Friday, March 20, 2015

Sermon: Proverbs 14: 20-31 Good News for the Poor

This morning George Osborne left Number 11 Downing Street, and paused on the doorstep to pose for photos. In his right hand, he held up his red briefcase. Inside was The Budget, which he was about to deliver in the House of Commons. He was setting out the new rates of income tax, duty on drink and cigarettes, and other financial measures. Many people tuned in to watch, and others will have checked the evening news, just to see if they’ll be better or worse off as a result. Everyone was hoping for a bit of good news, something that would boost their bank balance or put a few pounds in their purse.

Whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has achieved that may well depend on whether you’re Labour or Conservative, and we’re not getting in to a party political broadcast tonight. The deeper question is this - could any chancellor bring really good news for the poor? What would such good news look like?

Over the course of Lent, we’ve been reading through Proverbs, both at home and on Wednesdays. We’ve looked at the beginning of wisdom, relationships, work, words, and now we come to the poor. How do we get on if we are poor, or how do we treat those who are poorer than us. If I were to ask you if you are poor or feel poor, the way you answer might depend on the cash in your wallet or under your mattress, and how far it is until the next pay day or pension day. One way of putting it that has stuck with me is having too much month left at the end of your money.

But whether we are poor or not depends on how we measure, and who we compare ourselves with. If you look at someone like Bill Gates or the Queen, then of course you feel poor. You just can’t compete with their wealth. But what about on the global scale? This tweet popped up on my Twitter feed today, a wonderful case of God-incidence, as I was preparing to preach tonight. It said this: ‘The amount of money and assets needed to put you in the top 50% of the world’s wealthiest people is just £2400 ($3650).’ @qikipedia. If you can tot up that amount, then you’re in the richest half of the world’s population.

Perhaps after hearing that, you’re feeling a little bit better off. Nearly everyone is richer than someone else. Almost everyone can find someone who is poorer. The question is, how do we treat them? Do we look down on them because they don’t have as much money? Do we divide people into the deserving and the undeserving poor? Do we reserve the right to only help some and leave others to suffer?

As you read through Proverbs, you realise how hard a time some people have. ‘The poor is disliked even by his neighbour, but the rich has many friends.’ (14:20) - we see this worked out in the life of the Prodigal Son. He had plenty of friends when he had his inheritance money, but they all abandoned him to the pigsty when the money ran out. Or again, ‘Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend.’ (19:4).

Yet even Proverbs tells us that to be poor and have integrity is better than to have wealth and be a sinner. ‘It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.’ (16:19), or again, ‘Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.’ (19:1). Wealth is no excuse for sinfulness. Money doesn’t mean that you can boss people around or lord it over them.

Just as we saw last week that how we use our tongue exposes what’s in our hearts, the overflow, so we see that how we treat the poor shows our heart condition as well. ‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him.’ (14:31). To do harm to someone who is poor is actually to do harm to his Maker, the one in whose image he was made. Yet we can so easily slip into a form of favouritism founded on fortunes.

That’s what was happening in the early church. James exposes what was happening in his day. Two new people arrive at church at the same time. One is decked out in designer labels, with plenty of bling, lots of gold jewellery. The other looks like he hasn’t washed in a week. Watch the welcome team: ‘You sit here in a good place’ - you’ll be able to see what’s going on, you’ll see everyone and everyone will see you. The other, he’s told, ‘You stand over there, or sit down at my feet.’

It’s so easy to do, but James says it shouldn’t be so. We might look at the outward appearance and make judgements based on what we see, but that’s not how God works. ‘has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ (James 2:5). James says that the poor may not be rich in financial terms, but they can be rich in faith, heirs of God’s kingdom - millionaires in mercy and enjoying gazillions of grace. To have wealth is actually a spiritual danger; it can make us self-sufficient, independent, rather than depending on God.

Proverbs provides us with hints of how to treat the poor. Not by oppressing, but in the second half of 14:31, ‘he who is generous to the needy honours him [God].’ Indeed, 19:17 goes even further in its observation that ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.’ The alternative is set out in stark terms: ‘Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.’ (21:13). As I’ve said in previous weeks, these are probabilities, not promises, but even so, the call to care for the poor rings out loud and clear.

And it all lies in knowing the undeserved kindness of God in our lives. Over a couple of chapters in 2 Corinthians, Paul is getting them ready for the collection of a gift to help needy Christians suffering from famine in Jerusalem. The centre of his argument says this: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.’ (2 Cor 8:9). It’s this grace for us, poor, unlovely sinners, that rings out in the Nazareth synagogue at the start of Luke’s Gospel. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’ The gospel is good news because it brings us God’s undeserved favour in the grace of the Lord Jesus. He freely gives us his grace, a share in the inheritance of his kingdom.

As we receive his grace, so we are called to share that grace with those around us, to pass on the goodness we have received. When we give one of our nieces a packet of sweets, we expect her to share them with her sister and cousins. She’s not to hoard them all for herself. God has given us his goodness, not to store up for ourselves alone, but to share with those in need. It’s great that we can support the Pantry, but are there other ways we can help?

Do you remember when the woman anointed Jesus, pouring a whole bottle of perfume over his feet? The disciples criticised her because it could have been given to the poor. Judas wanted it for himself and his greed. Jesus says in that moment: ‘For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them...’ Whenever we want, wherever we turn, there are ways to do good, to pass on God’s grace. So let’s ask the Lord to show us, and to give us the desire to help, for his glory.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek service in the series Wisdom for Life in Aghavea Parish Church, on Wednesday 18th March 2015.

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