Recently we meditated on the passage in James 2 exhorting people not to show favoritism to wealthy or “important” people. One verse stood out to me, “…Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5)
I enjoy this paradox, and this reminder that wealth in this world is not what determines the value of a person. Congo, of course, is known for its severe poverty, and we have gotten to know several families in Kananga who really struggle to have food to eat or to get medical treatment when they get sick. Yet, we are repeatedly impressed with the strong faith, the resilience, and the generosity of these people who are desperately poor in material things.
One of our favorite people in Kananga is Mulami (deacon) Elizabeth. She is nearly 70 years old, but arrives at about 6:30 AM each day to set up her stall in the small market across the street from our house. She sells peanuts, coffee, and sometimes boiled cassava all day, in the hot sun and frequent rain. She clears out her stall and packs up to go home around 6:30 PM. Whenever we need a trustworthy source to tell us about something happening in the neighborhood, we turn to her. When we were preparing for the big youth conference last year, she came along to show me where to buy corn in large quantities and make sure we got a good price. She provides food for her children and grandchildren – selling tiny bags of peanuts that cost 5 cents each. She has experienced plenty of hunger, want, and sickness, yet she is full of faith and hope and really has a gift for serving others.
This year I read a book called When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Using principles gleaned from Bryant Myers’ book Walking with the Poor, they describe poverty as a product of broken relationships with ourselves, others, God, and creation. Our poverty and brokenness in those relationships manifests itself in the economic, social, religious, and political systems we create, which are often unjust and flawed. All of us are or can be poor…perhaps because of a flawed view of our inherent value as a person, perhaps because we don’t care how we are polluting the environment, perhaps because of old wounds in our family that still haunt us, or perhaps because we don’t recognize God’s existence and authority. I think this is an important principle…I need to realize my own poverty before I can really connect in a meaningful way with people who might be labeled poor because of their material status.
In the gospels, Jesus often says things that are unexpected or counter-cultural to his audience For example in Luke 6:20 Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.”, and then in 6:24 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” Some people have said that Jesus is proclaiming a “reversal of fortunes.” In the midst of all the evil and injustice in our world, this is hopeful news! There are unique blessings and gifts that God has and will give to those who have gotten the “short end of the stick” in this life because of where they were born or what happened to them. Those who are suffering, oppressed, or materially poor have riches to share!