Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Does God favor the poor?

While it is undeniably a common (mis)perception that God favors the rich, that the wealthy are wealthy because they are God's favorite, it seems as if there is a counter-view that sees the poor as being favored by God. On my Christian university campus, this is a fairly common stance and we find it in places such as Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. I must admit that until recently I have subconsciously held to this view as well. After all, aren't the rich generally proud and arrogant? Don't the rich idolatrously worship Money? Are not the rich the oppressors of the poor? Didn't Jesus commend the poor widow instead of the rich men? Are we not commanded to care for the poor and to refuse to show favoritism to the rich? This all made sense until a few weeks ago. Clearly I am commanded to love the poor and recognize that they are just as human and have the same dignity as the rich. Clearly God cares deeply for the poor. Clearly the poor make up the majority of those who worship Jesus. All things considered, however, where do I get the idea that the poor are the favorites of God? Does God have favorites? From my perspective as an Arminian, I believe strongly that God offers salvation and redemption to all human beings, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. From the perspective of my Calvinist brothers and sisters, God unconditionally elects those who are to be saved, meaning that He doesn't even elect them on the basis of being poor because their financial status is no more a condition for salvation than anything else. Jesus commended many poor people, but also commended some who were rich and powerful. Even though the rich young ruler would choose not to follow Christ, we know that Jesus loved him. We are not to show favoritism to the rich, but surprisingly we are not to show favoritism to the poor. In Exodus God even demands the same atonement offering from the rich and the poor. We are commanded to show partiality neither to the rich nor the poor, for doing so either way perverts justice. We are told that when we give to the poor, we are in reality giving to Jesus and storing treasure in Heaven. Why is this is not so when we give to the rich? When we give to the poor, we are giving to those who legitimately are in need and therefore we are fulfilling the law of love. When we give to the rich, we are often doing so in the expectation of receiving something in return: favors, social connections, invitations to events, etc. There is nothing particularly commendable about giving to those who can repay you (although it would be commendable to give something a rich person does need, e.g. a kidney), just as it is not particularly commendable to love your family (which is simply expected) whereas it is to love your enemy or annoying acquaintance. We are told again and again not to show favoritism to the rich, not to lead us to show partiality to the poor, but because our natural sinful tendency is to favor the rich and so the commands address our most common sin. If we are going to oppress anyone, it will generally be the poor and not the rich and so we are commanded with regard to that truth of sinful humanity. Of course we must be generous and care for the poor, but this does not mean that the rich do not matter to Christ. It has been my temptation on nights where my friends and I have spent some time with the homeless in Santa Monica to feel compassion for these poor and contempt for the rich who a few feet away in beach-side condos. I have even felt self-righteous for feeling this way, thinking that in doing so I was cutting myself off from the influence of materialism. This was the case until recently it occurred to me (through helpful insights of my friend, Adam) that Jesus was totally free from the concern of possessions, totally liberated from the chains of Mammon, and that it looked different than my own supposed freedom. Jesus could live and move among the rich and the poor. He could attend an extravagant wedding banquet, dine with Pharisees, and spends days among the masses and nights without a bed on which to lie. He recognized that people came rich and poor, and that their economic status had an impact on who they were, but they were never defined by their wealth or lack thereof in His eyes. He could love and have compassion for the poor in their suffering and the rich in their meaningless pursuit of money. To be like Christ, to be free from the influence of wealth, we cannot simply learn to hate money for in doing so we are simply defined negatively by it. We must become so free that money is simply no longer a concern except when it specifically stands in the way of a person's pursuit of discipleship. The implications of what it means to be a rich Christ-follower are difficult to discern and even more arduous to apply in obedience. We must plunge into these implications and applications, particularly because you and I are "the rich" and are most likely surrounded by communities of "the rich." We must seek to understand what it means to be rich and to be a disciple of Christ, even if in the end it requires us to sell our possessions and give them to the poor. Even in the midst of all this, we cannot allow ourselves to show partiality to the poor anymore than we may be excused for favoring the rich. For, "Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Does God favor the rich?

I met Tony last night in Santa Monica. He was a very interesting man, probably in his late thirties and I talked with him for about an hour and a half. In the midst of our conversation, the topic of wealth and God came up again and again until we finally just addressed it specifically. Tony held that the wealthy are not only blessed but apparently favored by God, that financial provision was a sure sign of a life well-lived. He told me about a couple of pastors he knew and respected, largely due to their luxury cars, fine suits, and palace-like homes. He was particularly impressed with one pastor's house, "in a very nice gated community."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Those very traits in a pastor generally turn my stomach. How could he respect these signs of prosperity as clear indications of God's favor and a successful ministry when I see a minister indulging in wealth as a sign that portions of his heart still worship at the altar of Mammon?
If you are like me, you might be disappointed with Tony for his views on God and prosperity, but there is one thing you should know about him before you jump to conclusions: Tony is a homeless man.
The total mass of Tony's earthly possessions can be carried in a backpack and a gunny-sack. Whereas I am a middle-class university student with a general disdain for the pursuit of wealth (ignoring my own consumption, of course), Tony the man without a home sees the wealthy as blessed and favored by God. While I cannot deny that material provision is indeed a blessing from God, I cannot justify tying it to God's special favor.
I talked with Tony about the story of Job whom God loved so deeply and yet was so severely afflicted. We talked about Jesus who spent time with both the rich and the poor. We discussed the God-in-flesh Who had no place to call home.
At the end, I think both of our perspectives had changed a bit, but I am not yet sure what to make of it.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Theology: is there a point?

I assume that it is fairly obvious to anyone who might read my blog that I am a theology major. I love theology and I study it. Recently, though, I have been reflecting on what being a theologian entails.
My two passions are to pastor and to one day train pastors, which has an impact on my view of theology. In my view, theology is at its best when it ascertains truths about Who God is and what His interaction with humanity is like, and when it is able to communicate these truths to all believers and help them to apply these truths within their own lives.
This view on theology drives me to generally have little use for innovative theology. It seems as if the truths of God have been revealed through Jesus Christ and Scripture, and that the task of theology is to discern these truths that are already present and to unpack their implications and meaning. In order to do this, we study Scripture well while begging God for the guidance of His Holy Spirit and we also look to Christians who have gone before us for wisdom in how exactly to unpack these truths.
Because I believe that God has maintained His Church on the earth since the time of Pentecost, I have got to believe that good theology has existed on the planet for about 1,970 years. I must assume that I can find good theology in the writings of such historical figures as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc. The truth about God and His interaction with mankind has not changed since the inception of the Church, and so I expect the truth to be found in all ages of the Church. Real, radical innovation seems as if it must be a departure from the truth because it is a departure from that which the Church has maintained throughout her history.
Fortunately, what often seems to be radical new theology is often simply a re-appropriation of some of the most ancient and valued theology in the Church. This is not always the case, though, and theology is sometimes pursued for the sake of the truly new. God is infinitely multi-faceted and there will never be an end to our ability to learn more about Him and to know Him better and more intimately, but new insights into His character that contradict the ancient orthodox and Scriptural insights into His character cannot be true if the old beliefs were also true.
Of course, when we read ancient theologians we are reading words that were at one point the most cutting-edge theological works around. Still, it appears that when these seminal works are written, they are not written out of a desire to pursue new things but instead out of the desire to learn and appropriate ancient truths about God.
With all of this in mind, my vision for a great theologian is the theologian who (1) knows God intimately and also knows true things about Him, (2) is familiar and well-marinated in Scripture and the interpretations of Scripture seen through the history of the Church, and (3) is capable of delivering these truths to all believers and helping to apply them to the context of real life. In doing this, a theologian may develop something somewhat new (such as a new allegory or analogy to explain a bit of theology) or incorporate old truths in a new way (such as bringing greater clarity to the different Scriptural views on how exactly Christ conquered sin on the cross), but the pursuit is not for invention and innovation but truth and more importantly the Truth.
As I give this more thought, I will undoubtedly uncover myriad reasons for the pursuit of new avenues in theology and I have not given other approaches to theology a fair hearing. For the present, though, I will make this admonition of failure and leave it at that.