A conversation on social media gave rise to this post.
And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Matthew 11:2–6)
Does it seem strange that Christ describes Himself as “preaching to the poor?” His answer to St. John, of course, is referencing the quote from Isaiah concerning the coming of the Kingdom:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed;”(Luke 4:18)
Of course, this simply reiterates the preaching of the gospel to the poor. Why not preach the gospel to everyone? What is it about the poor that make them the special object of this gospel of the Kingdom? I suspect the answer to that question goes to the very heart of the Kingdom of God itself, and to a resident difficulty in the lives of most of us.
I recently engaged in a thought experiment. Suppose you gathered a crowd of the poor from across our nation, black, white, etc. They are gathered for a seminar in which the topic is, “How do you impact the culture of our nation for good?” Very likely, the crowd would soon thin out, for the simple reason that this is not a burning issue among the poor: it is a middle-class issue. It is the nature of the middle-class that it imagines itself to be among the creators of culture, something that links them (us) with the upper-class. There are, of course, many conversations among both the middle and upper classes about the nature of poverty and the problems associated with it. Some blame the poor, some excuse them, but none of them actually understand them or speak for them. And yet, Christ seems to say that the gospel is specifically targeted towards the poor.
The powerlessness of the poor is not only real, it has been real throughout history. It is of note, I think, that income and voter participation are directly linked in our country. The less the income, the less likely you are to vote. Of course, since we are a nation of pundits, people will interpret this fact in a variety of ways. I see it as an internalized sense of disenfranchisement, both culturally and otherwise. The place where this is least manifest is in Church attendance. Belief in God and Church attendance are highest among the poor and lowest among the wealthy. Apparently, Jesus is still preaching to the poor.
As a teenager, I dated the daugher of a wealthy family for a time. Her father was very involved politically. During that time, there was a state election for governor. The winner belonged to a different political party from her father, but, we attended the inauguration with front-row seats (I was invited along with the family). After the ceremony, we were received into the governor’s office for a private meeting. It was eye-opening for me. For the wealthy, the door to power remains open regardless of party-affiliation. I was impressed. It was a momentary glimpse in my life – into a world that most of us do not see and will not see. I returned, not long after, to my place in life.
At the very heart of a secular worldview is the belief that the world belongs to us and is ours to do with as we will (for good or ill). If you imagine yourself to be a good person, then you will also imagine yourself as committed to making the world a better place, and you will believe that such a thing is in your power. This idea permeates our culture and is difficult to ignore. Many of the poor, however, seem to think the message is meant for someone other than themselves.
The culture’s answer to the poor is to raise them to the middle-class through income and education. It is assumed that, somehow, poverty is like a disease and needs to be eradicated. The English held this idea quite strongly during the 18th and 19th centuries and urged the poor to leave England and go to America and Australia. It did not end poverty in England.
But it is the gospel that interests me. The good news of the gospel is not that Jesus has come and died in order to raise the poor up into the middle class. It is far more radical. Christ’s preaching seems in a number of places to be a rebuke to the blindness and deafness of those who have money and power. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” He says. He also notes that the meaning of what He says is hidden from those who imagine themselves to be wise while it is clear to children.
The secularized notions of modernity proclaim that there is nothing wrong with the world that the good intentions of educated people cannot fix. A mark of education is accepting that this is so. What marks the “elite” in America is not the positions they hold within the government or the culture. It is the position they hold in their own estimation as knowing what is best and most needed by others and the world in general.
It is the innocence, weakness, and powerlessness of the poor that seems to create fertile ground for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The struggle for those of us within the middle-class (I do not imagine many of the poor read my blog) can often be described as seeking to acquire by virtue what many of the poor have by necessity. Is it any wonder that the monastic life seeks the weakness of poverty? I think we often elevate monastics like a spiritual talisman while we intend to do everything in our power to be nothing like them.
It has long been noted that Christ kept company with the “least of these,” and clearly sees them as a unique, even sacramental, presence among us. Today, the poor are more marginalized than ever. The rise of “Identity Politics” has largely replaced the poor with various aggrieved groups firmly entrenched in the middle class. It is a better political strategy in that such groups are far more likely to vote. The poor continue to be mentioned in various political slogans, but they have moved to the back of the line, displaced by the rising grievances of modernity’s latest creations.
I have a point in all of this, and it is not political. The behavior of our social politics differs little from times in the past. The only difference is that the group that can be identified as “middle class” is much larger today. The poor are among the most stable of all social groups. My point, however, is to ask of us the question: “What is it about the poor that makes them receptive to the good news?” A corollary to that is the abiding Christian question: “How do I become poor so that I might be saved?”
Consider the Scriptures:
For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–31)
I’ll add this wonderful passage from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. They are the words of a drunkard (Marmeladov) whose addiction has driven his daughter into prostitution. In a drunken stupor he spits out his vision of the Last Judgment:
… “And Christ will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us, ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him…and we shall weep…and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!…and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even…she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!” And he sank down on the bench exhausted and helpless, looking at no one, apparently oblivious of his surroundings and plunged in deep thought. His words had created a certain impression; there was a moment of silence; but soon laughter and oaths were heard again.