Monday, May 28, 2012

Preference for the Poor?

A fairly common idea in theological circles the past number of years has been that God has a “preferential option for the poor,” or, to put it in the words of the Belhar Confession, that God “cares in a special way for the poor.”

What exactly this phrase means is a matter of interpretation. But the way it is often used suggests that the financially poor somehow figure more prominently in God’s field of vision than the more wealthy in the world. The result, is that this phrase is frequently used as a way to marginalize the wealthy, making them feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God, regardless of how they use their wealth. It is, in fact, guilt by association.

It is true, of course, that the Bible carries some stern warnings about the dangers of wealth, particularly when wealth is used in an oppressive way. The minor prophets in the Old Testament and the gospel of Luke in the New Testament are perhaps the most obvious places where these warnings crop up. The question is whether warnings about the dangers of wealth warrant a theology of preferential treatment of the poor by God.

That seems questionable at best. If God cares in a special way about anyone in Scripture, it seems to be his people, those called out of the world and into relationship with him. That includes rich and poor and middle-class and every other class. And of his children, God seems to pay special attention to those who suffer in one way or another in the same way that a parent might take special care of an ailing child.

To suggest that God’s cares in a special way for the poor, seems to imply that poverty, in and of itself, leads to God’s special care. And it implies that the brokenhearted rich, whether they are God’s own children or not, are somehow less the objects of God’s love and care.

What Scripture is consistently demonstrating, however, rather than a special concern for the poor, is God’s special concern for God’s people who suffer or are marginalized. Over and over we are reminded that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy to his people. Repeatedly Scripture tells us that God is near to the brokenhearted, that they can trust him for everything they need. And throughout the Bible we are taught that God will never leave nor forsake his people, indeed not even death can separate his people from him.

And who are the marginalized? Wealthy Christians can bear witness to the fact that great wealth carries with it great—sometime almost overwhelming—responsibility. And it can marginalize one in even very simple things like friendship. Imagine having to always wonder whether someone you meet is really interested in getting to know and love you, or simply wants to be with you because of your wealth. And the last time I checked, the wealthy are not immune to disease, broken relationships, children who leave the church, and the like. Money cannot, in fact, buy comfort. Comfort is found by all only in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Unless we are willing to include in the word “poor” all of God’s children who suffer and are marginalized in one way or another, we should take care with how we throw this phrase around.

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