This evening, we cover the second in our series on the subject of God and Economics, looking this week at whether God is biased towards the poor. This certainly seems to be the case in Scripture, and in particular, throughout the Gospel of Luke.
In Luke, we read that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. Luke’s Jesus blesses the poor and curses the wealthy. And in particular, we have the Magnificat, one of the most popular songs of the New Testament – crying out for justice for the poor. Of course we sing the Magnificat every week during term time – so it’s a very familiar text to many of us. And it takes me back to my time in the military:
One of my first security roles in the military, was that of ‘car door opener’ – which is more complicated than it sounds. A member of the royal family came to inspect our base, located somewhere in east Anglia – and I was the car – door – opener.’ I was confident, of course, because I had been carefully trained and had become technically proficient in the art of car-door-opening. As such, I was wearing my ‘number one’ uniform, the immaculate, highly pressed and excessively polished ceremonial dress required when protecting VIPs on a military base. Having spent hours preparing my number one uniform, I was now ready for the task of ‘car door opener.’
But as the Bentley carrying the queen’s cousin came into view, on the eastern horizon there appeared the silhouette of a pigeon. But this was no ordinary pigeon. This was a pigeon with bowel problems. With such severe bowel problems, I’m surprised it managed to part company with the ground. But having hoisted itself into the sky, the afflicted pigeon zeroed his target, and began his bombing run. As the black Bentley pulled up, the moment that must have brought immense relief to the afflicted pigeon, had the exact opposite effect upon me – as he downloaded the contents of his bowels – like a tin of grey paint, splattering itself across my number one uniform, in an incident technically known as a bird-strike as I opened the car door. The queen’s cousin began to laugh, and I didn’t have the impression he was laughing with me.
The incident ended with my Sargeant asking why these things always happened to me, producing a pair of nail clippers, and telling me the airfield needed mowing. And so ended my first encounter with royalty.
Israel’s anointed King is coming. These early chapters of Luke seem to show how, even the best and brightest folk did not know how to react when Israel’s Messiah arrived – in fact, when he did show up, even those the Bible itself described as blameless – completely fluffed it when the Messiah’s imminent arrival was proclaimed. Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist himself, and even Mary – just didn’t get it. The record of Mary’s reaction, comes in the form of this song, which – throughout history has echoed through beautiful settings from the lips of countless choirs in churches and cathedrals around the world.
But, unlike Sunday Bloody Sunday, Mary’s song was a rebel song. A subversive anthem, crying out for justice. To those in the corridors of Rome and the palaces of Jerusalem, the Magnificat was trouble-making rap music penned by a teenage mum from a council estate in Bradford.
Mary’s song – the Magnificat – speaks of a Messiah who will be politically active, who will establish justice, who will instigate regime change to bring down oppressors. It’s exciting, and rebellious and subversive. The only slight problem with the Magnificat, is that it is completely and utterly wrong. None of its promises were fulfilled, either in Luke’s Gospel, or in Mary’s life time, or in human history. Throughout her life and throughout history, unjust leaders remained at their thrones – oppressive regimes continued unhindered – and if this is what Jesus came to do, he failed.
Of course, by saying this, I am not questioning the word of God. Luke has told us that he has written a historically ordered account, and the more familiar you become with Luke’s Gospel, the more you appreciate his economy of language, his careful word craft, he says nothing by accident, and relates every passage of this gospel to every other. So why has he put in this place, at the very heart of the Gospel, an inspired, prophetic hymn about a future that does not come true?
Is it heretical to suggest that perhaps Mary got it wrong? Mary is not presented as infallible by any Gospel, and in fact, Jesus corrects his mother on more than one occasion. But if Mary gets it wrong with this hymn, what did she get wrong? That God cares about the hungry and the poor and the oppressed?
The first part of the hymn is straightforward, as Mary marvels that she could have such a central role in God’s plan to honour his covenant with Abraham. When she says that, from now on, all generations will call me blessed – she is talking about the descendents of Abraham – and knows that she is a key figure in God’s promise to make Israel a powerful and righteous nation. In fact, generations and generations appears three times in this short hymn.
And when first century Jews read and write of generations, the primary thought is the Abrahamic gene – the descendents of Abraham. It is the fulfilment of God’s purposes through these people – so if these people are oppressed, and God is promising to bring them liberation, then surely – the consequence is inevitably to do away with the oppressors, with those who are mistreating and marginalising the children of Abraham. So, surely, if God is acting today – that means bringing down rulers, lifting up nobodies, satisfying hunger and sending away the rich.
Mary’s spontaneous hymn of prayer expresses the true hope of Israel – but also outlines how God is going to achieve them. Surely, if God is going to honour his promises, then he MUST act in this way. There is no other conceivable way for God to act, but decisive – political rebellion. The Marxist readings of this hymn rightly present it as a hymn of subversion, but the problem is borne out by the rest of Luke’s Gospel.
In the end Jesus was crucified because he did not bring down the mighty from their thrones, he was not the great political revolutionary – which is why Barabas was released in his place. This is why even the baby who leaps in his mother’s womb when he hears this hymn – John the Baptist himself – even John the Baptist looks at what Jesus is doing, shakes his head, and has to ask why Jesus is not doing the things that a Messiah really ought to be doing!
God makes a promise to bring justice, Jesus makes a promise of good news to the poor – to bring justice for the whole earth. To do away with violent oppressors and bring regime change. So when God declares that this is about to happen, it is only natural that everyone thinks they know exactly how God is going to achieve this: Zechariah the righteous priest, Mary the faithful teenager, John the prophetic Baptist - each one a good and faithful representative of righteous Israel – each of them living in expectation of the liberation of Israel, each of them, completely wrong.
Of course, that begs the question of what Jesus really was up to. Why all this business about good news to the poor? Why all this talk about blessed are the poor? Why these promises about filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty? What do we do with these kinds of promises in the Gospels, these kinds of statements, when – the fact is – in our world today - every year – 15 million children die of malnutrition.
Where is the God who favours the poor? Where are the just governments promised in this song? And inevitably – we end up back at a recurring dilemma: how can we have an all powerful-God who is also all-loving? What kind of God parks himself on the clouds doing nothing about this? Is this the kind of God who does not keep the promises we read about in Scripture?
Well, we can spiritualise Jesus’ teaching on poverty – talk about spiritual poverty – and talk about spiritual regime change. But really, once you’ve given your brain a chance, you have to think again.
Of course, we can play the – oh, when the poor die, they go to a better place game. We can say – well, life is short, but eternity is where you rest at peace forever, and everything is alright? But then – if eternity with God, bears no relation to life as we know it – what is the point of life as we know it?
What legacy have the gospels left us, that can be deemed ‘good news to the poor’? In what sense are the poor, blessed? In what way has Jesus ‘filled the hungry with good things’? On the one hand – it is clear that Jesus never intended to end poverty. “The poor you will always have with you,” he once snapped.
I think, we find the seeds of an answer in presence of Christ. If this Jesus is the Christ whose presence we celebrate in worship – if this Jesus is, after all, Israel’s Messiah, God’s anointed liberator – then how do we recognise him? He doesn’t pitch up in a black Bentley expecting a car-door opener.
This is not the Marxist God who opens the doors of heaven to the poor, and shuts out the rich… otherwise Abraham, the patriarchal millionaire, would not be waiting in paradise to welcome Lazarus into his post-mortem abode.
The radical edge of Jesus’ being and teaching and action, is to be found with the fact that – he was not simply a king sitting on a distant throne, easing third world debt and capping executive pay. This is a Jesus who doesn’t get anywhere near a throne. Whatever you did for the least of these, says Jesus, you did for me. This is a Jesus who identifies himself not with the elite classes with their hillside mansions in South Jerusalem. This is a Jesus, who doesn’t simply listen to the lowest status folk in Israel. This is a Jesus who locates his own well-being amongst theirs – whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.
And when Jesus says this, he is addressing peasants – the moment you have an ounce of economic power, you have the power to touch the face of God. To touch the face of God as it is seen amongst those most in need.
This is the radical edge of Jesus’ teaching – not that God favours the poor. But that, your economic status has no bearing on your status as a human being in the eyes of God. Being wealthy is not necessarily a sign that God has blessed you. Being poor is not necessarily a sign that God has cursed you. Jesus draws attention to a power beyond the economic power
Not with a fix-it mentality – because economic injustice has never been fixed. But the call is rather – for those who claim to be followers of this Jesus, to see his face in one another. For those who worship this Jesus, to put it into action by treating those most in need as though they were God himself. Not to rely upon a divine economic power to come along and put everything right – but to live and act and relate, as though there is a greater power beyond the current economic regime.
For those in a position of wealth – to treat their neighbour with the respect and care they would show God himself. For those struggling with poverty – to do exactly the same with what little they have – to treat their neighbour with the respect and care they would show to God himself. To live as though there was a power greater than the economic power of the day – and by living as though it were true, making it true.
Pay Ceasar what is due to Caesar; pay God what is due to God.