You Are Worth Speaking About
In their book, The Rich and the Rest Of Us, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West list ten lies about poverty that America can no longer afford. At the top of that list, number one is: “Poverty is a character flaw.” No one likes to talk about being poor and the reason is that America is a land of abundance. With so much abundance people have to come up with reasons why anyone would be homeless or unable to afford food. It must be that homeless people are drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, etc. Poverty is not a character flaw. It is a lack of money—period. No human is any more human because of their money.
Money is a social construct that, many argue, has become less and less human over the years. Money is a tool, not a definition of our character, and yet, as we see in the Scriptures going all the way back to Job, even a man’s closest friends wonder aloud about his character because of his impoverished state. He must have done something wrong. His friend Bildad said, “Be sure, God will not spurn the blameless man, nor will he clasp the hand of the wrongdoer.”(Job 8:20, Revised English Bible) Ancient wisdom says that blessing comes to the righteous but that poverty, disability, and mental confusion are the result of sin.
Jesus’ disciples demonstrated the mindset directly with their question (John 9:2) regarding a man blind from birth, “Rabbi, why was this man born blind? Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered; “It is not that he or his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s power might be displayed in curing him.” (vs. 3, REB) And so it goes, the convenient lie is that unfortunate circumstance is directly related to personal virtue. The common cry is “What did I do to deserve this God?”
We shouldn’t assume that prosperity, blessing, and honor follow the righteous, and equally we should not judge the poor as unrighteous because of their lack of financial blessing and worldly honor. Economic disparity in our world, where the majority of wealth is in the hands of a small number of people, is not the will of God. In Psalm 82 God stands in court and holds judgment on those who ignore the poor. “Do justice to the weak (poor) and fatherless; maintain the rights of the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rescue them out of the hand of the wicked. [The magistrates and judges] know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in the darkness [of complacent satisfaction]; all the foundations of the earth [the fundamental principles upon which rests the administration of justice] are shaking.” (Psalms 82:3-5, Amplified]
To be without housing and income is often to feel alone, defeated, and paralyzed. To be without a family anymore, father and mother, husband or wife, can make you feel forgotten. Let there be no doubt, this sense of abandonment is not your identity. But the psalmist reminds us, “The Lord has heard my entreaty; the Lord will accept my prayer.” (Ps. 6:9, REB) You have a gracious heavenly father, his son who sacrificed himself, and a comforter, the Holy Spirit, surrounding you with care. Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.
The Apostle Paul demonstrates the power of God’s love in his letter to the Thessalonians. We are loved by God in order to be channels of his love. We all have a great work to do. The love of God is not a matter of talk or sentiment, but of sharing our lives with each other.
“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” (1 Thess. 2:8-12)
The liberating power of the gospel, that the grace of God has appeared for all people, subverts the current order of things by turning the heralds of the kingdom into little windows of its glory. The apostle’s audience knew Paul’s love because he came as a hard worker rather than a lordly prince. The Word of God was demonstrated in action. Maybe one of the reasons the gospel falls on hardened hearts here in the USA is that we have far too many preachers who don’t offer their lives, only their mouths. People want to see what the gospel has done to change us. They want to see by our actions that this is liberating good news. And people want to know that there is work for them to do as well. “Not only the gospel but our lives as well.”
I believe that America needs men, women, and children that it doesn’t even value rightly to rise up and save this nation. This will take divine courage and vision. There’s an important story in Ecclesiastes that demonstrates this possibility.
13 “I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. 15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. 17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” (Eccl. 9:13-18, NIV)
Every person has a unique wisdom to share. We all play a part in God’s story. To stay quiet, shrink back, to bow out, is to allow the “shouts of a ruler of fools” to be the only voice heard. You might ask, “What wisdom do I have to share? Society is such a mess.” That question is just the beginning of your journey. Are you willing to take it?
1. Understand your worth as a person. Know where it comes from and what it is for. You are a social being with a divine purpose. It may take over $10 an hour in this economy to support yourself with housing, food, transportation, and clothing, but never relegate yourself to your production value. You are not a machine. You have so much more to give than what society quantifies.
2. People belong together. Belonging comes from the work we’re given to do, where we are located, and the story we share of our experience. Together we shape personal and collective identity. As long as each individual stays separated and seeks his own well being, there is no shared identity and no collective strength to speak up. The poor man who saved the city with his quiet wisdom did so because he belonged to the city. His name was forgotten, but his identity was secured.
3. Tell your story. There is someone else out there, most likely many people, who gain strength from your story. As you tell your story you will get to know yourself better. Start by writing it down.
In his well-known parable about a gracious father and his two lost sons (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus offers us a picture of our true identities in the divine narrative. It is common to focus only on the prodigal son in this story, and how he dramatically repents and comes back home, but this story involves three men: a father and two sons. The father and older son represent plenty, provision, work, location, place.
The second son is restless. He wants his rightful inheritance in order to live his own life. He tried on a new identity far away, but then the money ran out, an unexpected famine strikes the land, and he does all he can just to survive. His experience causes him to come to his senses, and he chooses to return home. He remembers his first identity as a son, but believes his actions have permanently altered the situation. In his poverty and despair he makes a plan to confess his sin and beg simply to be allowed a place as a servant.
The father’s actions speak louder than his words. He sees the son in the distance and hikes up his skirt and runs to his son. Older men in those days did not do this sort of thing. This was a scandalous display of affection. He threw himself on his son’s neck and kissed him. When his son speaks his rehearsed confession the father tells his servants to make ready to throw a lavish party. The prodigal never stopped being his father’s son. The older son however despised his father and brother for the “resurrection” party. The older brother never left home, had never betrayed the father, but felt that the father was rewarding the brother’s betrayal.
The father’s message to both sons is one of mercy, blessing, and acceptance for all. The prodigal son is not a slave but resurrected from death. The older brother learned that he had so much more than his right of inheritance, and that his father’s love was the most important thing. The prodigal son learned the value of his inheritance, not quantified with money or parties but in belonging. All three men have a shared story.
Klyne Snodgrass writes, “If Scripture seeks to give us an identity, which it does, this parable is a prime identity-shaping text. It says, in effect, that humans are not legitimately inhabitants of the far country, that they are not prodigals or slaves. Rather, they are children of their father and belong with their father. The prodigal declares that he is not worthy of his own identity and wants something less, but he is no hired hand. Grace lets you be who you are supposed to be even though you do not deserve to or may not want to. The elder son is suspicious of joy and sees himself as equivalent to a servant, but the father insists that he is a son as well.” (Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, pg. 141)
Now we come to your part in the story. Have you spent time “in the far country” running from your true identity? Or have you stayed at home and worked hard nursing resentment that you are not noticed and are just being used? It’s time to learn your true place in God’s narrative. To do that you’ve got to share yourself. Begin to write down your thoughts. What do you aspire to? How have you already helped someone else along the way? What else can you do?
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the good work you’ve given each of us to do, beginning in sharing our story. Our stories are full of many things that seem to lack meaning. Poverty and displacement are so painful and so disempowering. Loose our tongues and our pens to speak wisdom to each other. Jesus you are the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We want to grow strong roots in your wisdom. Grant us the courage to tell our stories and tell the truth even to the powers that be. Thank you for hearing us Lord, and for granting what we desire according to your will. Amen.
Yours in Christ,
Rev Chris Rice