Have you ever had one of those moments when a speaker says something that shakes you to the core, leaving you thinking about his or her comment for days and weeks to come? I was shaken this way recently when I heard a speaker say “The poor are anyone who can’t cope with life.” When I think of the poor, I generally think of people in other places that don’t have money or about people in oppressive circumstances. These generic definitions don’t include me at all, so the idea that I might be in poverty was shocking. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I can’t cope with life in various ways from time to time. Fear, loneliness, anxiety, responsibility, and yes, sometimes money and oppressive circumstances leave me unable to cope. I don’t want to diminish the extreme examples of poverty in our country and others that I, from my socio-economic status don’t come close to experiencing. However, I believe that Jesus engaged with many different kinds of impoverished people from socially impoverished lepers to the spiritually impoverished but religiously powerful Pharisees.
I work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Arizona State University (InterVarsity is a ministry to college students). My job is highly relational and highly administrative. For all the face time I get with students, there is a lot of planning, calling, emailing, and prepping. I dislike administrative work immensely. It’s hard for me. During last school year, there were many times I would be planning for a leadership meeting and feel stuck, at a loss for where to go next in the planning process. Then I’d feel silly and slightly ashamed that something so (seemingly) trivial could cause me such duress. I was sitting at my computer one afternoon planning for a few meetings I had that week as well as drafting a talk I was giving soon. I switched from project to project writing a few words here and there but, getting bored and distracted, anxiety creeping in, I was feeling terrible that I was so bad at my job. When my wife came home and asked how my day was, I was so mad at myself for being a captive to administration that I didn’t want to share with her.
Am I really poor if I get anxious because of administrative tasks? Isn’t that belittling the issue compared to the suffering of so many? Isn’t this just a silly, trivial story? In light of the extreme examples of poverty around us, we have to ask where is the threshold when our suffering “makes the cut” and God sees our impoverished state? What does Jesus have to say about my administrative challenges?
Well, if our definition of poverty is being unable to cope with life, then yes, I am in poverty and you are too if you’re honest. I was left defeated, ashamed, and feeling lost by my Gmail inbox. As embarrassing as that is, it’s true. There are countless other examples from our lives than can be identified as poverty; some are just acknowledged more by society. If Jesus recognizes a wide range of impoverished people, how does he respond to them? If you, like me, find yourself unable to cope with life, what does that mean for us as followers of Jesus?
In Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah 60 to begin his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” He goes on to say that he will heal the broken, and free the captives. Jesus came for the poor, specifically to heal and set free. If we don’t count ourselves among the poor, can we experience this transformation? I did tell my wife that I had looked at my computer for three and a half hours that afternoon but got no work done at all. In admitting my need, I allowed Jesus to begin the process of transformation.
What happens then, after Jesus the doctor has begun his healing work? Isaiah goes on to say that those healed and set free were transformed so “that they may be called oaks of righteousness” and that “they shall repair the ruined cities.” When I am in the midst of my poverty, all I can think about is getting by; my goal is the bare minimum. All God thinks about when I’m in the midst of my poverty is all he wants me to become. God turns those who were broken into mighty oaks, deeply rooted and able to stand on their own. He turns former prisoners into artists: the repairers of ruined cities. We are not healed so we can limp around, barely functioning; we are healed so we can be as sturdy as a mighty oak. We aren’t set free so we can get by; we are set free to create. These pictures, echoing from the creation story, show a God who can transform the poor into a blessing for others.
The question is, do you have the courage to hope with God, for yourself and those around you, that Jesus’ transforming power can turn prisoners into artists and the broken into mighty oaks?
The most challenging aspect of this passage is that if we are followers of Jesus, then we, like him, have to “bring good news to the poor.” As inadequate as we may feel being in poverty ourselves, Jesus is inviting us to tell others who are poor – everyone around us – of Jesus’ transforming power as we ourselves continue to be transformed. If we acknowledge the poverty in our own lives, how much more clearly can we see it in others and tell our story of healing and freedom through Jesus? Then we will be a community of artists and a forest of mighty oaks “that [Jesus] may be glorified.”