How to Read the Bible from the Bottom Up
Introduction: The gospel today is basically a rich man’s gospel
The rich have hijacked the bible. Our interpretation and hermeneutics are all biased in favor of the rich. Our spirituality assumes that most of the people are like the rich and can worship in expensive opulent cathedrals and have a surplus. The way rich Christians read the bible is from the perspective of power and wealth. They read it from their comfort zone, not from the comfort zone of the poor, meaning, they sense injustice from their point of view as to how they are being oppressed or abused but now as to how the poor are which is usually very different – the poor suffer more abuses and indignities that the rich don’t care about or don’t have any idea of.
Not only the rich and powerful people do this, even those who are poor and powerless read the bible from the top to the bottom, for that is the way they were taught by their masters. Filipinos can be very American in many ways and the poor can act very much like the rich Christians in many ways also.
The bible will look differently when read it from the perspective of poverty and weakness. It is important to learn this as 90% of the Christians in the world are poor and powerless. Failing to learn to read the bible from the bottom up results in a gospel that is bad news to the poor and produces hermeneutics that are hurting to the poor.
We need to provide the tools to properly and powerfully critique the status quo or the ways of the rich so the poor will have a chance to create good theology from the bottom up.
No one can explain why the poor are rich in faith in the book of James:
Those who read the bible from the perspective of power and wealth will not understand why James says that the poor are rich in faith.
1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
And then in Chapter 5, the rich are condemned
1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
Many interpret that statement to refer not only to the financially or economically poor but also to the rich. In other words, they do not believe it refers to the literal poor but merely to the symbolic poor. They believe that James was only making a metaphorical statement, referring to a figurative person. They will say that the rich are also rich in faith. The poor there in James according to the rich refers to people who are humble and there are humble people among the rich as among the poor. They cannot accept the idea that mere financial status qualifies a person with spirituality or gives one a higher or lower privilege. They claim that many of the poor are proud and arrogant also, sinful and immoral. In fact, the most common impression they have of the poor is that the poor are lazy, thieves, dishonest, drunk, immoral and glutton.
The passage in James therefore refers according to them to humility as the bottom line which for the wealthy and powerful is the real meaning of poverty today. Thus, if the rich or the poor are humble, then either one or both of them are rich in faith, regardless of their financial standing. Conversely, if the poor is not humble, he is not rich in faith. In turn the whole teaching of the epistle of James about the poor has been diluted if not altogether nullified. It has no meaning anymore for even the rich can be rich in faith as well. It would have been better if James never wrote that verse.
But the context of the verse and of the entire epistle is obviously referring to the economically or literal poor, not to the humble. First, look at all the reference to the rich, those who are finely dressed and who sue you in court. The poor are not like that, instead, James says, we look down on the poor and tell them to sit at the back because they are not nice to see.
We now look at the bible from the perspective of power and wealth:
When the bible was hijacked by the rich, all the admonitions against the rich were trivialized or ignored. Jesus several times attacked people who were wealthy for no reason at all than that they were simply wealthy. It assumed that their wealth constituted an inherent injustice, that by simply being wealthy, one already committed a serious injustice. Just imagine, a wealthy man living amidst absolute and severe destitution, people who thrive in excessive luxury amidst oppressive deprivation. The great divide of 10% owning 90 of the world’s wealth versus 90% owning 10% of the world’s wealth alone is indecent and unjust.
Jesus thus said, it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle. No one seems to pay attention to this anymore. We have come to simply accept pathetically the unjust and unbelievable gap between the rich and the poor, we have embraced the absolutely immoral inequality and unequal distribution of wealth, the hoarding of land by the rich so that the poor have no place to live in, the exploitation of child labor for profit.
The gospel today is designed to protect the status quo, not to rock the boat so to say. No theologian in his right mind would question the present distribution of wealth nor require that the rich Christians in the church be responsible to help the poor Christians around them. The work ethics of capitalism, that everyone lift himself by his own bootstrap, and not expect others to help him, have completely penetrated Christian values.
It is the status quo that protects and promotes the power and wealth of the top 10% of the people of the world. This is what we call the great pyramid.
The greatest threat to Christian capitalism is the promotion of community and the teaching that without community there is no gospel.
The ideology of materialism and capitalism that teach people to be independent and competitive, now prevail over Scriptures’ command to help the needy. The church today will not require a radical change in wealth distribution and property ownership.
Even the church desires it. It wants to be rich and powerful also. Thomas Merton said that the church should give up its desire for power and wealth and follow Jesus’ model – to become poor.
Rich Christians define the world’s problem as poverty and not greed:
Most Christians today follow the ways of the world and define the problem as poverty instead of greed. When we define the problem as poverty, it puts the pressure on the poor while if we define the problem as greed, it puts the pressure on the rich.
Deuteronomy 15 says the problem is greed. God makes this wild declaration in verse 4 that there should be no poor among the Israelites, meaning, among God’s people, there should be no poor. The word SHALL is a mandatory mood, an absolute requirement or command, and not an option. God is saying inside his Kingdom, there shall be no poor. Poverty is prohibited!
The reasons for this are also given.
- God will give the land to the Israelites. It is a gift. They don’t have to work for it. 2. God will bless them and the work of their hands. In other words, God will make them successful. In the land they will prosper. 3. Finally, there will be no poor because God’s people will share generously. God will make them wealthy so they have something to share. God spend a good deal of time promising the people that if they obey he would bless them. In verse 7, I think God begins to lose heart. He says, “ but if there are poor among you…” God waivers. He does not think that with all the promises he has made, the people will obey him and be generous. God made it clear that if they share, they will become so rich they will not need to borrow from others, in fact they will lend to other nations. As God waivers, he also begins to become more negative in his approach. He now threatens. If they will not share, he would surely take that against them. In verse 11 God totally gives up. He realizes that the Israelites will not share and thus he says, the poor will always be with you.
However, the idea remains. With so much going for God’s people, there should be no poor living among them because they will surely take care of their own poor. When we say poverty is the problem, we put the pressure on the poor, but when we say the problem is greed, we put the pressure on the rich.
There is a caveat as will be discussed more below. This passage does not apply to unbelievers. In other words, the command that there shall be no poor among you refers only to the community of Israel or today, to the church. There is to be no poor inside the church. It does not refer to all the world’s poor but only to the poor Christians or the believers. This is clear because the chapter at the beginning clarifies that the cancellation of debts applied only to fellow Jews and there were to be no cancellation of debts for foreigners or gentiles.
We wrongly assume that there is not enough food for everyone:
The church assumes that there is not enough food or resources in the world for all the peoples. When Christians use this as their major premise it colors the way they also read scripture. Since not all can live a decent life because there is not enough food or resources for all, then it is inevitable that there will be poor, that there will be many poor among us, that there will always be poor people among us.
Because of this, many Christians interpret Jesus words that the poor will always be with us to mean we can never solve poverty. They use this text to support or justify the pyramid arrangement of 3 million slaves at the bottom and one family of the Pharaoh at the top. Because poverty is a fact of life that no one can change, then sharing is no longer necessary, because no matter what we do, the poor will always be with us. Sharing thus is only optional. We need not share our wealth. It is not immoral to have a surplus. It is useless to share. There will never be enough for everyone. Some have to suffer. Somehow, poverty and death due to starvation is unavoidable. Of course this is wrong, this belief is sinful and immoral and a complete rejection of the teaching of Scripture.
The truth is, there is enough food for the whole world:
Scientific studies show that there is really enough food for everyone. Why people die of hunger is mainly due to greed and the difficulty of bringing food to the poor. For decades, people followed the Malthusian theory that demand will outpace supply leading to massive global food crisis. It never happened. In fact, the opposite is true in America. The biggest problem in America today is obesity. With just 2% of their population engage in agricultural production, their total food output is more than enough to feed the whole world.
The poor will always be with you is always wrongly interpreted:
In Mark 14.7 Jesus was quoted as saying, the poor will always be with you. We can say Jesus was saying 1. That the poor will always be with us because there are just too many of them for us to help them all. Or 2. That the poor will always be with us because we who have the surplus of the world’s goods will not share. I believe it is the second reason. The evidence shows that there is more than enough food for us all. It is so tragic that more Christians believe the former, and have actually given up on the problem because as their interpretation says, it is useless to even try. But if we say it is the latter, that the reason why the poor will always be with us is because we will not share, there is an impetus for change, there is pressure on the rich Christians to share. Capitalism however frowns on any teaching that threatens personal wealth and private ownership.
All the food America throws away can feed all the starving children in the world:
I was in a convention of Christian lawyers one time, a whole week in the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. Every mealtime we ate, there was a long table of food, buffet style. We could get as much as we wanted. I had just come from several months in the dumpsite of Payatas and unconsciously developed a scavenger mentality. After each meal, I would see lots of food untouched by those who share in our table. I picked them up and stuffed them in my suit, marmalade jams, muffins, sausages, bacons, etc. I would put them on my bed in my room. I did it for a couple of days, on the third day, I had a mountain on my bed, and I had no more place to sleep in. I had to do something drastic. I went to the bathroom and faced the mirror and cocked my finger like a gun on my temple and said, “Raineer, if you will not stop this, I will kill you.” Then I dumped all the food I had gathered into the trash. After I did that, tears flowed from my eyes for a long time.
There is enough food for all. All the food America throws away is enough to prevent the death of all children who now die of starvation around the world, about 25,000 deaths a year.
Giving versus sharing:
Our pastor from Tampa, Florida told me that Americans know how to give but not share. When we give, the recipient becomes an object of our charity. However, in sharing we declare to the world that we don’t own our wealth. God owns all of them and we are only stewards. Americans have brought this to the extreme so that private ownership as a social value is held higher than Scripture command to share. Land ownership for example is always treated as a form of stewardship in the Bible but the capitalist idea of land ownership is totally without any element of stewardship. The core value of capitalism is excessive consumption which has led to the destruction of many of the world’s natural resources, even leading to climate change.
The Widow’s mite in Mark 12.42 is not about giving more:
The conclusion most Christians arrive at when reading the story of the widow’s mite is that we should give more. The widow was an example for us to follow, which means we should give more than what we are giving already. But to tell the poor that would be to hurt them because the poor already gives so much.
In my whole life in the ministry, almost thirty years, I have never failed to see the poor Christians give less than what the widow in this passage gave. The poor give more than the rich do. Sometime, they would give a hundred pesos for a co-worker who is terribly sick and I know that the hundred pesos means the giver has given up the entire day’s meal of their whole family.
No, the story is not about giving more. If we see it from the perspective of weakness and powerlessness, we can see that it is really about the fact that God can see the giving of the poor no matter how small it may be. No matter how small, God can see it!
Christians don’t yet have Jesus’ eyes. If someone gave a million pesos in our church (a wealthy suburban church), it is possible he could get elected elder the next year. But if a poor man gave 500 pesos, he might not even get a receipt even though the 500 is already 50% or 100% of his total wealth and the one million given by the other member is less than 1% of his total income. Actually, if I tell our rich church to strictly give their tithes of 10% many would leave the church. We need to see the giving of the poor the way Jesus could see them.
Some will try to wiggle out and ask if 10% is gross or net. My sweet pastor would say, “It depends, if you want your blessing to be gross or net.” The poor give ten times sometimes a hundred times more than the rich do. When we compute in percentage, this truth will appear very clearly. But the church continues to look at it from the perspective of the rich, by counting the value or how much was given, not the percentage. When we look in percentage, we begin to see in what way the poor are rich in faith and how the rich are poor in faith. The rich won’t continue attending church when he has no money but the poor will go to church with or without money.
In fact, the poor give more than the rich:
Our pastor at Talaba, Mam Milleth is married to Neil who is a minimum wage earner at the Philippine Bible Society. Milleth spends half of their income for her fare to and from the slum area where we are planting a church, and she runs a pre school there also where the kids pay P10 pesos each a day and 100% of that income she gives to Susan (a single mom) and Maribel, her two assistants. I count that in my out of this world math as 150% giving. I compare this with the rich who could hardly give 10%!
Perhaps, we would be less disdainful of the poor if we realize that in the last twenty years, it was the poor, in the form of the OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who yearly saved our country from bankruptcy. These people, domestic helpers, seamen, construction workers, factory workers, and nurses, brave the strange land, strange language, strange culture in order to earn a petty salary of 200 US dollars a month which they send all back to their relatives in the Philippines. Many are molested, sexually abused, and many too get very lonely and depressed, some even jump from their high rise condominiums to commit suicides. The OFWs contribute more than 20 billion US dollars annually to our economy and it is increasing every year. Not even the top ten Philippine companies combined contribute that much. But why do we hate the poor so much, why do we look down on them so much?
In Dharavi, Mumbai, the largest slum in the world, a million people are cramped together in one tiny parcel of land (roughly 90,000 households). The people there work so hard amidst the squalor and deprivation and manages to sell to the global market. It was the setting for the famous movie, Slum Dog Millionaire. Dharavi is a churning hive of workshops with an annual economic output estimated to be $600 million to more than $1 billion. Ironically, through its scary labyrinthine pathways, Dharavi is actually safer than most slums in the world because all the people there are too busy making a living to molest people.
The missionaries in the bible were poor and uneducated:
I have had some tussle with Koreans on the meaning of world missions. They want to hold the distinction of being the largest missionary force in the world today and I said they were wrong. We need to have biblical eyes to know the truth.
We have 11 million poor people leave our country for jobs abroad. Many go to cities where being a missionary is either prohibited or staying in those cities are prohibitively expensive like Tokyo. Otherwise, they are in places which would not issue a missionary visa. But we have millions of them there – in Tokyo, Berlin, Hong Kong, Dubbai, etc.
But we would never consider them as missionaries. If we estimate that 10% of them are Christians or born again (our national statistics is higher), then that would mean 1 million Christian OFWs. If we say that only 10% are actively sharing the gospel, then that would be 100,000 missionaries, the biggest in the whole world (this is the Korean church’s target for 2020).
Acts describes the first set of missionaries as poor and uneducated and so are these OFWs. Also, they left not because they wanted to be missionaries but for mundane reasons – flee persecution or droughts. Ours leave for greener pasture, to find jobs and avoid poverty at home.
Christians today actually hate the poor and looks down on them:
When the rich hijacked the bible, the love for the poor was also replaced with a rejection of the poor. The church hates the poor, looks down on them, holds them suspect and blames them for all the ills of society. Because of that, the church has also segregated into churches of mostly rich and churches of mostly poor Christians. This is the worse sin the church has ever committed, to separate the rich from the poor. The church must always have both, rich and poor together to show that the Kingdom of God indeed works and is doable.
The church has taught its members that it is the rich who are favored, blessed and loved by God. Churches today would never elect a poor man as their leader or elder. There is the stigma on poverty that implies one is not a good steward or is not a good provider or worse, is lazy.
This is a carry-over of the old belief existing at the time of Jesus that the poor are cursed by God, that poverty is a result of our not being right with God. Many in Jesus’ time believed the poor had no share in salvation. We still believe in that today.
The rich actually believe the poor have no share in salvation:
I often imagine that for the rich, when the poor are converted, they think no angel in heaven rejoices. The angels in heaven rejoice only when the rich and the celebrities are converted. I have reported many times about the huge conversions going on among the poor in the slums but always ignored. I still wonder why urban mission includes the slum poor only in an incidental way. I always remember Tim Keller saying at the Lausanne Conference 2010 in Cape Town that urban mission is reaching out to the wealthy but the church also needs to reach out to the poor in order to build its credibility.
I spoke together with him that day. I also went out to look for the urban poor in the conference and was promptly told, they are not attending because they cannot afford to attend it. With 90% of the churches populated by the poor, why they are not in such a conference is unbelievable.
I tried to stay in the slums in Cape Town that time. I was billeted in a nice hotel, with all the food I can eat. Everyone warned me not to do it. Actually, I went and it was to the worse slum in the world, since Cape Town because of the slums was notorious as the murder capital of the world then. I ate a lot of smileys in the slum. Smileys are the heads of sheep that the rich throw away. It was cheap also and had lots of meat.
It was a common belief at the time of Jesus that the poor had no share in salvation or the kingdom. Poverty was viewed as a curse. I think this came about because the Old Testament always states in black and white the implications of wickedness and righteousness. A good example is Deut. 30 where God gives His people a choice, if they obeyed, God will give them life and prosperity but if they disobeyed, death and adversity. This makes it easy for people to form a wrong belief that when we have adversity or especially poverty, God has shunned us and the converse, if we are rich, then God has shown us favor. There are sprinklings however in the Old Testament of teachings that would indicate that in the midst of a righteous life, one can also be deeply submerged in either adversity or poverty or both.
Jesus’ own condition almost never understood by all, even the best apostles, shows that, the suffering servant experience goes against prevalent views. Even today, subconsciously, Christians believe that prosperity is a sign of God’s favor. Inside the church, a poor man will never be elected elder.
Some rich people stop attending church when they become bankrupt. If we have no money we don’t go to church anymore while the poor go to church with or without money, for to them money is irrelevant to attending church. The fallacy that poverty is a curse afflicts many in the church today and we need to remove it so we can see the poor better or understand why James says the poor are rich in faith.
Jesus turned the tables on this kind of thinking when he went to the poor, associated with the poor and finally declared that the Kingdom belonged to the poor. Of course many will insist that Jesus’ declaration was only referring to the symbolic poor not the literal poor, but that is another fallacy we need to destroy.
Jesus read the bible from the bottom up:
Many people without knowing it, read the bible from the top to the bottom, meaning, from the perspective of the rich and powerful, from the view of the dominant society. This way of looking at the bible not only deprives the poor of the help they can get from God but also hurt them. The Bible shows Jesus turned the world upside down with his view from the bottom up. While the whole world around him believed the poor had no share in salvation, Jesus said the exact opposite, that the Kingdom belongs to the poor, while the world believed that being rich was a sign of God’s favor and blessing, He taught the opposite, how hard it would be for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.
Paul also does a similar thing when he taught that when we are weak then we are strong:
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12
Jesus sought solidarity with the poor:
First, Jesus became poor and went to the poor. Though he was God he became man, and took on this manhood to its deepest level, to that of being a servant, washing the feet of the disciples and laying down his life for his friends. One thus needs to become a servant, the lowest in society.
Second, Jesus fought for the poor. He made sure the gospel was preached to the poor. And he made sure his gospel was good news to the poor (he gave it contents that were beneficial to them – freedom for prisoners, cancellation of debts, and jubilee). He turned the world upside down by declaring that the Kingdom belonged to the poor Jesus took on their cause, fought for their interest and became one with them. He was born poor, grew up in a poor town and made it his mission to preach the gospel to the poor. The poor were those who crowded around him daily. He taught in a way that the poor could understand. One thus needs to be in solidarity with the poor.
Third, He based the precise measure of his success on the plight of the poor – the sick are healed, the cripple walk, the oppressed are protected, the prisoners set free, the hungry fed.
We are not communists:
When we speak about sharing and correcting the unequal distribution of wealth in the world, the wide gap between the rich and the poor, and the exploitative and immoral laws promoting cheap labor and discriminating against the poor, the church gets very defensive and accuses us of being communists.
Communists are dangerous because they force the redistribution of wealth. It is wrong to legislate equality. I totally agree that legislating equality like in the communist countries is wrong. It is almost like legislating poverty in the end. In one social experiment on the issue of whether socialism was good or not, an economics professor gave a failing grade to his entire class that voted in favor of socialism. The point was shown when grades were not tied to performance so that at the end of the semester, good students did not bother anymore to excel because there was no incentive to do so. But this totally misses the point about the Kingdom of God as a form of socialism. It is not academic grades that are at stake in the Kingdom. Just like in climate change, the stakes are totally not academic. Desiring to unite to combat a common enemy like climate change or injustice or inequality is more than enough incentive to excel and do good. The experiment reduces people to merely pavlovian subjects who are motivated by direct and immediate needs like grades. The kingdom points to our survival as well as to our glory, that in our love for God, we would also lift others who are weak because in this action, we show how totally human we are and our humanity is always tied up with the rest of society. The African concept of ubunto perhaps capsulizes it all – we are defined by the whole.
It is community that defines our humanity:
Our humanity is not defined by the fact that we breath or walk or create things. We are human only in connection with community. Our humanity is defined by how we relate, how we forgive, how we show compassion. The greatest commandment is a relationship. We need to become human and we are most human in community.
Someone challenged me, that if I hate capitalism so much, what can I offer as an alternative? Frankly, I don’t have an alternative. I have only known one life and only lived in one planet, the planet earth. I cannot imagine an alternate world without capitalism. But a just and humane society is achievable without going to that extreme. All I want to do is make capitalism more humane, make it a system where the poor are cared for and the rich have compassion for the poor. I also say this because of the coming great tribulation, the great role reversal about to fall on us when the poor are filled with good things and the rich are thrown out empty handed.
Many Christians look down on the poor, despise them and hold them suspect, as though the poor were there to rob them or somehow take advantage of them. This is partly due to a false understanding of simple statistics. Consider, if there were 100 poor people and 2 were lazy or dishonest, it does not mean majority or all of the 100 are lazy or dishonest.
I have many write to me narrating their bad experience with the poor and they use their singular encounter to generalize for all the poor they have never met. I have lived with many and known many more and I can say, majority are good hearted, hard-working godly people. My wife will always testify that if a cesarean patient does not have enough money to pay her as their ObGyn, if the patient is poor, they will always come back and pay no matter how long it takes. But if the patient is rich, they will easily forget their debt.
The statistics are the same, if there are 20% lazy people among the poor, there are also 20% lazy people among the rich. Indolence is not the monopoly of the poor. We should not use our limited exposure to the poor to generalize them all. The truth is that many of us do not really know who the poor are.
I wished we would spend more time knowing the poor and be surprised. It is important that we do because the poor are God’s plumb-lines and a potentially devastating judgment can fall on us when we don’t. Besides, when we go to heaven, most of heaven will be inhabited by people from the slums, former poor people on earth like Lazarus.
People who think the poor don’t have enough imagination and are not taking advantage of the resources around them should try living in the slums for a few days. I have seen enough of their creativity and inventiveness to believe they really are doing all they can to survive, no question about it. Since working in the Payatas dumpsite, for eleven years, I have developed this habit of always carrying a lighter and a magnet with me.
Magnets are good for junkshop shopping or garbage sales. Among all the glittery metals one finds in a pile, silver, copper and stainless steel will not stick to a magnet so one can quickly set aside lots of ordinary stuff in order to get to the good ones. I have also learned that plastics, from computer or stereos to car parts have different characteristics and of course, different prices. To distinguish, the scavengers use a lighter to test the plastic, by burning it – some will burst into flame, some will not, some will melt and become very sticky glue and some will not. No one taught them these things.
This is what we owe to the scavengers in the dumpsites:
- They collect all the recyclable trash. They don’t recycle. Only rich businessmen can do that. But instead of mining these resources from nature, we can preserve our natural resources by obtaining our raw materials like glass, plastics, metals, papers, etc. from the trash. It is also more expensive to mine these raw materials, and cheaper to just buy them from the junkshops. If you want good quality iron, like round bars or re-bars 9 mm, your best bet is the junkshops because today, the new supplies are all substandard so a 9 mm re-bar could easily be just a 7 mm.
- They lessen the dumpsite. Garbage dumps are very expensive to maintain and very politically sensitive. No one wants a dumpsite in their backyard so all mayors are pushing the issue away from their territory. If a mayor agrees to a dumpsite, the ecology army will soon come with many anti-pollution lawsuits. A proper dumpsite needs millions of pesos for first, building a water-proof or leachate proof bottom to ensure that aquifers are not affected. Next, each time trucks come to dump their trash, the trash is instantly sprayed with antiseptics to kill bacteria and other diseases and then covered with soil to keep it from smelling. At the end of the lifespan of the dumpsite, the whole place is again covered with water-proof layer. No one in the Philippines has ever done this. But the scavengers, sometimes with three thousand working round the clock, sort out garbage taking out as much as 50%, which extends the lifespan of the dumpsite.
- Finally, the scavengers provide employment, for themselves. It is the government who should give them jobs but here, they make jobs for themselves, lowering the total unemployment burden of the country.
The rich think the poor are not working hard enough:
There are parts of Scripture that the rich Christians use against the poor, to hurt them. The interpretation is clearly wrong. One such verse is 2 Thessalonians 3:10:
10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” New International Version (NIV)
And also with 1 Timothy 5:8 (KJ21):
8 But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.
When we apply these two verses to the poor, it is really hurting. But it should not be applied to the poor who often have no choice with their own poverty. Capitalism says, each man unto himself and he who does not work should not eat. Ten million people from the Philippines leave the country to look for jobs outside because there are no jobs in the country. They leave for unknown lands, strange laws and cruel bosses, just to find a job. They leave their families, who they will not see for a year, and suffer the loneliness of separation in order to earn US$200 dollars a month which they faithfully remit, the entire sum, to their families. When they get to the foreign country they often suffer so much abuse.
We can see a different situation when the OFW ends up working in America. They often engage in three jobs, three shifts as nurses or caregivers, over time, to earn as much as they possibly could. They did not suddenly become industrious or attended some fantastic work ethics seminar at the airport on their way to their work site, when they were lazy before but now suddenly they are overly hard working.
They did not work back home because there were no jobs. And even if they did, it would only bring more hardships than gain.
It is because there are no jobs back home that people leave. The best intervention for the poor anywhere is to provide jobs and suddenly, when jobs are there, we will see that the poor are very hard working.
I have said that the poor in rich countries are different from the poor in poor countries and some have felt offended by how I defined it. I hope you take it in a positive light. The poor in rich countries are often dysfunctional – they are addicts, depressed, parolees or alcoholics. In our country, most of the poor are very healthy and normal. If I were to minister to the poor in the USA, I would need a PhD in psychology, but in our country, it would be perfectly alright for one of the girls in the slums to marry any of my three sons.
Koreans tell me that they all learned to work hard and each man labored beyond the normal work for decades which is how South Korea overtook the Philippines economically. I think this is an over-simplification. There are obviously many factors at work. South Korea is a threatened country, always on the verge of annihilation, always at total war preparedness. This can work magic on the country’s ethos and work attitude. If a country is always afraid of being overrun and destroyed, the people will work more than they normally would.
Also, the country is a mono-culture country, one favorite dish for all, one language, one value system, etc. The Philippines has hundreds of languages and is plagued by well-entrenched corruption of the oligarchy which prevents any positive gain from taking hold. Our identity is so schizophrenic, when we live in a foreign country, we don’t even want to be known as Filipinos, we just simply blend in and disappear. We live in one thousand islands, some islands even want autonomy or want to secede from the rest. Filipinos work hard and can work harder than other nationalities. Given a chance, they can excel better than others.
I had a client, a Filipino, who only finished 4th grade elementary but was earning a super huge salary in an offshore oil rig in Nigeria. He was earning more than most of the American engineers in the rig because he had been working in the industry for more than 20 years. An accident happened; a boom fell and broke his spine. The manager decided that sending him to the nearest most expensive hospital, at Johannesburg, was too costly. By looking at the color of his skin, he was put on the next plane back to the Philippines which cost only 10% of the cost of sending him to Johannesburg. When he arrived, he was almost dead. He recovered after several weeks in the hospital and came to our law office to file a labor case to recover damages and insurance from his employer.
Meantime, he kept himself busy, drove a taxi, opened a restaurant and did other things. He worked 16 hours a day and earned roughly P1,000 pesos or about 4% of what he normally earned abroad. Here, in the Philippines, if you work 16 hours a day you only get tuberculosis but in America, if you work that hard, you could get rich. Before we could file his case in court, he became depressed and had to be admitted in the hospital. I think he is still there up to now. When they work overtime overseas, they easily earn five thousand dollars or more, which is a very strong incentive to work hard. Not so in the Philippines.
We are not rich because we are talented or we worked hard:
We must also disabuse our minds of the idea that we are rich because we are talented and worked very hard. Whether we say it or not, our hearts tell the poor that they too must work hard like us. We give them the impression that we will not give to them our hard earned money unless they pick themselves up and stop being lazy and work. The bible is clear about how we have become wealthy. And scientific studies support it. There are no business schools existing today that is able to correlate becoming wealthy with what is being taught in business school. There is absolutely no relationship between getting an MBA and becoming wealthy.
God reminded the Israelites in Deuteronomy, that when they have enjoyed the promised land and have gotten wealthy, that they will not say, it was our hand that made us wealthy. God said it categorically, that it was He who made them wealthy.
Ecclesiastes 9.11 echoes the same thought: the race does not belong to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned. Time and chance are the real factors to success in business. No businessman in his right mind would claim that he followed a formula to the letter and worked hard which is the reason he is wealthy. Many have also worked as hard but remained poor.
Squatters in China endure the most inhuman housing conditions:
There is a book about the slums in China which documents the inhuman housing condition migrant workers are forced to live in. It is very recent, published 2010, and perhaps the most comprehensive and scholarly book on the subject today. In the decades of urban migration, of poor people coming to the cities to look for jobs, there has been a drastic decrease in the size of housing available, forcing these migrants to endure subhuman housing conditions in order to survive.
Squatting in China is illegal and this law is strictly enforced. In an authoritarian and centralized system of government like China, squatters can be trucked out of their place of settlement within just hours from the time they settled down as squatters. By midnight, they will have been brought back to the province forcibly.
Also, China has some antiquated laws that say only residents of a city have the right to reside in the city and only those with that right can get a quota in the public school system for their children. What happens is that these migrants are forced to rent illegal dwellings and send their kids to illegal schools. And as more and more migrate to the city, the newcomers find less and less of these dwelling available and finally settle for less human conditions, with housing decreasing from 50 square meters for a family of five, to now, prevalent in the city, less than 20 square meters. Soon, the family also realizes their generation has reached a dead end as their children grow up without any education.
China has grown largely from jobs created by American consumers. China’s factories exports most if not all of their products to America, the biggest single market there is. As cities urbanize, the gap between the rich and the poor also increases. City dwellers are so much wealthier than rural people. The main driver of urban migration is jobs. But as millions migrate, the demand for housing also expands often resulting in a huge housing shortage.
We can observe two pressure points here of injustice. The American economy thrives on cheap labor provided by an autocratic China where there are no human rights laws. This demand for labor moves millions of poor Chinese to the cities where the jobs are that produce goods for America. America does this in order to maintain its high standard of living – prosperity, affluence and even decadence. As America enjoys China’s products, these poor Chinese laborers suffer unimaginable working conditions.
We can have a more humane capitalism:
Capitalism is what drives all these. I have several people challenge me on this asking if I hated capitalism so much, do I even have an alternative to capitalism. I don’t. I have only lived on one planet so I don’t know of any other possible life on earth except what we have now. But I want is not that capitalism be thrown away, only that it becomes more just by being more humane. And any system for that matter needs to be humanized. In this matter, we are asking for a more humane housing condition for the migrant laborers in China. And America can do it, she has the power to do it, if the consumers or capitalist will make it a condition before they buy Chinese products, that the factory workers be given more humane housing or else America won’t buy from China. America cannot just benefit from the cheap labor, benefit from the strong purchasing power of the US dollar in the China factories, without being concerned with the oppressive exploitation of the laborers who work in those factories.
The great role reversal:
He who exalts himself will be humbled, the first shall be last and he who humbles himself will be exalted. This is the theme of the Great Role Reversal of Scripture. The parable of Lazarus is the clearest teaching on this matter.
The humble will be exalted and the powerful cast down
The first shall be last and the last made first
The poor fed good things and the rich sent away empty
It is when we are weak that we are strong
Isaiah 26 is a prayer that someday the feet of the poor will trample the city of the rich,
5He humbles those who dwell on high, he lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust. 6Feet trample it down—the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor.
Isaiah 29 is again a prayer that the tyrants will be no more –
Humble people again will find joy in the LORD. The poorest of people will find joy in the Holy One of Israel. 20Tyrants will be gone. Mockers will be finished. All who look for ways to do wrong will come to an end: 21those who make people sin with words, those who lay traps for judges, those who, without any reason, deny justice to people who are in the right.
Everywhere we see this movement, either a downward mobility of being with the poor demonstrated and preached by Jean Vanier in L’Arche or simply the giving up by Jesus of his god privileges, the kenosis, the emptying of self. Jesus teaches us that if anyone wants to be first he must be last, if any one wants to be great he must be the servant of all. When we read Scripture, we must be ready to face this overturning of the tables.
The poor read the bible with emphasis on justice:
The Magnificat also resonates this theme, “the rich will be sent away empty and the hungry will be filled with good things.” Luke’s version of the beatitude goes right to the same point, “woe to you who live in luxury now, woe to you who laugh now…!” We have never incorporated this in our spirituality and yet it could be the most poignant part of our spirituality when we juxtapose this with the unjust distribution of wealth today. It is in this great divide, between the rich and the poor, that we will see the great role reversal and its most terrifying implications.
In the Magnificat in Luke 1.46, we see once more how we can read the Bible from the perspective of the poor. We see Mary not just another character in the bible but the symbol of the poorest of the poor. In her song, she magnifies the Lord in her life, despite her being so poor. All over the world, the poorest are always the women. Perhaps, the absolutely poor would be the widow. Verse 53 is a DMZ, common in conflict areas like in the Vietnam War – a line called the demilitarized zone was drawn in the middle of the country. One preacher working on this text in All Soul’s Church (church of John Stott) turned to his congregation and challenged them, which side would they be when the dividing line is drawn, when the rich are turned away empty and the hungry are filled with good things, on which side will you be?
Of course, very few evangelicals know about the Magnificat because we are all allergic to Mary, the Roman Catholic caricature of the real Mary. We don’t have an idea what Mary’s spirituality is like and we don’t care. But, honestly, we do, we need to look at the Magnificat as the cry of the poorest of the poor. When reading the bible from the bottom up, justice becomes a clear emphasis.
All my life I have sought to be on that side, the side of the poor. I don’t want to be on the side of the rich who are turned away empty. Justice is very much a part of the spirituality of the poor. There is a profound longing for righting wrongs, correcting injustice, redistributing wealth, a comeuppance on the wicked finally. This is the constant prayer of the poor. I long for the day when what happened in Cuba fifty years ago will happen here in the Philippines, when all land titles are burned in the plaza. To read the bible form the bottom up, faith must seek justice, a redistribution of wealth. The dividing line is in verse 53. Yes, which side will you be on that fateful day?
We think the rest of the world is like us:
I was in the newly built UPTown Ayala Mall in UP Diliman the other day and it dawned on me that only 1% of the people of the Philippines can come and eat there. The biggest problem of the rich is that we always think the rest of the world is like us, that the world thinks like us, live like us, eats like us. How wrong we are. 90% of the world don’t and in fact, many cannot even eat a regular meal. This should scare us that we think the world is like us and this should make us want to go down to the poor and see the bible from the perspective of these people.
The bible spirituality is all about a movement towards humility, to walk humbly with our God:
The great role reversal means we need to constantly make the downward movement like Jesus, who though he was rich became poor in order to make others rich. Being rich carries the potential of being humbled and being poor, the potential of being exalted. This is the major movement of the Kingdom. We need to always seek the lowest place and let God promote us to the higher one. When attending a banquet, we are not to take the seat of honor less someone comes who deserves it more and we are asked to give up our seat and face great humiliation. Instead, we seek the lower place and when Jesus comes, we will be called to go to the seat of higher honor.
The story of Lazarus and the rich man is all about the coming great role reversal:
This next passage I owe to Shane Claiborne, who gave a beautiful sermon about it in Bangkok in the 2012 ISUMMIT conference. It is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The story is really all about the coming great and tumultuous role reversal. It is interesting that the poor man is the one named, the rich man has no name as if to imply that he is not important here. It is Lazarus who is the central figure. Even in Hades, the rich man recognized Lazarus, which is awesome. God is telling us that we may be nobodies here on earth but God knows us and in the end, during the great reversal, everyone will know us.
Claiborne also pointed out the most critical element of the story, which is the gate. The one thing that the rich man used to keep the poor away from him became the one thing that kept him away from God. Many times we think we are keeping people away from us while all the time we are really keeping ourselves from God or worse, keeping God away from us. But even when already in Hades, the rich man was still accustomed to giving orders and gave orders twice for Lazarus. He asked God to send Lazarus to do some work for him. He is really an incurable domineering man and perhaps that points to the core of his character and how the role reversal works here.
On the one hand, Lazarus suffered while on earth. He had no food. He had sores. He laid at the gate, probably on the ground and his life was maybe short, he died shortly thereafter, perhaps from too much deprivation. He was a beggar, used to humbly asking for food, not commanding or giving orders. The rich man on the other hand was used to giving orders. He led a life of great comfort, enjoyed lots of food, good food and a comfortable home. The bible always tells us that a time is coming when those who are lifted up will be put down and those who are laid low will be lifted up.
What is the great reversal? The happy will become sad, the filled will be hungry, the comfortable will be deprived, the rulers will be laid low, the proud will be humbled, the rich will be sent away empty as in the Magnificat. This is the great message of the parable of Lazarus. Heaven and hell is the great reversal. We might ask, why was the rich man condemned to hell, did he not believe? It does not seem important in the story. It is implied that as a rich man enjoying much luxury, he was totally insensitive to the needs of the poor around him. This perhaps is enough to condemn him to an eternity in hell. This jibes also with the other teachings about rich people. The bible generally looks down on them.
There are other characters here also, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and the man who rises up from the grave whom we know is Lazarus who is the foretelling of Jesus, the one who after three days rose from the dead. When we combine the two ideas, we have this: that when Jesus comes, the great role reversal will take place. And yet, even if we warn people, many will still not believe. And what they need is not a miracle, of a man rising from the grave. They already have enough messengers to persuade them to get ready: Moses represents all the Law and the first 5 books of the Old Testament, Abraham is the Covenant, and the prophets are countless, sent almost every generation to the people of God. And then after that, are the apostles, the successors of the prophets (our faith stands on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets).
What do we do with this great role reversal?
In the Magnificat, God has drawn a line. In the end, we will find ourselves on one side of the line, on the side of the poor or on the side of the rich. Which side will we be in the end? That is the question. To prepare for it, we need to understand that if we are proud, we need to start now and work steadily towards becoming humble. We don’t need to stop being wealthy but we do need to take the side of the poor as rich men by being in solidarity with the poor, preaching the gospel to the poor and giving generously. We must provide comfort as much as we can for those poor around us, feed them and take care of them.
One of the greatest lessons that England missed completely when their aristocracy talked about the divine rights of kings to justify the power of royalty as one derived from God is this upside down nature of the kingdom. Yes, we have riches and power or we have royalty but if it is derived from heaven, it also requires that those who are on top, those who seek to lead, must become servants of all. This is a preparation for the great reversal.
Our domestic helpers who are Christians must be treated as a brother and a sister, a member of our family, to eat the food we eat and sleep in a bed as comfortable as ours. Oppressive rulers and haughty magistrates must lower themselves also for it is with them that the great role reversal will be most powerfully felt – God will put down rulers and kings and lift up servants and slaves. As the saying goes, be nice to the elevator boy, for you will surely encounter him on your way down. We must practice now what Jesus taught us, that those who lead among us must become our servants and the first shall be last, the last, first.
The main principle is “The lower we go, the higher God will bring us”:
Many Christians actually believe that the bible teaches us to reach out to the wealthy and powerful. This is based on the mistaken belief that if the rich and powerful become believers, they can have such an impact on society for the better.
This has led to an upward movement in the church, to become close to the rich and powerful and to prioritize evangelism for the rich and powerful. We want the opportunity to be able to have an audience with these elite.
There is a divine law at work in the ministry which few know about. The church today is enamored by riches and power. She wants to evangelize the rich and powerful, thinking that with these powerful people on their side, transforming the world can happen quicker and easier. They believe that if rich and powerful men become Christians, the world can be changed radically for the better.
Corollary to that, the church also desires wealth and power for herself. This has been her vilest addiction. The rich and powerful will not come to a church that is poor or dirty. But they will be attracted to an opulent church, so the church must also become wealthy and powerful to attract the rich and powerful. The idea is that by being rich and powerful, the church can now have an audience with the hard to reach elite and aristocrats of the world.
The church must give up her desire for wealth and power:
Thomas Merton wrote to condemn this way of thinking and asked the church to give up her desire for power and wealth. Merton advised the church to seek solidarity with the poor instead. The movement in the bible is that of Christ’s kenosis, the church must imitate Christ who though he was rich became poor in order to make others rich. The church is not called to become rich, but to become poor. Having a surplus is a sin for the church to do. This call to destitution is for the church, not for individuals. But individuals who have this calling may also pursue voluntary destitution as an expression of their solidarity with the poor.
Worst, when the church aims her evangelism to reaching the rich and powerful, her gospel is automatically compromised. She immediately loses her prophetic voice, her right to speak against injustice and greed. Even before the first rich man is converted, the church no longer is able to speak against the unjust system nor able to seek a change in the status quo.
With the rich and powerful on her side, the church cannot question the status quo and it is precisely the status quo that protects, props up and promotes the wealth and power of these elite. It is precisely the unjust laws that make them wealthy and powerful. The church cannot speak out anymore for better labor laws, higher minimum wages, better working hours, because it threatens the status quo. Calling for a change in the laws will antagonize the wealthy and powerful. This will drive away the wealthy and powerful that the church has committed to reach out to and therefore speaking against the status quo would be counterproductive.
I was with the Commissioner of Internal Revenue one time, on a mission to help the government in their tax drive and eliminate graft and corruption by promoting transparency. We promised the Commissioner we had thousands of member churches and three months before the tax deadline, April 15 each year, we would promote tax consciousness on the pulpit every Sunday and ask our congregations to pay their taxes in full and be totally tax compliant. The Commissioner laughed and said, what we promised would never happen. He said, once we begin speaking on the pulpit about tax compliance, our members would begin to leave the church. He was right. It never happened. The churches could not make the pitch on the pulpit for fear of antagonizing the rich members, making them guilty that they were not paying their taxes correctly.
What the church does not know is that the divine law at work in our ministry is the opposite. The lower we go the more Christ will lift us up. The lower we go in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, the more God will bring us to positions where we can speak to kings, billionaires and presidents.
We have seen this dramatically in the life of Mother Teresa. Disdaining all celebrity status, she concentrated on going down, moving downwards, to be in solidarity with the poor, removing all surpluses, and seeking to become poor. The more she moved down, the more God lifted her up. She spoke before the United Nations plenary session. She also spoke at the White House before the President of America and other leaders of America. She was awarded the Nobel Prize eventually. Presidents, Princesses, celebrities, all flocked to her headquarter in India to take part in menial work, washing the dishes, mopping the floor. Her message was a message about downward mobility. Because she had no stake in the status quo, nothing to protect in the status quo, she could speak boldly about sensitive issues – abortion, divorce, and greed. She gave the most important message to the world today – that what was worse than economic poverty was the loneliness and isolation people experience in affluent societies, that loneliness was worse than poverty.
We must read the bible upside down:
John Stott has always taught that the Beatitude is the most counter cultural aspect of Scripture. This is the upside down law of the Kingdom. It reverberates in the Beatitude –
3 “Blessed are the
poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Yes, the beatitude is the picture of the upside down Kingdom. John Stott believes the beatitude is a call to radical lifestyle, to an upside down value system.
The Beatitudes can be seen two ways: either as simply a poetic expression of a general truth, so that poor would refer to all believers in general, all who are poor spiritually, or seen as a political declaration with a strong bias for the literal poor. The bible often pits rich and poor, sometimes comparing them directly: the poor are good and the rich are evil as James wrote. Jesus said it is very hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom implying that the rich carry a certain disqualification just by virtue of their being rich.
This is difficult to swallow because we tend to view scripture from the top to the bottom and most of the time our theology is crafted by the rich so that even the poor think like the rich, they also look at the bible from the top to the bottom. They envy the rich and believe the rich are blessed, blessed with lots of material wealth and look down on the poor, because the poor are not blessed with material things.
It is more blessed to give than to receive:
Many of the poor I know believe receiving is a blessing and giving is not even though Scripture says we receive more blessings when we give.
I have to always illustrate this graphically. I stand in front, and I hold up a cellphone. I motion to one person to receive the cellphone and then I ask the congregation, what did this person get? All will say he has received a blessing. I then ask, what about me? What have I received, pointing to Acts 20.35 it is more blessed to give than to receive? All of them will say, I have also received a blessing. And finally, I ask, who got more blessings, the one who received the cellphone or the one who gave the cellphone? And they can hardly believe their answer: yes, the one who gave the cellphone is more blessed. And you can see it in their embarrassed smiles.
Reading the Beatitude correctly can feel like a harsh self-indictment (on the part of the rich), to read poor here as referring primarily to the economically poor and only secondarily to the poor in spirit or humble. This I believe is the biggest obstacle in Christianity today that prevents people from journeying with the poor: Christians are unable to accept that the poor are rich in faith and the kingdom belongs to the poor. It is not a bias because God’s salvation is for all equally but it is a fact that God has made the proper treatment of the poor the plumb-line for judgment.
The cross is the sign of the greatest reversal:
Reading the bible from the bottom up is a recognition of this radical reversal. The great role reversal is at the center of the cry for justice that permeates the way the poor read Scripture. The Cross is the symbol of this soon to come great role reversal. On the cross, God who is mighty and sovereign, dies, weak and helpless. It is in surrender that we win, in dying that we have life. The Kingdom is terribly upside down. We must constantly come to the cross and lay down our offering of ourselves, our wealth and our reputation and take up His cross and die. This is the Cross, a death that conquers, a weakness that is powerful, a foolishness that is wise. But the church now relies on wealth and power, no longer on the cross. Because of that, the church can no longer say to the beggar, silver and gold I have none…. The church has lots of silver and gold, have lots of surpluses, an immoral hoard of surpluses amidst so many dying of starvation.
When we give that we are blessed
When we lose that we gain
When we die that we live
The movement of the church is to become poor:
If the church were to become poor, then maybe we can again say to the beggar at our gate, silver and gold I have none but this I say unto you, arise in the name of Christ. And yet, the church opposes this. She says, without surplus, how can we pay rent, salaries, electric bills, etc.? It is foolish to seek to be poor. The church will be crippled and will no longer be able to preach the gospel.
In the Ondoy flood, 2009, the worse to ever hit Manila, our group was distributing relief goods to more than 50,000 families. One day we got a call from San Mateo, apparently they had not received any relief goods and had been without food for days already. They were stranded amidst neck deep water. Our policy in the relief distribution was that none of the goods would stay with us for more than 24 hours.
If it did, we considered it a sin against God. So, when we got the call, our storage was empty, we had just given away our last batch of relief goods. So, I asked the office to call Suy Sing and order enough for that community, worth about a thousand US dollars. I bet my credit card, not knowing how I could ever pay the purchase. It was 11 in the morning. The process of ordering took some time and before it could be finalized, a fresh supply of relief goods arrived, enough for the needs in San Mateo. I immediately took back my credit card.
What we saw there was this: that no one is faster than God in giving. No one is faster than God is issuing cheques or swiping credit cards. God will always be faster. We are so afraid that by giving away our surplus, we will become bankrupt. We think it is foolish to seek to become poor by giving our money to the poor. But what we don’t know is that God will be faster than us. By the time we have given away one thousand dollars, God has given us ten thousand dollars.
Giving is a wild contest with God:
The whole teaching on giving in the bible is actually a picture of a very fierce contest. When we give, it will be returned to us. What we sow we will reap. When we give generously, it will returned to us tenfold, pressed down, shaken together. Imagine this, if you give to God ten thousand pesos, he will not be out-given and he will want to give more. He will give us a hundred thousand pesos. It goes on and on. He will always refuse to be out-given, beaten in giving and generosity. It is just our imagination that when we seek solidarity with the poor, we will become bankrupt as though we could out-give God.
As we have mentioned above, to be rich does not mean having many possessions but having given so much to the poor. Old Testament scholars will say that the tithes were basically accumulated and allotted for the poor, especially the widows, orphans and aliens. Many rich churches give so much but actually, only a little of that reaches the poor. The total giving of America, in an authoritative study, very little, or only 4% actually reaches the poor.
Tithes are 10% of our harvest and new offspring from our flock. This is actually 10% of our gross profit, not our net profit. 10% is perhaps the smallest giving in the bible and yet, many rich people are not able to comply with it. The poor give more than 10% all the time.
More than tithes, we are commanded to be cheerful givers. This is more than 10%. Cheerful givers are more reckless and the giving is an outpouring of gratitude in the heart.
The church teaches about giving and often will use the idea of tithing, giving 10% of our income. Some people will debate this, wanting to avoid giving so much: Is this 10% net or gross? Some have a valid reason for giving on the net but some just simply want to disobey. And yet, even giving 10% can be done so dutifully and legalistically that it loses its meaning entirely. If I were God I would tire of these offerings that are given either reluctantly or just for the sake of complying.
Paul thus adds spice to it: we must give cheerfully. This adds a good motive to giving that surely makes God smile when he receives our gift. In this, cheerful giving can quickly go beyond 10%. Cheerful givers do not mind going beyond 10%. Much of the giving of the rich actually just favors them, it is only to pay for their expensive Sunday services, numerous staff and pastors who act like servants in a rich man’s household, doing the bidding of their rich patrons, and to pay for their banquets.
Their giving is actually not counted as far as God is concerned because these are simply to cater to their comfort and wants and are not really given to God or the poor for whom tithes and offerings were designed. It means they still need to give their tithes and offerings.
Give tithes 10%
Sacrificial giver – macedonians
A higher form of giving is to give out of revenge:
Acts 20.35 says it is more blessed to give than to receive. Anthony Pangilinan taught me this. When his son needed an emergency surgery to correct a heart abnormality, many people gave to the surgery in America. When it was over, he gave his testimony in our church. He told of the faithfulness of God and the many generous donations. At the end, he said he was mad at those who donated and he promised to get even. He said they have given and thus were blessed, blessed more than him and he was lugi, lamang na sila. That’s because it is more blessed to give than to receive.
We have here 4 levels of giving, a. 10%, b. A cheerful giving which is more than 10% and c. A vindictive giving, which is way beyond, in order to be more blessed. A fourth level is giving sacrificially, that is giving beyond our means (2 Corinthians 9) as demonstrated by the Macedonian Christians who were poor but insisted they be given an opportunity to share also.
It is interesting that during Ondoy, dozens of our poor pastors and friends flocked to our office, pressing us to somehow get them involved. They felt they wanted to give but they had nothing. They came at 4 in the morning and stayed till midnight every day. They felt that if they had nothing to give at least they could give their labor to help the flood victims. It was their way of giving to God. They did the lifting, sorting, packing, etc.
Wealth is not about possessing so much but giving so much:
We are not counted wealthy by how much we have accumulated or hoarded but how much we have given to the needy. The bible even condemns those who hoard, those who accumulate lands so that there is no more space for the poor to live in. When the church becomes a church of the rich and powerful, the church will no longer question this definition of wealth. The gospel also will no longer speak out against the status quo of hoarding and excessive accumulation. Our gospel today cannot speak out against the status quo because the status quo, the legal system, the social structural evil, is what is precisely supporting and protecting the wealth and power of these people.
When the rich Christians give their tithes and offerings to the church each Sunday, often, it is really just money paid to make their lives more comfortable, their worship more luxurious. All the money they collected goes to air-conditioning, expensive carpeting, high ceiling, luxurious lighting, fat salaries to attract the best preachers (entertainers who will not speak the truth, not rock the boat, these theologians of the rich boasts so much about how orthodox their teachings are, how biblical their hermeneutics but they can screen a gnat but allow an elephant to pass through – such as the teaching on sharing and helping the poor, and doing critical reflection on capitalism that underlies their Christianity).
The tithes and offerings in the Bible were all meant to help the poor. But what has happened is we use the tithes and offerings to benefit us, it is not really given to God but used to pay for our comfort. Many rich churches even have small group fellowships held abroad (Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, etc.) even though they know that 90% of the country suffer from so much poverty. I believe that after we have given our tithes and offerings, we have only given to ourselves which means we still owe God our tithes and offerings and we will need to give more. I think if we need to hate someone, we should not hate the poor, we should hate the rich instead. We should enter into the heart of Jesus and find out why he condemned the rich.
God has no bias for the poor:
I believe in that deeply. Instead, what we see in the Bible is that God has a bias for justice. Social action is both justice and righteousness. Kingdom is always an issue of justice, the setting things aright according to NT Wright – to protect the oppressed and to right what is wrong. What we can see however is this: God has used the poor as His plumb line, the true measure of justice. When God wants to chastise His people, he will condemn them for their mistreatment of the poor. When he wants to praise them, it is for their good treatment of the poor.
Who are the poor in the Bible? Almana, ger and yatom:
Widows, aliens and orphans (Hebrew almana, ger and yatom), they seem very much intertwined in Scripture, like they share so many things in common. It could be their vulnerability. Poverty must be defined not just in terms of financial inadequacy but in broader dimensions like freedom and equality. Many times, poor people have no real choices and have no freedom.
Some scholars think Ger could be properly translated as migrants like the migrant workers we have today. The heart of urbanization is the migrants. Look also at the True Fasting in Isaiah 58 – to care for the wandering homeless poor who are our migrants today. Someone said, while the bible is doing its best to protect these migrants, the rich countries are doing their best to criminalize and keep out these migrants. Why America hates migrants so much when they were also migrants themselves before. God truly is the God of migrants.
The whole of the Western world is being transformed radically by migrants. Almost all the great cities today have more migrants than locals. In Scandinavian countries for example, their birth rates are 2 to 3 times more than the local citizens (who usually have negative growth rates). While God is bent on protecting the Gers of our world, many laws today make them illegal.
We can understand the use of the word poor in the bible better if we see them in context. God has a definition for poor. By word association, poor includes the meek, the sick, the oppressed, and the financially poor. There are other groups of people associated with poor, those used in the same context as the poor or used together in the same sentence with the poor. In the Old Testament, the common plumb line of God was the famous trio – the orphans, widows and aliens. This is a convenient byword to refer to the poor. In the New Testament, Jesus used a more repulsive trio – the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. Again, it is a handy byword to refer to the poor. Women are also the poorest of the poor. Always at the bottom of the rung, among the poorest, it is the women who fall at the lowest pile because they are more helpless, more powerless compared with the men. If we view the Magnificat this way, as the voice and the prayer of the poorest of the poor, it begins to have a new significance.
(Sinners here is not a generic label. It is a brand name, the same way “nigger” is used derisively against the African Americans. In the Philippines, it could be “palakero” (philanderer), “lasenggero” (drunkard), “sugarol” (gambler), or even “durugista” (drug addicts). The implication of the label sinner is that these people are notorious and openly flaunt their violation of social and religious mores that they are no longer capable of being reformed. In each society, we have such labels for people who are notoriously not in sync with society’s moral code.)
Jesus said these people will go ahead to heaven, even ahead of us so-called righteous and moral people.
There are other groups of poor. The vulnerable poor (orphans, widows and aliens), the despised poor (prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors), the outcastes (beggars, sick, defective like the blinds or cripples), and the invisibles poor (prisoners, lepers and Gentiles).
There are overlaps of course. Prostitutes are also invisible people, that society meant not to be seen. Most of the prisoners in Jesus’ time were actually debtors who could not pay their debts. Sometimes, maybe because of the amount of the loan, even the family members and servants are imprisoned along with the principal debtor. The civilizing effect of Christianity has enshrined protection in our modern laws against imprisonment for debt. Our constitution actually prohibits imprisonment for debt. But this has largely been eroded by the Bouncing Cheque Law which makes it a criminal offense to issue bouncing cheques. 65% of court cases today involve this violation and it is because lenders will require cheques be issued as security or collateral for the loans and the result is the same, the debtor who cannot pay ends up in jail.
We have many outcastes today. In India, there are 250 million outcastes or Dalits or OBCs. Without them, India would suddenly stink because upper castes will not touch dead meat or dress chicken, clean toilets or wash dishes, sweep floors or streets, do laundry or touch blood. Outcastes are people we don’t want to see. Prostitutes are the main group in this area of discrimination. Society wants to make them invisible. In Jesus’ time, the invisible people were the Gentiles, prisoners and lepers. The Jews did not want to see them or want them around.
In America, African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson says there is a growing population of outcastes, the convicts. America has the greatest percentage of people in jail in the whole world. Most of the prisoners in Jesus’ time were debtors who could not pay their debts. In the story of the unmerciful servant, Jesus says in the end the servant debtor was sent to jail along with his wife and children and servants when he could not pay his debt.
Our Philippine constitution has copied the Bill of Rights of other countries, America and UK, in removing the penalty of imprisonment for failure to pay a debt. Our Bill of Rights now states that there shall be no imprisonment for debt. Most of the prisoners today are no longer those who cannot pay their debt but hardened criminals. Bryan Stevenson says though that we are more than the worse sins we have committed. God relates to us in grace which shows that He sees us as more than the worse sins we have committed, and may be it is because he sees our humanity, our human dignity, the image of God in us, which is why He can still love us.
The act of setting aright through a form of equality.
God has no bias for the poor. God simply requires a just society where those who have so much wealth realize they have an inherent duty to help those who have none.
2 Corinthians says, he who gathered much did not have too much and he who gathered little did not lack anything. God will not judge us on how many we have evangelized or how big our churches are, but rather on whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, brought to our homes the homeless, protected the oppressed, visited the prisoners. This is the sheep and goat kind of judgment.
This is not a bias for the poor and weak but a bias for justice. As Bryan Stevenson, an American lawyer said, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice. He said, if we want to solve poverty, the solution is not to create more wealth for everyone, rather, we are called to do more justice and love mercy. We are not called to overthrow capitalism but simply to make it more just, more humane. We are called to break the yoke of oppression and untie the bonds of inequality.
Kingdom will always mean the protection of the oppressed and rectifying unequal and indecent distribution of wealth, to redistribute wealth so that the gap between rich and poor is lessened. Mahatma Gandhi concluded correctly that poverty is the greatest violence of all. We must always tell the rich that being wealthy carries a big responsibility. Like in the Spiderman movie, with great power comes great responsibility.
Another thing we need to adjust in order to read the bible correctly is in the area of fasting. How many times have we met people who fast and seem so pious but who don’t care about the poor. Isaiah 58 speaks to us about true fasting –
58 “Shout it aloud,
do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions a contradiction hypocrisy lie
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’ fasting to humble self to implore God
“Yet on the day of your
fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists. Not really want to do what God wants just wants to do what they want
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the
kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the
yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings
I like what lawyer Stevenson said in the end of his talk: that God will not judge us on how many we have evangelized, or how many churches we have planted. Instead, God will judge us, on whether we have healed the sick, visited the prisoners, feed the hungry, and clothed the naked – sheep, or did not do these (goats). Matthew 25 sheep and goat
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
This parable is very dynamic. I was listening to Father Paul Uwemedimo from Nigeria preach on this and saw how vibrant the story really is. You can enter in as a poor man or a rich man. As a poor man, you are the person clothed, fed and visited. As a rich man, you do the clothing, feeding and visiting. As I reflected on this, I also saw the roles can be reversed but was immediately saddened. There are some poor who do the feeding of the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners. I thought this was so sad that the poor had to do this. Then I started imagining how the rich could be the one fed, clothed and visited by the poor and yes, it does happen often. It happens when the poor are the domestic helpers of the rich. This is even more sad.
One of our staff went to work as a missionary in Jerusalem. Jews do not want Gentiles to touch them but many centenarians, survivors of the Holocaust are being cared for by Filipino nurses and caregivers. It was our staff who bathed and cleaned them, thus touching them. Some also became believers as a result.
Justice and spirituality walk hand in hand:
Spirituality alone is useless, and in fact may even be dangerous. Anthony Campolo says why it is dangerous. He says it is in fact possible to pursue spirituality successfully within a wicked and corrupt society. What he means is that Christians can be holy despite the fact that many people are being oppressed or are starving to death and we are not doing anything about it.
This is a two edged sword. If you read the Pulitzer Prize winning book of Barbara Tuchman about medieval France, in one chapter she talks about the group responsible for the famous book, Imitation of Christ, said to be written by Thomas A’Kempis. In it, we can see the group of monks who were able to pursue holiness amidst so much strife and oppression. On the one hand, we laud them for making it possible to remain faithful despite the difficult human terrain around them – brutal wars and a world class plague. On the other hand, we can also say, they did not lift a hand to make the suffering around them lesser. It was like a sterilized form of holiness, unmindful of the suffering around them, blind to the violence going on around them.
Too heavenly minded and of no earthly good:
This is the theology or more precisely, the eschatology of many Christians. A couple of students at ATS did a survey of several of the well-known evangelical churches and seminaries and asked them which one they were, citizens of heaven or citizens of earth. Majority said they were citizens of heaven, signifying their uninvolvement with matters of this world. John Stott used to describe evangelicalism as people who were on a burning ship and their only concern was how to get the people saved, they did not give a damn about the ship. Let it burn and let it sink. That is pretty much what we believe, that the world will pass away and only the Word of God and the souls of men will last.
N.T. Wright had to explain this. When the St. Paul says our citizenship is in heaven, it does not mean our concern is out of this world and we belong to that other world and it is there that we will finally go. The term heaven there simply means the highest authority, a heavenly authority but it is clearly an authority that intervenes completely in the affairs of this world. We have a stake in this world and more so because we are citizens of heaven. As CS Lewis wrote, only people mindful of heaven will care for the things of this earth.
- T. Wright made it clear, we are not going to heaven when we die, it is God who will come down to earth. I imagine that when that day comes, wherever we are located, God will not take us away from that place. Where we are, is where we will shine God’s light in the darkness and our being co-regents with God means we will co-manage the world, which is still in darkness and we are the front line people bringing the light (or salt) into that darkness. There is just no place for a withdrawal into a safe heavenly place or uninvolvement. Christianity is all about engagement.
Separated the rich from the poor:
The worse sin of the church is to separate the rich Christians from the poor Christians. The church today has separated the rich Christians from the poor Christians so the rich worship in expensive church buildings and the poor worship in slums.
The church is called to live out the Kingdom which means that the rich and poor are together and the rich are giving generously to the poor brothers and sisters so that there is no more poor inside the family of God as commanded in Deuteronomy 15.4.
This is a sinful manipulation, akin to what Jesus condemned among the Pharisees and Scribes: they have upheld their traditions and disregarded God’s commandment. Now, with the rich and poor apart, they can no longer see the poor. So each Sunday, they will not feel guilty when the Scripture is read: he who has a surplus of the world’s goods and finds a brother in need, and does not provide for him, does the love of Christ abide in Him? He is no longer guilty because no matter where he turns, all the people around him are wealthy.
From this, the church has developed a facetious theology that no longer distinguishes also between poor Christians/believers and poor non-Christians/unbelievers. In that passage quoted above, in 1 John 3.17, the word, brethren or brother there actually refers to Christian brothers.
But to avoid the sharing commanded in Scripture for the community of believers, after they have separated the rich and the poor so the poor are out of sight and therefore out of mind, they have also redefined the bible text so brother no longer means Christian brother. That is why it is easy for Christians today to go out and so social action to the poor at large and completely neglecting the poor brothers and sisters at their backyard.
Balancing evangelism with social action is wrong:
I have been told several times by rich Chinese churches that they would give me all the money I need to evangelize and plant a church in their backyard as long as I don’t bring them into their church, the church of the rich Chinese Christians.
We cannot do social action outside the church until we have taken-cared of our own poor Christian brothers and sisters. And this will only happen when we bring the poor Christians into our fellowship.
Social action means justice and righteousness. When the poor unbeliever is converted to Christ through our social action, what will happen when we finally bring him to our own churches? He will find that the justice and righteousness that converted him is not being implemented inside the church. This is a mockery of the gospel.
John Stott in this regard was wrong, also William Wilberforce. There is no need to balance evangelism with social action. The church is the community that lives out the Kingdom and it is where social action is taking place, for example, that within the church or within the nation of Israel, there were no poor among them or no poor among us today. This is real social action. It is social action done to fellow believers. When we do that and we have no more poor in our midst, the world will sit up and believe.
The only mission of the church is evangelism but it is required to live the Kingdom, have the rich and poor together, until there are no more poor in their midst.
Merely having rich and poor Christians together is already a big enough demonstration of social action. God wants them together because He is saying, the Kingdom will work even if we have the two together or that the Kingdom is truly with us when we make it work even if we have the rich and poor together.
Arguing from inconvenience:
The rich Christians will say the poor will not come to our church because we have sermons in English and they don’t understand English. We are all dressed in fine clothing and they are not. The poor will feel out of place in the rich church. This argument is merely an argument of convenience. The Word of God must be seen to be more imperative and more compelling and not so easily set aside by such argument. Besides, it is not really the poor who need to go to the rich Christians church. The bible says it is the rich Christians who need to go to the poor church.
Many by a mere argument of convenience like this are able to set aside the Word of God that calls for rich Christians and poor Christians to be together.
The church has to have the rich and the poor, the free and the slaves, the strong and the weak, or else it is not a church. It is not biblical to have an exclusively rich church or exclusively poor church. It is a church precisely because with the odds stocked against it, that way, the Kingdom can still be lived out. God is saying, the Kingdom will work even when the rich and the poor are together, even when the blacks and the whites are together. God will feel cheated if we say the Kingdom will work only if we have agreeable people inside the church, only if we have our own kinds inside the church. It is precisely why our gospel is called the gospel of reconciliation.
This argument of convenience has often been used to disregard the commandment of God for brothers and sisters to care for each other, for the rich Christians to take care of the poor Christians. With a simple argument of convenience, we have set aside the Word of God.
It is the rich who needs the poor:
But the real issue actually is this, who is supposed to go where, should the rich go to the poor church in Payatas or the poor go to the rich church in Makati? The answer is obvious. It is the rich who needs the poor, thus, it is the rich who should go to the poor church. The poor do not need the rich so why should they bother going to Makati. Besides, it is the rich who have cars and can travel easier. Why not follow the model of Jesus, to go to the poor, to be with the poor, to become poor?
We all believe that it is the poor who need the rich. But 1 John 3 says otherwise. It says, he who has a surplus of the world’s goods and finds a brother in need and does not provide for him, does the love of Christ abide in him? The question here is not about salvation but about spirituality. The author is saying, what use is our spirituality if we don’t care for the poor. In other words, our spirituality is empty unless we take care of the poor. All our prayers, worship, bible reading, and spiritual disciplines mean nothing unless we take care of the poor.
Any focus on Christian discipleship which consistently neglects the needs of the poor is a defective form of discipleship. Any spirituality that misses the poor is inadequate, deficient, and needs correction. – Roberta Hestenes
Incidentally, brethren or brother (sister) used here actually refers primarily to a Christian brother or sister, and only secondarily to society at large, or people in general. It refers to church members, the family in Christ, the household of God. The point is this, if we don’t care for our poor brethren inside the church, our own Christian brothers and sisters, our spirituality is not real.
The way we treat the poor authenticates our spirituality:
The way we treat the poor authenticates our spirituality. In other words, we need the poor to authenticate our spirituality. The measure of our spirituality is the way we treat the poor brethren (not the way we treat the poor outside the church, or unbelievers). The worse thing the church has done is to subvert this text by making it refer to the world at large, like saying, I love the world, it’s my next door neighbor I cannot stand.
We have focused the whole church machinery to helping the poor in the world when all God is telling us is to take care of our own poor. God has no super agenda to get rid of poverty in the world. But he has an agenda to get rid of poverty inside the church, among the believers.
It is the rich who need to go to the poor and not vice versa, the rich Christians must go to the poor churches to become a community with them to journey with them. The poor are not required to come to their air-conditioned church instead it is the rich who need to go to the poor, go to the slums and worship there with the poor brethren. When we journey with the poor, we are simply saying we need the poor more than they need us. In other words, the way we treat the poor authenticates our spirituality. It is holding hands with the poor, seeking powerlessness, that gives us solid biblical spirituality. It is saying we need the poor.
God has no super agenda to get rid of poverty in the world:
God’s only agenda is that inside the church, among the believers, there are no poor among them. All the commands on sharing and taking care of the needy apply first and foremost to those within the family of God, to the brethren. If they do succeed so well it spills over to society at large, well and good but it should always begin in the house of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 15, I John 3, 2 Corinthians 8, Ezekiel 22, Isaiah 59, etc. all these commands on sharing apply first and primarily to those within the family of God, those who are saved, those who are Christians. God does not command the unbelievers to share their wealth or give to the poor. The reason is obvious.
There is a contest going on in the world, the kingdom of Satan versus the Kingdom of Jesus. God is saying, His kingdom is better than Satan’s, God’s Kingdom works better than Satan’s and the church is God’s show case, display and demonstration of the Kingdom. God is commanding that inside the church, there shall be no poor among them. God is commanding that there be generous sharing among them within the church. God is saying, that those who gathered much did not have too much and those who gathered little did not lack anything, and this is in reference to believers.
The wrong belief about the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds:
What the church has done, reading the bible from the top to the bottom is to say that these commands about justice and equality refers to society in general, the world at large. What has happened is that the contest has been nullified. One reason perhaps for this anomaly in our doctrines is because of the widespread beliefs in among Christians that the church is composed of both believers and unbelievers. Since the time of Constantine, it has been the belief of the church that the parable of the wheat and the weeds actually apply to the church.
The correct way of understanding the parable is of course that it does not apply to the church, it applies to the world (Matthew 13.37).
37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
The ground referred to in the story is the world. But because of the contamination from outside, the virus of the world having entered the church, they have begun applying that parable to the church. It is therefore, more reasonable now to say that social action is directed to the whole world and there is no contest between the community of God and the community of Satan. They are already mixed together and now, it is everyman for himself.
Again, we are not saying it should stop in the church. If the Kingdom works and values flow out or overflows to the rest of the world, well and good but it should begin in the church, in the house of God. It should not be done in society in general without it being done in the church.
Those who believe the church is called to do social action (justice and righteousness) outside of the church, to the world at large, without making it work first inside the church, by having the rich Christians and the poor Christians together in the church, will discover to their dismay, that their works are inutil or useless.
Most Christians believe this because the proximity of the poor Christians inside the church can be quite vexing. That is why many rich Christians choose to go to churches where there are no poor. When their church will do social action outside, and the people become converted by their social action and message of salvation, when that new convert enters the church, he will be shocked when he finds out the values of justice and righteousness for which he was converted, are not practiced inside the church, nor are they allowed to be practiced because then that would threaten the status quo.
But we insist on this wrong interpretation because it is more convenient to do sorties into the world than find them inside our own home or our own community. Sorties happen when we go on Sundays in our nice trucks and help the poor and then at the end of the day, go home and the poor stay where they are. Our homes are safe from the poor.
Why do we believe Kingdom values will work outside among unbelievers when it won’t even work among believers? Believers, especially rich believers will not live out Kingdom values but they are the most qualified to implement Kingdom values. If they won’t, they who have been saved and who are supposed to no longer have any deathly grip on material possessions, how much less will the unbelievers do amidst our work of social action for the world at large. If the most qualified candidates to live out the kingdom will not do it, why do we think Kingdom (justice and righteousness) will work outside, among unbelievers?
So now, there is no more contest, there is no more show case. God can no longer boast as he did in Deuteronomy 4, that all the nations when they looked at Israel would be envious at how beautiful God’s nation is
5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?
because now, no sharing need to happen because the poor Christians are nowhere in sight. The rich Christians worship in their expensive suburbs inside air-conditioned buildings while the poor Christians worship in the slums.
The church theology follows the world standard of protecting the status quo and not questioning the inequitable distribution of wealth and the best way to do that is to make sure the bible teaching on sharing becomes obsolete by the mere expediency of separating the rich Christians from the poor Christians.
Community is needed for sharing:
But if the two were together, as a church, as a community, as a family, then those verses on sharing would suddenly come alive. When they read 1 John 3, those with three cars will have to sell one car to provide food for the one seated beside them in church on Sunday who has not had a decent meal the whole week.
The church will do this if the church will become also a real church, not a Sunday affair thing when people meet briefly on Sunday morning and not even know who the guy seated beside them is and what his needs are. This is capitalism inside the church, following the ideology of capitalism that says our wealth is our own and private ownership as a value is held higher than the scripture command to share and to take your brother and sister who are homeless, into your home and not to look away from your own kin.
Without community, this sharing will not become practical. It is thus imperative that Christians, especially missionaries understand biblical community deeply in order to do mission. Without community there can be no mission and also no gospel. We cannot say to the new convert, now that you are saved, go your way and leave me alone. To make the contest meaningful, we must aim at showing to the world how much better our system is (when the church lives out the Kingdom).
No one is neutral when it comes to ideology:
We cannot read the bible until we have completely understood our own underlying philosophical and ideological biases. We need as Raymund Bakke repeatedly says, to exegete not just the Word but also ourselves and our own society.
Several people think my ranting here is only ideological not biblical. I believe it is very biblical and I believe also the notion of what is many think is biblical is really secular, materialistic capitalist ideology. My ranting is nothing compared to how loud and aggressive they sell their ideology. I can only shout from my own rooftop, but they have at their disposal billion dollar machineries to make people believe and accept their ideology.
No one is ideologically neutral. One is either promoting the status quo or seeking to humanize or change it.
They have Hollywood and Wall Street to do their work for them. Whenever they succeed materially, their message of prosperity becomes more credible. It is the golden rule in effect, that he who has the gold makes the rules. The poor will readily embrace American theology because it comes in US dollars and affluent lifestyles. The poor Christians will not be able to resist the American propaganda backed up by such formidable marketing force and great material success.
The saddest thing is we are actually making people more American than Christians, not because I have something against Americans but just simply the fact that it is not the whole gospel we are offering to the world, especially the poor. The Americans should not become defensive actually. In fact, what they should do is say, yes, we agree, we don’t want you to become more American than Christians. Don’t follow our ways, don’t imitate us. We are wrong. This is the message of all those who do immersion.
American society is very Cartesian:
American society like the rest of the affluent nations are very Cartesian. We are citing America here because it is at the apex of this modernization and also the most influential. America is the most aggressive in selling its social and moral values.
Modernization is driven by technology and capital. Affluence is due mainly to capitalistic ideals. The main index for well-being is material wealth. Most of the people in affluent countries have much wealth, in fact, all of America stands at the top of the food chain, at the top 1% of the world’s population in terms of wealth.
Yet, within the affluence, many suffer from isolation and loneliness. The principal reason is the Cartesian philosophy which is basically a scientific approach to life. Without it, we could not have cellphones and laptops and rockets to Mars.
But scientism also creates a dualism, separating the body from the soul. Dualism separates matter from spirit or soul. We think it is innocuous but in reality it is very painful. When people come to me saying, they want to resign as a doctor in order to go to ministry, I am so deeply hurt. Why, is being a doctor not a ministry?
I have many friends who resigned from our microfinance work because they say it is all about money and they want to do ministry which means, doing bible study and evangelism. So, I ask them: Is money not spiritual? If no money is not spiritual, then how can we disciple in the marketplace? How do we disciple businessmen?
But Christians are also are very materialistic as though the only important thing is money and food (which is where the prosperity gospel derives from).
Relationships and community take second priority in many churches today. Many churches will advertise about the wonderful relationships in their churches, that they are warm and intimate but when you are hooked and when you go inside, you find it is the same Republican society of every man for himself. The relationship they are talking about is just a commodity they are selling (Americans are the most natural salesmen in the world).
Cartesian thinking or scientism also tends towards objectivity and analysis. Religion enamored by science also adopted scientific methods into religion. When we read scripture, we tend to analyze, dichotomize, dissect and atomize.
As societies modernize, they also become more secular. Societies tend to isolate and fragment as people become more independent and individualistic. People get more lonely. The favorite expression in America is “don’t take it personally.” But most of life is taken personally because the need to relate is paramount to existence. America holds the values of privacy and private ownership higher than Scripture’s command to share and to be stewards.
In a very scientific or Cartesian society, there is no room for contradictions. The opposite of truth is false. It follows a mutually exclusive proposition logic. Although the Nobel Laureate for physics, Niels Bohr argued that this only applies to physical things but not to religion. In religion, he says, the opposite of truth can be another great truth.
White Westerners have difficulty holding on to the tension of contradictions:
The bible has a lot of these tensions of contradictions – love and truth, grace and works, God’s sovereignty and man’s agency or election and free will, freedom and order, etc.
In America, it is hard to embrace these tensions, they cannot hold together suffering and success, work and relationships, privacy and community.
The poor also suffer the most contradictions. They worship a God who is mighty and yet they watch helplessly as the bulldozers demolish their homes; they worship a God who is the miraculous healer and they watch helplessly as their son slowly dies from sickness because they cannot afford to buy medicines; and they sing fervently during worship about how God is their provider and they go home to bed without dinner.
When we come to the slums, without this capacity to embrace the tension of contradictions, we may compel the hand of God to remove the oppression and poverty and yet we know that no matter how long we work and stay in the slums the friends we have known will grow old and die and be buried still as poor people.
Poverty is only a personal ethical problem and the solution is hard work:
The book, Divided by Faith, by Emerson and Smith also tells us that American Christian view of poverty is anemic. Poverty to them is only a personal ethical problem. They believe so much in their work ethics, the Calvinist theology of work, that they assume everyone has the same right and opportunity to rise up out of poverty. And the solution to poverty is simply hard work. Their gospel has utterly no wherewithal to address social structural evils. When the American Christians come to the slums, the come equipped with all kinds of workshops and conferences on work ethics, believing that if they could only make the poor work harder, the country would become well-off like America. They cannot address the evil social structures like corruption which is the main cause of poverty in many poor countries.
Separation of church and state is very wrong:
This is utterly unbiblical. Not only does the Bible require that all facets of human existence come under God’s rule, but abstaining from politics would allow so much suffering in the world to continue. Many Christians are afraid of politics but Christians are called to combat all forms of evil in whatever form they may exist – principalities, rulers, powers. In America, Christian seminaries may be vocal about drunkenness and alcohol but be completely silent about divorce and abortion because the latter two are political. The biggest sin of the modern world has been to relegate the care of the poor to the State, to legislation and to social welfare. This is how the church escapes its duty to care for the poor. Some of the best legislations came about because of the church, the prohibition against imprisonment for failure to pay a debt is one, another is the abolition of slavery.
I have the occasion to qualify our NGO as a political party list group and we campaigned and won one seat in Congress. When I was working on the project, many opposed it. They said (and this is part again of the painful dualism of Western Christianity) Christianity should not get involved in politics. Near the end of the campaign, one of our biggest member organizations withdrew from our network because they did not want to get involved in politics. And yet, we know that the mandate of the gospel is not just to convert people and bring them to heaven. The gospel means God reigning over us (in Tagalog, it is far more profound: Maghari Ka sa Amin) so that His will is done on earth as it is done in heaven. In other words, that we would bring all things, everything under the feet of Jesus (every knee shall bow and every tongue confess) including politics, including science and the marketplace. All must be placed under Jesus.
This is of course hurting to the poor who work harder than most Americans do. When they land in fact in America, they often rise to the top, earning more than the average Americans do. The latest survey in England also shows the same. The most impoverished slums are all-white slums. Many migrants like those from South America will not allow themselves to fall into destitution because that is what they fled from in their country. It is their desire to become wealthy that motivates them to work hard.
Given the chance, the poor will rise up out of poverty but this chance must take into consideration the rearrangement of society, the destruction of pyramids, and the redistribution of wealth.
Most lands today are owned by the whites or the elites serving the white people. Most of the wealth of the affluent countries stands on top of the last century’s exploitation of the colonies under them (sse the Great White Flood, IVP), the dispossession of the natives or even some occasions, genocide of the natives like in America. The Inuits have been given back their land by Canada which is remarkable
If Filipinos work in America, they will also rise up out of poverty although not entirely completely. The African Americans had to suffer so much violent discriminations in order to be treated as equals with whites, and till now still suffer so much. I think in the end game there will be need for so much confession and forgiveness which in South Africa and in some South American countries where there were much strife of a similar nature, this was fully implemented, made indispensable to full reconciliation and moving forward.
Americans also have the impression they are already giving too much. Actually they give very little and have never complied with international agreements to set aside 1% of GDP for international aid. Recent studies from experts from Harvard Business schools also show that the affluent countries actually get more from poor countries than the total donations or aids they give to the latter. America also never signed the Kyoto Protocol on controlling Carbon emission.
But the American Christians are sick of their own materialism and individualism as shown by the movement in the emerging churches as well as in the growing incarnational ministries, full of white Christians, sometimes called the New Friars (Scott Bessenecker).
Reducing the gospel to its barest minimum:
Cartesian dualism does not only separate the body from the spirit. It also reduces the gospel to its barest minimum, of receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior. This is the simplification and reductionism characteristic of scientism. But the Hebrew mentality is actually going the opposite direction, towards integration, complication and holism. If we were to read the Bible from the Cartesian perspective, we would reduce the gospel the same way.
Modern Western Christians also define spirituality in mostly materialistic ways (one is blessed when one is rich materially). The truth is that the gospel is not just about receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior. We are saved to Jesus as well as to the Body. But many poor Christians are wary of this, they will get a spank on the back of the hand when they add anything to this simplicity of the gospel (anathema). Actually, it is simple in that it is convenient, conveniently leaves out sharing and allows rich people to hold on to their wealth without guilt and the concomitant threat of sharing it with the poor brethren.
Americans are so sensitive about doctrinal purity and abhors all kinds of syncretism but will not do anything about the syncretism resulting from their secularism and materialism.
The American gospel is very individualistic and competitive:
The American gospel we inherited carries this DNA inside it. Since it is a dominant culture, the receiving culture usually has no way to resist the imposition of Americanism in the gospel preached to them. We have many denominations in the Philippines. I think God finally got rid of denominations in China through the violent cultural revolution in which the house church was born.
American culture is very competitive and this cultural value is being aggressively imposed on us by so many marketing avenues. American missionaries in the Philippines will never work under Filipinos which makes the quote of our first President, Manuel L. Quezon, really cute: “We would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than like heaven by Americans.” I think we are in hell right now.
When I tell my class in church planting that our group does not plant churches in slums which already have a church, they are shocked. Nial Ferguson, a famous historian-economist wrote in his latest book that American churches are very competitive and in one community, several churches will be planted that compete with each other.
They are also very independent. The rich need to empower the poor more by being transparent about their finances. If they live in the slums, it would be good if they disclose all their support and other resources to the poor Christians they work with.
But seriously, Americans have never worked under Filipinos. Even when the Filipino counterpart has matured and is ready for self-rule, the American missionaries will just simply make them into a separate parallel organization which is why we have OMF Philippines and OMF white people, Conservative Baptist white people and CBAP, CMA and CAMACOP, and in the bible societies. Filipinos had to struggle hard to earn a right to be treated as equal.
Please don’t forget that as late as the 60’s it was a crime for Filipinos to marry white Americans in America. Americans teach Filipinos a lot of the value of independence and when the Filipinos are independent, they will go away. This leaving really hurts the fellowship so much.
There is a great need to think critically about the underlying philosophical and ideological biases of today’s gospel:
We need to be able to critical reflect on the values of the world and what philosophy and ideology underlie the gospel that we are preaching. We need to see the secularism, individualism, independence, competitiveness, materialism and dualism in our gospel. We have to watch out that we don’t do contextualization only as a form of hyper-marketing that makes it harder for the poor to resist the underlying capitalist ideology and Cartesian philosophies of our gospel. In truth, our gospel is really bad news to the poor and we need to do a lot of soul searching and re-examination before we do ministry again.
Rich Christians don’t want poor Christians inside their church because that would mean sharing, and of course, there would be too many poor compared to the rich. This would immediately bring down the standard of living or affluence of the church. A church cannot have a surplus while so many Christian brothers and sisters are poor within the church.
But it is indecent to have a surplus which is the meaning of 1 John 3. But many churches have a surplus. In fact, there are churches that budgets billions of pesos for expensive buildings just to cater to the rich members when that much money could have been used to help the poor Christians (whom they don’t see anymore because they worship elsewhere, far away in the slums).
It might not be necessary at all to read the bible from the bottom up sometimes. We may just need to remove our blinders to see clearly. For example, many Christians cannot understand why God would say the poor are rich in faith. But once they do, it will not take long before they will also begin to read the bible from the bottom up and not from the top to the bottom. We can begin with the many contrasts and condemnations about riches. It is very clear that the Bible looks down on the rich and powerful and favors the poor and downtrodden. Jesus says that it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom and this shows that the rich are not favored. James also does the same. But then why do we still read the bible from the perspective of the rich instead of from the perspective of the poor? If we live among the poor or with the poor, we will soon learn also to see from their perspective, see from their comfort zone into what injustice really is.
Solidarity with the poor – a downward mobility:
The church is called to be in solidarity with the poor. It means to worship together with them, to journey with them, to preach the gospel to them, to walk the road to obscurity in order to become one with them by becoming ordinary, nameless nobodies, as the poor are. There is a downward mobility in our spirituality which reflects the spirit of Jesus who is described in 2 Corinthians as rich but although he was rich he chose to become poor in order to make us rich.
Jean Vanier wrote that the world is moving up, seeking solidarity or connection with the wealthy and powerful but we should go the opposite way, to be on a downward mobility. Jean Vanier noted the irony of it when he was delivering that message about downward mobility in Harvard University, where people are trained to climb the social ladder, to find connections with rich and powerful people, in order to get to the top. Meanwhile Vanier was preaching about how in L’Arche, he had made it his goal to connect deeply with people who are weak, those with disabilities and handicaps. Vanier says it is what Christ calls us to do.
There must be much pain I imagine when Jesus sought to become poor. I have on a few occasions acted out this truth as though I was giving all but I never became poor. I may have a few times given more than I ought, threatening to make me poor but it never happened. It was just scary but not painful. For Jesus, I think it went beyond scary, towards painful and even more. Are we called to give till we become poor? Are we called to be in solidarity with the poor, to be poor as the poor are?
I look at models in the past, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis Xavier and others. They have talked about how one can make poverty our mistress. Sometimes it feels too romanticized, with no application in our modern life. When I bring my students to the slums for immersion, I arm them with only one question: what can I live without? Can I live without my cellphone, my laptop, for three days and two nights? Can I live without my comfortable my, my own room? Can I live without a toilet? Or a door covering what is supposedly a toilet (just a mere hole on the floor)? Can I live without my comfort food? This is not to make people stoics or become Spartan and deprive themselves of any comfort or luxury. The goal is to find our freedom. St. Paul said he knew how to live in plenty or affluence and he also knew how to live in want. We must be able to do both. When good things come, we can accept them and enjoy them. But we do not shirk from deprivation. Our lives are not dictated by these luxuries.
We need to develop a good sense of justice:
What happens when we succeed in helping the poor? And then they become rich and now come under condemnation for being rich? We can help the poor and succeed tremendously in our ministry so that the poor are no longer poor. And yet, after we have helped the poor to better their lot, will we have helped them to become a curse now that they too are rich?
God is not biased for the poor. He is biased for justice. He is against greed and inequality and exploitation. Justice means those who have too much do not have a super abundance of surplus while millions starve due to lack of food.
Paul wrote thus, he who gathered much did not have too much and he who gathered little did not lack anything.
Will the poor who have become rich because of our ministry or social action, now be condemned because they are rich? What is the way out? This is tricky. The bible does not say wealth is wrong. Wealth in fact is a blessing God gives to his people. It is rather greed that is condemned. Capitalism is not bad if it can become more humane. These are the same issues we encounter with alcohol and money. It is the love of money that is evil, not money per se. Also, it is drunkenness that is sinful, not drinking alcohol.
Prosperity must be balanced with generous giving to the poor. God will make us rich in order that we can give more; give us power so we can protect the weak and defenseless, give us voice so we can speak for those who have no voice. Wealth and power always carry with them a duty to help those who are defenseless and weak. I think this is the main reason why the Bible condemns the rich: they stood condemned with their inaction about the terrible and tragic poverty and oppression going on around them. I think those rich and powerful who are actively helping the poor and powerless are not condemned. Wealth must never be understood as possession or accumulation of worldly goods but defined by how much we have given away, how much we have blessed others.
We need to live counter culturally:
Christians cannot remain neutral. This is the reason Jesus said, we are either for him or against him. The whole world works on a bias, the dominant bias is against the poor, and against Christ. John Stott says Christians need to live counter-culturally which means not just obeying Scripture but examining the underlying bias, the underlying philosophical and ideological biases and work against it. The status quo is what supports and maintains the wealth and power of the present dispensation. The unjust laws support the evil social structures that perpetuate the exploitation of the poor. This status quo must be reformed. The law on land title promotes landlessness of the poor. There are so many fake land titles in the Philippines that an expert estimated that if we put all our titles together, we would be bigger than America. The present judicial system promotes the oppression of the weak.
If a rich man is detained as a suspect, he is detained in the air-conditioned office of the chief of police and he can afford to post bail while the poor accused is thrown into a dank, stinking cell good for 2 people but crammed with twenty. Even if the bail is just P5,000 pesos, it will be forever before he can post bail. Criminal laws are antiquated. While 100 years ago stealing P100,000 is a capital offense, it should no longer be so today but the law has not been changed. Petty crimes committed by the poor who do so out of poverty usually gets slapped with the heaviest penalties.
We need to go against the status quo:
The ideological bias of today’s society is capitalism which promotes the pyramid system of living, with enough room at the top for only one Pharaoh and his family (plus his attorney) and all the millions of slaves at the bottom. That is why, if an American says he wants to help the poor, don’t believe him unless he is aggressively fighting to reform that pyramid or at least seeking to humanize capitalism.
I saw a placard on TV of a group of protesters complaining about the oppressive new US immigration law. The placard said: Humans are not illegal. When we make migrant workers illegal, we condemn them who are only seeking a decent life, because they can’t find work back home. When we hate illegal migrants for taking away our jobs, we are saying we can maintain our standard of living by exploiting cheap labor abroad and damn those laborers. We transfer our factories to Bangladesh so we can have cheap labor but we also put up higher border fences to keep them out so we can enjoy our wealth. Is this Christian?
We need to see the bible through miracles and supernatural events:
The poor needs miracles. As society modernizes, it becomes more secular. America is the end game. All will become like her, secular, individualistic, materialistic, and very cognitive and scientific. There will be less and less room for the supernatural, miraculous healing, and the rising from the dead.
Christians must live counter-culturally. It is not enough to be a Christian and to believe in the bible. Christians must critically examine the underlying philosophy and ideology of modern societies which fuel and propel modernization, and which is the bias towards which all societies will become. To live counter-culturally is to constantly go against the current, fight the pressure and the trends that transform society into a secular, materialistic and fragmented society.
The poor needs the miracles:
Miracles will not save anyone but it will open their hearts to believe. Just like Paul said, the Jews seek for signs and the Greeks for wisdom, the poor also seek for signs! I always tell the people at the dumpsite in Payatas, whenever I see them bringing a sick man to the hospital: please come to our church and we will pray for the sick person. Who knows, God might heal him miraculously. If that happens, it is cheaper than going to the hospital, and you will not lose anything.
The poor want miracles the same way they want justice and food. Miraculous healing is certainly cheaper than going to the doctor or buying medicines. 20% of the people who attend healing crusades are healed. It was likely also true in Jesus’ time.