Beginning of the World Hunger Day Sermon I intend to present on Sunday, April 27, 2008.
The Poor You Have With You Always
Texts: John 12:1-9; Matthew 25:31-46
Not many will take the John 12 passage as their text for World Hunger Day. Our Lord’s words to Judas, in the hearing of the woman who prepares Jesus for His death, seem so casual in regard to human need.
In fact, Jesus seems to say extravagance in religious expression is at times preferable to meeting human need. This interpretation of His words is contrary to His prior acts. Investigation is so required. What is Jesus saying about religion, hunger and poverty? He who feeds the hungry and takes real pity on the poor during His life seems almost addled about His work just prior to His death.
Or is He?
Food is a powerful image in Scripture. When the simple act of eating is not to be taken for granted, food becomes more than a powerful image. It becomes an urgent, pressing issue. Hunger, the want of food, usually accompanies poverty, the want of resources to provide sustenance. If we consider 2009 reports that, for the fist time in recent history, the world population produced less grain than it consumed (so drawing down reserves) in 2007 and 2008, the growing nutrition crisis on this crowded, hot, dry planet may bring hunger/poverty to the fore for populations previously troubled more by obesity than want.
We mix the two words, hunger/poverty, because hunger naturally accompanies poverty. If humans have resources to feed their families, they will most often choose to do so. Material poverty may extend to hunger last, but, ultimately, poverty and hunger go together as a unit.
The Christ, Jesus, fully understands the powerful image of meal taking. Jesus prepares for His death by banqueting (the Passover Meal), followed by the New Testament meal. His banquets are somber, reflective, poignant; still, they are banquets. The Christ links the New Covenant in His Body and Blood to Bread and Wine. Many of the images Jesus uses in His hunger intensive, poverty stricken era are agricultural images, replete with emphases on food, on crops, on harvests, both accomplished and failed.
Some of the most vivid images in the Biblical text, seemingly unrelated to hunger, touch on poverty, hunger’s twin. The hungry/poverty references seem even more frequent as the Christ approaches His death on the Cross.
In fact, prior to His death, one of the women most tied to His ministry anoints Jesus intimately with a costly ointment (John 12:1-9). Judas Iscariot, he of questionable motives and fatal actions, insists the cost of the ointment might better be used to feed many poor.
Jesus replies, "She is getting me ready for my death. The poor you have always. I am just here for awhile."
There you go. Jesus lays out His program for the end of poverty and hunger.
Understand, it is impossible to look at the teachings of Jesus and infer He does not care for the poor. In fact, in the ethical portion of His teachings about the Day of Days (Matt. 25:31-46), Jesus insists those who feed the least of His brothers, or clothe the most minor of His kin, or who give to drink or minister to poor debtors, will be counted as sheep in His Kingdom. By the way, this is one time when it is good to be a sheep.
If it is impossible to believe Jesus does not care for the poor/hungry, why does He seem so cavalier in His answer to Iscariot? In fact, any time we find a speaker speaking, don’t we have to account for the audience to whom the speaker speaks?
"I am about out of here," Jesus says to Iscariot. "She does her part. I do my part."
We could go on with all the psychological implications of His reply to Iscariot and its effect on the wayward apostle. The simple point is none of us wants to be Iscariot. None of us wants to have Jesus look right through us and see greed so deep we would kill a friend.
The Christ cares about all the needs of humankind. He just puts spiritual salvation first.
Here, in John 12:1-9, is the End Poverty Today program of Jesus the Christ. It is right here in this passage.
First, trust Jesus, the Christ, with all you have got. You can question Him about what He does and how He does it and how people relate to Him and His ministry. Just listen to the answer.
Jesus is here to die. His is a religious message before/above/beyond its ethical meaning. He really thinks His death/resurrection is the most important thing He will do.
Why? If you really, really, really believe God loves you, Jesus died for you and you can be actually, honestly forgiven of your wrongs and set right, what is there to stand in your way? Won’t your self-esteem be such you will seek education, climb out of poverty, produce and distribute to all who have need?
No program to end poverty/hunger, then, can be values neutral. Poverty clings. Generations writhe under its poison-ivy tendrils. An inner change kills the venomous root. Why is this true?
Some people, sadly, never get wealth and we ought to work to change this sad fact. Some get wealth but only to spend and often foolishly. A spiritual change encourages wisdom. Some get wealth to save and invest but grow greedy in their accomplishment. A spiritual change can make a callous fool into a helpful brother-of-all mankind.
Jesus hears The Betrayer talk of the poor/hungry. Jesus, the Christ points to His own death, so to say, "There is your offering for the poor/hungry."
Never fear, never falter, never fail to preach salvation in Jesus the Christ.
Then, empower women to end poverty/hunger. There is a woman who anoints Jesus in the John 12:1-9 passage. Is it possible that part of Iscariot’s problem is this; as keeper of the coins, he does not like to see a woman insinuate herself into his prerogatives? One wonders.
What we do not need to wonder about is the absolute certainty that a woman will spend herself taking care of her priorities, priorities which are most often set about family. A woman, given resources, will use a hundred per cent of those resources to feed her family, while a man may use most of it for the family and also go to a ball game with part of his resources.
Where culture deems women as virtual property, real poverty seems to abound. This is true in various cultures and from age to age. When women cannot decline child producing or insist on monogamy (or at least, responsibility), poverty intrudes. This fact is true from Third-World countries to Dead-Beat parents in America. When women live without power to feed their children, the children may indeed go hungry, for a woman, if able, will most often choose to feed her children while she exists on sawdust.
Did this cease to be a Christian message when we urged hearers to empower women?
In fact, for a century and a half or so, baptist (Free Church) Christians have empowered women to join local congregations with or without a husband. Baptist Christians empower women with literacy just like they were men, so they could read the Scripture for themselves, read it to their children and to their neighbors and to their husbands.
Baptist Christians love the Bible so much, we won’t even keep it away from women.
If you want to end poverty/hunger, empower women to be literate. They will empower their children. The blessings will extend to generation after generation.
Finally, if we want to end poverty/hunger, we should effectively tie relief efforts to a discernible goal. Jesus the Christ heals the sick, raises the dead and preaches the gospel to the poor/hungry, so the poor/hungry may join Him in His ministry to heal, raise, feed, clothe and preach. There is a quantifiable goal in His relief offering to the poor/hungry.
That is, Jesus includes the poor/hungry as full partners in the gospel ministry. They do not receive His blessing to remain objects of pity/charity any more than the wealthy/well-fed achieve some special status with God because of affluence. There is nothing sinful about wealth itself or virtuous about poverty. If the ground it is level at the foot of the Cross, it is so all humankind may begin an upward climb.
Jesus offers full partnership in the family business to any and all who hear and accept Him. He empowers women, lifts up the down and out and turns a sympathetic heart to the up and in with their emotional hopelessness. Jesus is the Ultimate End of poverty/hunger/need.
Jesus, the Christ. Try Him. You’ll like Him.
And you will love where He takes you.