I was in a Tanzanian schoolyard when I learned that poverty has a face, and a name. It always does, really. In this case, it was Sulemani – a young boy of maybe two or three who looked to be sick, malnourished, and who smelled like he’d never taken a bath in his life. There he sat, alone and forgotten among the bustle of a city with no hope, no future.
Often we are drawn to cases of economic poverty, accompanied by moving pictures and tragic stories with a captivating soundtrack while we sit oblivious to a much deeper and more urgent poverty that affects our families, friends, neighbors, and even ourselves – what Mother Teresa called “the deep poverty of the soul.” Often this poverty exists because we try to pattern our Kingdom economics on our earthly economics, which essentially is to say that the people God loves the most and cares the most about are the ones who are the most successful, the most gifted, look the best, volunteer the most hours, give the most money, are a part of the most church activities – in short the people who seem to have everything put together. Other times we translate the scarcity of our worldly economies into the Kingdom of God, attempting to evaluate our decisions on a “value added” approach, seeing where we can get the most impact per dollar or hour spent. Unfortunately, when we apply these worldly principles to God, we end up with skewed theology and broken souls –poor huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Into a world of scarcity and class divide, Christ brings a message of Good News for all people, rich and poor – a Kingdom economics unlike anything that exists on earth, but one governed by a completely different set of rules. As we consider our economic abundance, we should also reflect on our spiritual poverty, and on the rules that govern the economics of God’s Kingdom.
The first reality of God’s Kingdom is that love isn’t conditioned on our merit – God doesn’t love us because we’re rich or beautiful or successful or put together – he loves us because we are his creation. Paul writes in Titus that God saved us “not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” As an engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to design and build several things, some of which ended up being destroyed. Even on the projects that were the most frustrating, I still felt a sense of sadness when they were finally destroyed, not because they were pretty or worked well or had been a lot of fun to work on, but rather because they were mine. In a world where we’re constantly being told that we aren’t enough, the message of Jesus comes in and says that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are loved enough. God’s love doesn’t start at the top and trickle down, but starts at the bottom, and offers full and complete acceptance for the lost and the last and the worst and the least.
Second, God isn’t constrained by my ideas about who is worthy of his love and acceptance. Often, I feel entitled to blessings because of the work I’ve done for God, and I have a tendency to become upset because someone else is receiving more than I am. In one story, Jesus compares the Kingdom to a man who went out to hire workers. He went out early in the morning, then again at lunchtime, and at three o’clock, and finally with just an hour left to work. At the close of the day, the man paid each of the workers the same amount, whether they’d worked all day or just an hour. When some of the workers grumbled, the employer’s response is humbling – “Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” Jesus reminds us that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and causes the sun to rise both on the evil and the good. God’s blessings are his to do with as he pleases, and his choices aren’t always based on fairness, but on kindness.
Finally, the message of God’s kingdom is one of abundance, not scarcity. I remember serving food at a homeless shelter, and watching as the doors opened to reveal a surging tide of humanity rushing toward the start of the line. There was plenty of food, but for many of the people it would be the only guaranteed meal they had all week long. After living daily in a world of scarcity, the competition to get to the front of the line was ruthless, as if the first ten people might take everything, and those behind would be left with nothing. Too often we view the Kingdom as a competition, where it’s important to stay ahead and make sure you’re doing better than everyone else, or at least not running in last place, lest you get left behind. About a year ago, my father and sister ran in the Los Angeles Marathon. Neither of them are serious competitors, and their only real goal was to finish. At about mile ten, my sister began to experience severe leg pain, which was later revealed to be a hairline fracture in her leg. Offered a chance to quit but committed to finishing, she leaned on my father and hobbled through sixteen miles of agony to cross the line at the end, where she received the exact same medal as the first place runner who’d finished several hours before. My father certainly could have finished sooner if he hadn’t helped, or if he’d dropped her off and waited for my mother to pick her up, but he realized that it wasn’t a competition – the only thing that mattered was crossing the finish line together.
As Christ’s followers, we are called not only to reflect on these principles, but to apply them in our lives. I believe much of the recent spiritual poverty in our world develops directly from us treating the economy of God’s kingdom like that of a capitalist nation. Instead, God offers us something radically different, and asks us to transform our lives and our ministry to operate according to his rules instead of our own.