October 5, 2008
An Invitation to Do Justice -- Luke 16:19-31
Eric A. Seibert
I still remember seeing him there, standing in the dumpster, looking through the garbage. It was the Spring of 1992. My wife Elisa and I had gotten married the previous summer and were now seniors at Messiah College. We were completing our Messiah experience by studying abroad at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. During our time there we lived in a small apartment flat a few minutes walk from the university. To get to Daystar from our apartment, we first had to walk down a lane that connected to a main road. The dumpster stood at the end of that lane.
The man I saw standing in the dumpster wasn’t there because he was dumpster diving, trying to salvage a discarded piece of furniture or some other particular item of value. No, this man was in the dumpster because heand presumably his family, if he had onewas desperately hungry. He apparently had few other options for getting food.
You’ve probably all seen those disturbing television commercials that show children walking barefoot over mountains of garbage searching for food and other items. And while those images are troubling, to say the least, to actually see a living, breathing, human being scavenging for food in a filthy dumpster was unsettling. What made this particularly distressing to me was the simple fact that this wasn’t just any old dumpster; it was the one I used. This was where I tossed my garbage. This was where I discarded my food scraps, my leftovers, my edibles that were no longer edible. And what really unnerved me was the thought that the garbage I threw out might become part of the meal this man took away. That’s just not right. No one should be that desperate, that destitute, that they are reduced to eating food rotting in a dumpster.
But the sad reality is that this man’s desperation, his poverty, his hunger, his limited options for securing food, is a story that is repeated by hundreds of millions of people every minute of every day of every year.
The Ugly Face of Hunger and Poverty
Hunger and poverty are constant companions of much of the world’s population. Of the 6.6 billion people who inhabit planet earth,1 1.6 billion live on less than $2/day and another 1.2 billion on less than $1/day. To put it another way, approximately half of the world’s population exists on $2/day or less.2 That’s poverty!
"The most extreme form of poverty," of course, is hunger.3 To be unable to adequately feed oneself or one’s family, is to experience poverty’s most debilitating effects. It’s estimated that approximately 862 million people worldwide suffer from hunger.4 That’s a staggering statistic. The problem of hunger has been exacerbated by the global food crisis as food prices have soared around the world, causing riots in places like Haiti, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia.5 In recent months it has become more and more difficult for the poor of the world to feed themselves. Yet of all the statistics that could be given to describe the problem of hunger and its tragic consequences, perhaps the one that bothers me the most is this: "Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger?related causes." That roughly equates to one child dying every five seconds.6
As some of you know, Elisa and I are the proud parents of two children, aged two and a half and 5 months. The thought of losing either of them, whether that be in a car crash, or from some kind of disease, or through a freak accident is devastating. But the thought of watching them literally starve to death, because we did not have enough food to meet their most basic needs, is unthinkable and unbearable.
A couple of years ago when I was preparing to teach a course at Messiah I had never taught before, I read for the first time portions of Ron Sider’s classic book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. One of the stories in that book that impacted me significantly was about a Brazilian couple whose three children were wasting away because they lacked adequate food and nourishment. It’s a firsthand account written by a former president of World Vision who had visited this couple in their home. He writes:
My emotions could scarcely take in what I saw and heard. The three?year?old twins, lying naked and unmoving on a small cot, were in the last act of their personal drama. . . . Malnutrition was the villain. The two?year?old played a silent role, his brain already vegetating from marasmus, a severe form of malnutrition.
The father is without work. Both he and [his wife] Maria are anguished over their existence, but they are too proud to beg. He tries to shine shoes. Maria cannot talk about their condition. She tries, but the words just will not come. Her mother’s love is deep and tender, and the daily deterioration of her children is more than she can bear. Tears must be the vocabulary of the anguished soul.7
When I read stories like this, and really stop and think about the devastating effects of hunger and poverty, I can only say, this is not right. It is not right that people have to search for food in dumpsters. It is not right that any parent should have to watch their children decline physically and mentally because of malnutrition. It is not right that people suffer and actually die simply because they do not have enough food to eat. No, this is not right. It’s certainly not the way God intended the world to be, a world in which some experience abundance, while others go hungry. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Bible is insistent that God’s people have a responsibility to care for those who are poor and hungry.
The Biblical Mandate to Care for the Poor and Needy
Over and over again, throughout both the Old and New Testament, people of faith are called to do justice, to care for the poor and needy, and to share bread with the hungry. The biblical emphasis on this topic is overwhelming.
In his New York Times bestseller, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis tells a story that illustrates the sheer quantity of verses in the Bible on this topic and the fact that oftentimes Christians fail to pay attention to them. At the time, he was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes:
Our band of eager young first?year seminary students did a thorough study to find every verse in the Bible that dealt with the poor. We scoured the Old and New Testaments for every single reference to poor people, to wealth and poverty, to injustice and oppression, and to what the response to all those subjects was to be for the people of God.
We found several thousand verses in the Bible on the poor and God’s response to injustice. . . .
Then we decided to try what became a famous experiment. One member of our group took an old Bible and a new pair of scissors and began the long process of literally cutting out every single biblical text about the poor. It took him a very long time. . . .
When the zealous seminarian was done with all his editorial cuts, that old Bible would hardly hold together, it was so sliced up. It was literally falling apart in our hands.
I began taking that damaged and fragile Bible out with me when I preached. I’d hold it up high above American congregations and say, "Brothers and sisters, this is our American Bible; it is full of holes." Each one of us might as well take our Bibles, a pair of scissors, and begin cutting out all the Scriptures we pay no attention to, all the biblical texts that we just ignore.
We still have that old Bible full of holes. It serves as a constant reminder of how you can miss so much, even when it is right in front of your eyes.8
Wallis is right. Sometimes we do fail to pay attention to some of the most prominent themes in Scripture, even when they occur with great frequency.
Now, since I didn’t think I’d have quite enough time to discuss several thousand verses this morning, I hope you’ll forgive me for deciding to focus on just a handful to illustrate the sweeping biblical mandate to care for the poor and needy. In the next few minutes, I’d like to give you just a sampling of the kinds of passages in the Bible that speak about issues of hunger and poverty. So first, a few verses from the Old Testament.
The Old Testament’s Call to Care for the Poor
In Deut. 15:11b, the writer says, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."9 The Old Testament repeatedly insists that the community of faith had a special obligation to care for those who were most vulnerable, which in that society included people like widows, orphans, and resident aliens. And the most fundamental way this care was expressed was by providing food for them. They even had laws regulating agricultural practices to insure this happened, like the ones we find in Lev. 19:9?10 which read:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
Laws like these were a safety net for people who struggled to put food on the table. By leaving some crops in the field and some grapes on the vine, and by not picking up what fell to the ground, those laws created what amounted to an outdoor self?service food bank. Those who were poor could simply come and take what they needed.
The importance of caring for the poor is also emphasized through a series of Proverbs. Prov. 19:17 says, "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full." And Prov. 22:9 says, "Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor." On the other hand, Prov. 21:13 warns, "If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard."
The prophets believed that caring for the poor and feeding the hungry was absolutely essential for the people of God. Failing to do so, they believed, had dire consequences. As case in point take the destruction of the city of Sodom. While most people would claim that Sodom was destroyed on account of the sexual sins of its inhabitants, that’s not the reason given by the prophet Ezekiel. He claims Sodom was destroyed because it failed to respond to the needs of the poor. "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom," says Ezekiel, "she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (Ezek 16:49). It is a stinging indictment. More positively, the prophet Isaiah says, "if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday" (Isa 58:10). While these represent only a fraction of the relevant passages, they are sufficient to demonstrate that the Old Testament witness on this point is clear and consistent. The people of God have a responsibility to care for the poor and to feed the hungry.
The New Testament’s Call to Care for the Poor
The same is true when we turn to the New Testament. Jesus repeatedly encourages his disciples, and would be followers, to give to the poor. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you" (Matt. 5:42). To the rich young ruler he says, "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Luke 18:22b). And then there is the great judgment scene in Matt. 25 where at the end of time people are separated into two categories on the basis of their actions or lack thereof. On that day Jesus will say to those on his right,
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:34b?36)
But to those on his left he will say,
You that are accursed, depart from me . . . for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. (Matt. 25:41b?43)
The passage read earlier this morning from the book of James dramatizes a Christian’s responsibility to care for the poor and needy.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14?17)
James is saying, in effect, "How can you call yourself a Christian if you see people who lack the most basic needs, but do nothing to help?" To see someone without enough food to eat and then to turn a blind eye is surely a sign of spiritual deadness. The writer of 1 John makes a similar point when he writes in 1 John 3:17, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" The extent to which we care for the poor and needy is, to a certain degree, a barometer of our spiritual health and vitality. If we are not regularly, actively, intentionally caring for the needs of those around us, then something has gone terribly wrong.
Of all the biblical passages that deal with issues of poverty and hunger and how we ought to respond, one of the most intriguing and disturbing is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that I read from Luke 16:19?31. In this parable, Jesus describes the lives of two men that are really world’s apart, even though they live in close proximity to one another. A stark contrast is drawn between an unnamed rich man and Lazarus, an impoverished beggar. The rich man is described as one who wore expensive clothes and enjoyed fine dining while Lazarus languished at the gate of his house, longing for just his table scraps. In time, both men die and the setting of the parable shifts from this world to the next. What we discover is that their fortunes in the afterlife are reversed. Lazarus finds himself comforted in the presence of Abraham, while the rich man suffers in agony in Hades. The parable suggests that the rich man has arrived at this place of torment not because he was rich, but because he did not use his riches to help those in need like Lazarus. His was the sin of indifference toward the poor and needy. He did not share his bread with the hungry, something he could easily have afforded to do. Instead, he spent his wealth on his own personal luxuries and indulgences.
An interesting conversation then ensues between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man wants Lazarus to provide some water to relieve his suffering and Abraham says that can’t happen since there is "a great chasm" between the Lazarus and the rich man making any attempts to cross over impossible. The rich man then makes a second request of Abraham. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead on a mission of mercy to his family. He says, "I beg you to send him to my father's housefor I have five brothersthat he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment" (vv. 27?28). Have Lazarus tell them not to make the same mistake I made. Tell them to repent and change their ways. Tell them to do justice, to open their hand to the poor, to share their bread with the hungry, before it’s too late.
But Abraham says there’s no need to do that. "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them" (v. 29). It’s unnecessary to send Lazarus back from the dead on this mission of mercy. They’ve already got the witness of Moses and the prophets recorded in the Bible. They know what to do simply by listening to the words of Scripture.
But the rich man fears this will not be enough to compel them to change their ways. "No," he says, "but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent" (v. 30). They need something more dramatic, something more spectacular to convince them of their responsibility to feed the hungry and provide for the poor. Send poor old Lazarus back from the dead and that will wake them up. That will bring them to their senses. That will be like a splash of cold water on their face.
But Abraham replies, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (v. 31). Wow! If Scripture doesn’t convince them of their responsibility to share with those in need, what will? The biblical call to care for the poor is unmistakable, unavoidable, and unambiguous. Jesus is saying, if you are not persuaded by the witness of Scripture that you and I have a responsibility to care for the poor and share bread with the hungry, then nothing will persuade you, not even a messenger sent back from the grave.
When I consider the two main characters in this parable, the rich man and Lazarus, I realize that I identify a whole lot more with the rich man than I do with Lazarus. I have never experienced the kind of hunger and poverty that Lazarus did. I’ve never stood in a dumpster looking for my next meal. I am far more like the rich man in this story. Now granted, if you were to look at my bank account or calculate my net worth it wouldn’t take you long to realize that I am not rich by Western standards. But if I compare myself to nearly half of the world’s population that lives on less than $2/day, I am ridiculously rich. To half of the world’s population, I am the rich man. It’s terribly easy to gloss over some of the hard things Jesus says about rich people until you realize that you and I are the rich people Jesus is talking about!
Still, perhaps it’s not the rich man that should occupy my attention, but one of his brothers because by the end of the parable, they are the only ones still in the land of the living. Thankfully, like them, I’m not dead yet. I have the opportunity to make good choices about how I will use my wealth, my time, and my voice on behalf of the poor. Like those five brothers, I too have the Scriptures, the witness of the Old and New Testament. The question is "How will I respond?" Will I live with careless indifference to the needs of those around me, or will I rise to the occasion and do all within my power to obey God’s commands?
Now I don’t know about you but, quite frankly, the Bible’s emphasis on caring for the poor and feeding the hungry makes me feel a little uneasy. Let’s be honest, to what extent do I really care about the poor? How much of my time, and energy, and resources do I devote to alleviating hunger? At times, I feel not very much. But the good news is that when I am reminded of the overwhelming biblical mandate to care for the poor and needy, when I recognize God’s insistence that I share my bread, it creates in me a desire to act. And that’s what I hope it does for you as well. I’m not interested in raising our collective guilt. But I am very interested in raising our awareness of the will of God in these matters so that we might act appropriately. God is really serious about this, and God commands us to act.
What Should We Do?
So then what can we do? How can we share our bread with those who hunger? Allow me briefly to offer three general suggestions.
1. Prioritize Poverty
First, we should prioritize poverty. Hunger and poverty ought to be front burner issues, things we regularly think about, talk about, read about, and pray about. One of the ways we can prioritize poverty is by committing ourselves to learn more about its causes and about how we can respond effectively. We’ve listed several web sites on the suggestion sheet you received this morning that we hope you will explore. They lead you to organizations with significant resources to help you become more informed and take action. There are also a number of free materials on a display table set up right outside the sanctuary that can help you in this regard, and we encourage you to take whatever you find useful there.
Some of you might wish to prioritize poverty by becoming a member of an organization like Bread for the World, which describes itself as "a nationwide Christian movement that seeks justice for the world's hungry people." Others might consider putting a book like Ron Sider’s, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, on your Christmas list. Still others, particularly children, might want to learn more by downloading the free video game titled "Food Force," which has been described as "an educational video game that simulates the challenges of aid workers reaching poor people with food in times of crisis."10 Prioritizing poverty means allowing it to impact how we vote. When considering candidates running for all levels of public office, from the president on down, we ought to listen very carefully to what they say they will do to address issues of hunger and poverty and we ought to look carefully at their record to see what they have already done. We also prioritize poverty by getting to know people who are poor and developing meaningful relationships with them. As Shane Claiborne observed, "the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor."11 It is much harder to ignore the plight of the poor when you’ve built relationships with them. Whatever specific steps you take, prioritizing poverty means finding ways to keep issues of hunger and poverty at the forefront of our minds.
2. Give Generously
Second, we can give generously. We can give food and money directly to those in need, and we can channel it through organizations which do the same. You can give money to the Brethren in Christ World Hunger Fund, fill a bag of groceries for the annual Mennonite Central Committee collection, or contribute items for local food pantries. All these opportunities are described on the suggestion sheet you received. I would especially encourage you to consider bringing some canned goods and other nonperishable food items to the Grantham Church on October 19, two weeks from today. That Sunday we will be taking a special collection of food items during the service that will go to food pantries at New Hope Ministries and the Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, and I would invite all of you to participate.
Our ability to give generously is related to our standard of living. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, we should "Live simply, so others may simply live."12 What steps can you take to free up more resources to share with those in need? And how are you using the resources already at your disposal? If someone were to look at your checkbook and your credit card statements, to what degree do these reflect your commitment to give generously to the poor and needy? In uncertain financial times such as these it is more important than ever that we open our hand to the poor. Let us make wise financial decisions that free us to give generously and to experience the joy that comes from doing so.
3. Advocate Regularly
Third and finally, we can advocate regularly. Advocacy involves speaking to those in power in an effort to persuade them to enact just policies on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Advocacy attempts to address root causes of hunger and poverty by changing existing structures to make them more equitable. We should not underestimate the power and importance of advocacy as a means to feed people. In fact, the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center cites the beliefs of some that "anti?hunger advocacy is the most effective way to provide more food to hungry people."13 As one Hebrew Bible scholar puts it, "A single decision of Congress can affect world poverty much more than the total donations from all religious bodies and charities in an entire year."14
Yet despite the power and potential of advocacy, many people don’t think their voice will make any real difference. Therefore, they do nothing which, ironically, is a sure way of guaranteeing their voice won’t make a difference. According to one estimate, "less than 2 percent of the adult population communicates to their senators and representatives."15 But, as Christians, we should be advocates for peace and justice. We should contact our elected officials and encourage them to sponsor and vote for legislation that benefits the poor. Truth be told, they want to hear from their constituents, and they need to hear from their constituents in order to inform their vote. They are, after all, representing us. In many respects, advocating is surprising easy, and often takes only a small amount of time.
The suggestion sheet you received this morning briefly mentions one particular way you can engage in advocacy by urging congress to pass the Global Poverty Act. As the writer of Prov. 31:8?9 counsels, we should "speak out for those who cannot speak. . . . and defend the rights of the poor and needy."
So this morning I leave you with an invitation, an invitation to do justice, an invitation to set things right,16 an invitation to respond to the needs of the poor and hungry. As the great South African peacemaker, Nelson Mandela, once put it, "Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice."17 Will you do justice? This is after all, what the prophet Micah says God requires of us.18 Will you heed the overwhelming biblical mandate to share your bread with the hungry and to insure that they have access to bread? If so, what will you do to prioritize poverty in the weeks and months to come? How will you choose to give generously to feed those who hunger? And what will you say to our elected officials that will address some of the root causes of hunger here at home and around the world?
I want to give you a few moments of silence to reflect on those questions. I would encourage you to ask God to help you identify one or two concrete steps you might take to respond to the needs of the poor and hungry. Maybe it will be something as simple as committing to set aside time this week to pray about what God might have you do. Or perhaps you will decide to act on one of the specific suggestions we’ve provided on the sheet you received. Whatever it is, I invite you to take this opportunity to listen to how the spirit of God might be prompting you to respond.
SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Endnotes
1. www.bread.org/learn/hunger-basics/hunger-facts-international.html (accessed 9/29/2008).
2. Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (5th ed.), 2.
3. www.bread.org/learn/hunger-basics/hunger-facts-international.html (accessed 9/29/2008).
5. Theo Sitter, “A Food Crisis that Shouldn’t Be,” Washington Memo, Fall 2008, 2.
6. www.bread.org/learn/hunger-basics/hunger-facts-international.html (accessed 9/29/2008).
7. Sider, Rich Christians, 9.
8. Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, 212-214.
9. All Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.
10. For the download click on HYPERLINK "http://www.food-force.com/" http://www.food-force.com/. The quote comes from HYPERLINK "http://www.food-force.com/index.php/press/releases" http://www.food-force.com/index.php/press/releases (accessed 10/3/08).
11. Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinal Radical, 113.
12. This quote is often attributed to Gandhi, but after preaching this sermon I was unable to locate its source. One of the “unsourced” quotes from Gandhi according to HYPERLINK "http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Gandhi" http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Gandhi is, “The Rich must live more simply so that the Poor may simply live.”
13. HYPERLINK "http://www.pahunger.org/html/action/about_advocacy.html" www.pahunger.org/html/action/about_advocacy.html (accessed 10/2/08), citing “Mazon and other progressive funders.”
14. Bruce V. Malchow, Social Justice in the Hebrew Bible, xiv.
15. Mennonite Central Committee brochure, “How to Write to Congress.”
16. Part of the way Christopher J. H. Wright (Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 256) defines the verbal root of the Hebrew word for justice is “to put things right.”
17. HYPERLINK "http://www.mcc.org/makepovertyhistory/" http://www.mcc.org/makepovertyhistory/ (accessed 12/6/06 - no longer available).
18. See Micah 6:8.