The Challenge of Poverty

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Sunday, June 3, 2018
Growing Your Garden Sermon Series
Scripture: Habakkuk 3:17-19 & Luke 16:19-31
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

John Wesley was born in 1703 in England. He was the son of an Anglican cleric. He was one of nine children, and his father’s ministry left the family destitute. John even saw his father taken away to debtor’s prison when he was young. You would think that such a sight would cause young John to pursue some other, more lucrative form of work, but John also trained for the ministry. He was educated at Oxford, where he learned to live on an annual stipend of 28 pounds. It was there that Wesley decided to purchase some wall decorations for his room, when he had an encounter that changed his life. A chambermaid came to his door. It was bitterly cold, and she was freezing with only a thin linen gown to her name. Distraught by seeing her freezing, he dug around his room looking for money to buy her a coat, only to find he did not have enough to give her because he had purchased wall decorations. In that moment he decided that he would do all he could to live frugally so that he would never be in a position again where he couldn’t help someone in need.

The next year his stipend was raised to 30 pounds. He lived off of 28 and gave away the other 2. The next year his income doubled, and he gave away 32 pounds, still living off of 28. The next year he earned 90 pounds. He still lived off of 28 pounds, and he gave away 62. The fourth year he gave away 92 pounds, still living off of 28. He continued this practice all his life, even as his work brought him to Georgia where he became the founder of Methodism. His income reached 1,400 pounds, but he still lived like he did in those early days. He was determined never to have more than 100 pounds at any one time.

In 1744, Wesley wrote, “When I die, if I leave behind me ten pounds…you and all mankind may bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.”[1] He did die almost 50 years later. The only money found in his possession were a few coins in pockets and drawers. Wesley was extreme in his views, but he lived what he believed.

As John Wesley developed his teachings, he came up with three rules for money. They are simple. In their simplicity they should be easy to follow, but they aren’t because of the hold money has on the human heart. According to Wesley, a Christian should, first, earn all you can. This wasn’t simply about acquisition. It was about faithfully participating in God’s creative calling for each person, and in such a partnership there may be material blessing. Second, a Christian should save all you can. Now, with this he did not mean have a large sum of money stockpiled away, as evidenced by his life. What he meant was spend only what is necessary on yourself so that you have the ability to use the rest for God’s purposes outside of the home. Third, Wesley believed a Christian should give all you can. Wesley believed Christians should strongly identify with the poor, so giving to them was a special means of serving Christ.

Two years before John Wesley died, he reflected on his teaching and on how difficult it was for people to live out. He wrote, “Of the three rules which are laid down…you may find many that observe the first rule, namely, ‘Gain all you can.’ You may find a few that observe the second, ‘Save all you can.’ But, how many have you found that observe the third rule, ‘Give all you can’? Have you reason to believe that 500 of these are to be found among 50,000 Methodists?”[2]

Obviously, Wesley’s rules are hard to follow, and apart from special grace from God, few have found it possible to live in the way John Wesley did. Underlying them, however, is the strong conviction that all a person has comes from God and that much of what a person has can be used to bless others. Christianity itself has in its very DNA the strong desire to identify with the poor and to do something about their poverty.

This is our fifth week on money as a topic. The first four weeks really came from the perspective of abundance. We all have been blessed so immeasurably, and out of gratitude to God, we should handle well what God has given us for God’s purposes. But what about those who don’t have much? What about poverty? What does the Bible have to say about that?

We need look no further than the troubling parable Jesus tells in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus. This deeply rich parable is worth far more time and attention than we have for it today, so expect me to get back to it in more detail at some point! However, there are some features worth pointing out that are on point with our topic this morning. First, it is part of a chapter that has two difficult parables that both start with the line “There was a rich man,” so we know Jesus is doing some heavy lifting with his audience on his teachings about wealth. Second, Luke’s gospel (and its sequel, Acts) dwells heavily on the right use of possessions. Luke has poems, sermons, prophecies, warnings, blessings, woes, and parables all devoted to the topic.

Third, and most pertinent to our time today is the audience of this particular parable. The Pharisees, whom Luke calls “lovers of money” in verse 14, are the focus for Jesus here. Jesus’ teaching cuts against the grain of the Pharisees’ reading of the Hebrew Bible, and so Jesus stands before them affirming that “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped” (16:17). Particularly in the book of Deuteronomy, the Pharisees found justification for what we would call a “gospel of wealth.” Deuteronomy is filled with if/then faithfulness statements. If you obey everything God has told you when you enter the Promised Land, then you will see prosperity.

Jesus has a different reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, falling more in line with “you have been blessed to be a blessing” rather than if you behave right, you’ll get good stuff for yourself. So, Jesus tells this disturbing parable to challenge the Pharisees’ view about how God has called all of us to use what we have to care for the poor. In essence, you are part of God’s plan for the healing of the world, which means each us of us has a responsibility as a follower of Jesus Christ to use what we have – our time, our talent, and our money – to care for the poor, perhaps not to the extreme of John Wesley’s conviction, but certainly with purpose, conviction, and compassion.

The Pharisees were right that God just might bless a person with much, but a person who only receives blessings and never lets them flow out of their life back into the world is like a retention pond that doesn’t have water flowing freely to and from it. Eventually it gets filled up with gunk and becomes deadly to all life around it.

Fred Craddock summarizes this well. “Clearly, Luke understood as well as we that the issues of wealth and poverty are complex, that anxiety about money is a disease among both those who have it and those who do not, and that a generous sharing of one’s goods can free one from danger to the soul which lies coiled in the possession of things.”[3] Or to put it more simply, as Eugene Cho does on our bulletin cover, “Generosity is what keeps the things I own from owning me. In other words, the point of my generosity isn’t just to bless others; it’s also to liberate me.”[4]

The final point I’d like to make this morning is this: God’s love for all people and for those whom life has handed a raw deal in particular should cause us to do all we can to seek out the divine spark that resides in each person. When we are helping someone in need, we must do it from the position of humility. We should never do things for people but rather we should do things alongside people. I think this story captures this idea really well.

When Charles Evans Hughes was appointed Chief Justice of the Unites States’ Supreme Court in 1930, he moved his letter of church membership from his home church to a church in Washington, D.C. Like us, this church invited all of their new members to come forward to be welcomed and acknowledged during the service. The first to come forward that day was a poor Chinese immigrant named Ah Sing, who did laundry for a living. As the other new members came forward, they stood apart from this man. Finally, Charles Evans Hughes came forward and took his place next to the laundryman. Hughes received praise for his noble deed, and of course that was a good thing to do.

However, to see this story only through the view that Hughes was noble in his behavior misses the image of God that resided in Ah Sing. “In actuality, the honor also went to the Supreme Court Justice who got to stand next to one who was made in the image of God, one who struggled in life, alone and marginalized, and still sought the Lord in a church that would not reach out to him. The true honor belonged to the Supreme Court Justice as well.”[5]

My friends, the way Jesus interprets the Bible and teaches the Pharisees should shape not only how we view money but also how we view others. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no haves or have nots. In Christ’s kingdom, God blesses us so that we can be a blessing. In Christ’s kingdom, no one is so impoverished that they don’t have something to contribute to others. This is the teaching of Jesus, and this is the reality we are striving to live into day by day. The good gardener recognizes that there is plenty in her garden to share with others.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it well. “The message of the Hebrew Bible is that serving God and serving our fellow human beings are inseparably linked, and the split between the two impoverishes both. Unless the holy leads us outward toward the good, and the good leads us back to the holy, the creative energies of faith run dry.” To that end, let us be a church actively seeking to be a blessing to all, and let us be a people ready to receive blessings from others – even people who may surprise us.



[3] Craddock, Fred. Luke (Interpretation), 189.

[4] Cho, Eugene, Overrated, location 558/2957.

[5] Rah, Soong-Chan, The Next Evangelicalism, p. 145-146.