this is my contention, are they to look out their window, listen to the voices of their neighbors — both here and beyond, learn about the needs of those around them, and link to them in love in a local way? Yes, I think this is the central mission.
The central mission of Jesus begins at home, extends to my immediate neighbors, and from there works itself out into my world. It extends love to anyone who happens to be “in my way.” The good Samaritan love the wounded man, not because he was looking for wounded folks to love, but because he loved anyone who happened to be “in his way.”
Do we care for the poor in other places? Of course. Do we extend grace to those in the inner city when we live in suburbs? Of course. Do we extend mercy to those in the world who are in need — AIDS, Darfur, tsunami victims — of course.
But why? Because we are called to love the other and we have observed them in our journey with Jesus.