The Poor and Us . . .

The Merriam-Webster‘s dictionary defines the word “poor” as “not having enough money for the basic things that people need to live properly.” The dictionary offers three other definitions that are also useful, but this one end with “properly.” This word implies certain relativism in our discussion of poverty. Moreover, the cited definition does represent what I’d call a thoughtful definition.

Let me explain. The last definition in the entry says, “Not good in quality or condition.” This is usually what I find people talking about when talking about people living in inferior conditions (notice the relativism and comparison in the language I’m using). Yes, we do worry about them not having enough food or clothing, but we fail miserably in the ways we try to help. Because then we try to solve the problem with materialism, which only leads people to want more and to “need” more.

Enough talk about poverty for now.

I just returned from a trip to Hong Kong, Shenzhen (China), and Malaysia. I spent about a week in Bambangan, a small village near Kota Marudu, Sabah (Malaysia). While I thought I should have seen poverty, I did not. Yes, I would say they live in poor conditions, but they are not poor. With a clinic, all their basic needs would be covered. Moreover, the psychological and community problems that generally result from poverty were not present in this village. Instead, I found a deep desire for God.

This is not a cool story about how a group of foreigners come and help and see a need for God. We did nothing. I did nothing. God did.

While interviewing three men and asking about the changes electricity and better roads had brought to Bambangan, the benefits they listed included their religious life. More than 20 years ago, two churches began ministering to the village: the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Borneo Evangelical Church. Since then, there seems to be a third Christian denomination: servants of God (it was not clear what the exact name is).

Thanks to electricity and a TV satellite, the village could enjoy some Christian channels. Apparently, they were really excited about listening to more sermons and enriching their spiritual lives. Also, with new roads, preachers and other ministers could come visit Bambangan and other nearby villages.

During our time there, the village held a funeral service. There was an impromptu worship almost every night and the church service on Sabbath at the Seventh-day Adventist Church was a really meaningful worship.

I have plenty to say about my trip to Asia, but I left Bambangan wishing I had that passion for God. Even with all I have, and perhaps because of all I have, I still don’t make enough time for God. Despite the difficulties, Bambangan is a community that not only hungers for God, but seeks Him.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Luke 11:9 (NIV)

The Poor and Us

It has always been interesting to me that Jesus told his disciples that the poor would always be with us. Was this Jesus the fatalist or Jesus the realist? What does this even mean for us as Christians?

Through the small body of knowledge I have about economics and poverty, I have arrived at the conclusion that Jesus was right and perhaps he was just being a realist. 

I do not think we can end poverty at the global level. As long as we are selfish, we won’t be able to end poverty. We want the poor to have some riches, but we don’t want to give up our riches. How does this work? I don’t think it does.

Rather than give an explanation and bring hard data for my claim (which I might not even have), I want to think and come up with a reason why we should help the poor. Moreover, are we supposed to help them get out of poverty? And if there will always be poor, why should we even bother?

I don’t want to offer answers at the moment, although I do have some thoughts I’d like to share later.

For now, think about what Jesus read when he stood up at the synanogue right before he began his life of ministry: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (‭Luke‬ ‭4‬:‭18-21‬ NIV)

How are we to understand this in light of John 12:8? Was Jesus merely referring to the spiritual life of a person or to the material needs as well?