Poor Happens

And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” —John 9:2 (NAS)

Poverty is not (proof of) sin. Poverty is not a character flaw. Poverty happens to people.

John’s Gospel records an episode in Jesus’ ministry in which his disciples revealed their sadly respectable conventionality. Two prominent strands of theological tradition running throughout the Old Testament converged in their question concerning the identity of the sinner responsible for an unfortunate man’s blindness.

The wisdom tradition teaches, in essence, that God has created the world according to certain principles of physical and moral order. The wise person studies the world in order to discern these principles and then simply lives life according to them. This person will prosper. Of course, the converse should also be true. People who live contrary to these principles can expect difficulty. The book of Deuteronomy, the covenant text par excellence, includes a collection of covenant “blessings and curses.” The extensive body of Old Testament literature influenced by it (for example, the so-called “Deuteronomistic History,” Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings) reflects the same theology. Fidelity to God and God’s covenant would bring Israel blessing; disloyalty would bring curse. Again, in this system, prosperity can indicate faithfulness; poverty can be a sign of disobedience.

Jesus’ disciples saw a blind man and concluded that someone must be blameworthy. They could just as well have asked the same question about a lame woman, a deaf child, or a poor person.

The problem, of course, with such a theological system involves the fact that it treats God’s interactions with human beings as though they were automatic: sin in, curse and only curse out; faithfulness in, blessing and only blessing out. God is not an ATM. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. All benefit. The Babylonians come destroying; they do not distinguish between apostate and faithful. All become victims. The expectation that everything in the world will conform to such a rigid system of exchange underlies the theodicy problem (why do good things happen to bad people and vice versa), the “blame the victim” attitude of Jesus’ disciples, and the strange modern perversion known as the “prosperity Gospel.”

Obviously, Jesus’ disciples had not considered Job, just as prosperity preachers do not seem to have heard Jesus’ call for his disciples to take up their crosses.

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question reoriented the entire discussion. The man’s misfortune did not present the able-bodied disciples the opportunity to assign blame and, probably, to congratulate themselves and their parents. Instead, the man’s condition presented Jesus the opportunity to do God’s healing work.

Jesus’ response stands more in line with other sections of Deuteronomy that remind the Israelites that God delivered them from their suffering in Egypt and call upon them to exercise special care for those in Israelite society who still suffered at the margins: the poor, orphans, widows, “sojourners” (gerim, a term that expresses something of the idea of “migrant”). Sometimes the list includes the Levites. In any case, God admonishes Israel to care for these people precisely because they, like Israel in Egypt, were vulnerable, with limited options. Unless Israel intended to behave like the oppressor, Pharaoh, God’s enemy, they must take the opportunity to do God’s liberating work. The allusions to the Exodus in one particularly explicit text, Deuteronomy 15:7-10, are unmistakable:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. (Deut 15:7-10 NRSV)

Poverty happens. Crops fail; stock markets crash; employers declare bankruptcy. Illnesses empty bank accounts, force the sale of homes, and reduce some sufferers to poverty. The Torah does not castigate the poor as sinners. Instead, it warns those who do not help the poor that they risk becoming guilty of stinginess before God.

The current political climate in the US exposes a number of long-standing undercurrents in the culture, undercurrents that resemble the disciples’ assumptions about blessing and curse. Most prominently, these assumptions include: the Protestant “work ethic,” in its most virulent, Puritan, form; false individualism; and a vengeful understanding of “justice.” As Calvinists, early American Puritans believed that a given individual either was, or was not, among the elect. Nothing could be done to change God’s decision. Prosperity, however, might be a sign that one was among the elect, so the success brought by hard work became a means of confirming, indirectly, that one was chosen. Poor people were, almost by definition, reprobate. Pioneer Americans valued self-reliant individual’s who took chances on new ventures, people who “made their own way.” Pioneer individualism still finds expression in statements like “God helps those who help themselves,” “He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps,” and “self-made.” “Justice” is a term susceptible to a variety of definitions. For many people, justice manifests the desire to be sure that people “get what they deserve,” as long as this concept of justice applies only to others.

Children are born into poverty and grow up in settings that offer little opportunity for “self-improvement.” Heads of households die suddenly, unexpectedly, and before they make preparations for their families to flourish. Automobile accidents maim and incapacitate. There is no sin in any of this. There is shame, but not for the victims; the shame is that everyone else fails to realize that poverty can happen to anyone.

Rather than blame victims of poverty, castigating them for sin and sloth, what if we began to view poverty and the poor as an opportunity to do God’s work of healing and helping?

This originally appeared on Mark Biddle’s website.

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  1. Karen Pope says

    Thank you for a view that is still so counter to our American culture. If Creator God can feel compassion for those who live in poverty, how much more should I? I have learned lessons from America’s poor during my years in social work that have brought me into the presence of God in the world. Those who live below the poverty level are often rich in courage, mercy for others, faith in God, endurance, wisdom and strength. I am often ashamed in their presence, not because they intend to shame me, but because God shines a light on my own poverty of faith and courage and mercy.