There is a question that has been niggling away at me for some time, writes Rev Sydney Maitland, and not one that has always come to a ready answer. This is the place of the poor and the dispossessed in the sight of Jesus.
The conventional answer has been to refer to Jesus’ bias to the poor and this is pointed to by the Magnificat, the song of Mary, at the beginning of Luke’s gospel and the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew, just before his account of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. Certainly there were many healings, and Jesus was uncompromising in telling His disciples that His word and mission must take precedence over family, wealth or indeed any and all other attachments. But healing was healing, regardless of the status of the person in need, and this could include well placed people like Jairus and the Centurion.
But does Jesus specifically identify Himself with the poor and dispossessed? And if so is this to the exclusion or at least the side-lining of all others? Here I am not so sure. When it was presented to Him, Jesus identified as His personal kin those who obeyed the will of God. It is there near the beginning of Mark (3: 31-35) and near the end of John, in the High Priestly Prayer (John 17). Paul draws on it in his letter to the Corinthian church when he sees the church as the Body of Christ – a highly intimate relationship. Matthew and Luke also repeat Mark’s passage on the family of Jesus (Matthew 12: 46-50, Luke 8: 19-21).
He was also willing to recruit men who were in the middle of society – fishermen who had their own boats and businesses, and as a carpenter/builder Jesus Himself had had to obtain commissions, source the materials, do the work and deliver on time and on price – and yes, get paid for the work. He was also supported by some wealthy women when on the road (Luke 8: 1-3). Nevertheless He claimed nothing for Himself – and told any aspiring disciples that this would apply to them as well. (See Matthew 8: 18-22).
I think that there are different strands to His preference for the poor. First, these were the people who had nothing – nothing to defend, no means or self-sufficiency and who, living on the edge, were most open to His message. Those who were materially self-sufficient were often felt morally and spiritually self-sufficient – at least in their own estimation. The poor were not and were happy to find One to challenge the self-importance of their religious and secular leaders.
What applied in Jesus time applied also in the era of the church before its activities were taken over by the welfare state. It was the church that inspired and often also provided the schools and hospitals, and which inspired laws for the relief of the poorest. It was the Christian faith that inspired campaigns to abolish the slave trade and slavery as a whole, and prison reform, among other social reforms.
But Jesus came for the whole of humanity, and as He had to start somewhere, He started with the Jews who already had the scriptures and worship of God. But He died for all, regardless of social or cultural background. Equally, He rose for all and in the Great Commission, instructed that the gospel be brought to all nations. (Matthew 28: 18-20). No exceptions. Those with least to lose in this world, and who had none to speak or act for them, were those most likely to listen to that message. Those with most and with the greatest stake in society had more to lose and more to hold them back.
I am drafting this just before the Epiphany of Jesus. The thought that comes to me in this is that there are two aspects to this final day of Christmastide. The first in that the kings or wise men were already inquiring and already seeking. They did not know just what it was apart from One born King of the Jews. But they were interested, motivated and willing (and able) to travel. The second is that Mary and Joseph were willing to receive them, and our most common image is of Mary, seated with Jesus in her lap and letting Him be seen.
For our purposes, these two aspects still apply. The church still has to want Jesus to be seen – and seen apart from any other social or cultural agendas. It has to be willing to show Him without any sense of embarrassment or hesitation. But there is also a need in society for the same message. Right now, society is largely self-sufficient, its welfare services are well funded and founded on a relatively efficient and honest state apparatus, and any sense of personal sin and unworthiness is handled by, and handed to the various mental health and ‘wellness’ organizations. Right now, society as a whole sees no need for repentance or salvation, and if the gospel is to be heard, this must change.
Coming back to the poorest and most dispossessed, there is no apparent need for a saviour if material needs are met by the state – which seems to prefer the neediest to be in a permanent state of dependency. Provided for but not set free from ignorance, lack of skill, lack of motivation or self-respect. Provided with just enough resentment to be useful against other political movements, but trapped by the poverty trap, and many leaving school scarcely able to read or write, scarcely able to do simple mathematics, or to express themselves, in bondage to drugs or other compelling habits. Were there a will, then none would leave school illiterate or innumerate, inarticulate and unemployable beyond the most basic of jobs. There would be no poverty trap, and none would live in social or economic fear. But then there would be no dependency on political movements that thrive on social resentment, and would be lost without it.
So coming back to Jesus, I would say that He came for the whole of humanity, and to directly free all people from fear, sin and condemnation. And yes, indirectly and through the church, to minister to all needs so that each member of the church and of society may make their contribution in turn.
Just a few thoughts.