Always among you?

Our exclusiveness causes spiritual poverty

Sep 10, 2018 by

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One of the most abused Bible verses is John 12:8, where Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you.” It’s been interpreted to justify indifference to poverty, as if Jesus were turning away from the poor with a shrug.

But in fact, Jesus was quoting Deut. 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land,” which goes on to say: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” In context, it’s a call to generosity.

Might it also be a call to inclusion? Consider another possible meaning: “You, my followers, will always include a lot of poor people. Yes, I mean those without much money or valuable possessions. But also the poor in spirit. The outsiders, the disrespected, the discouraged. These are my friends. Wherever I am, that’s where they will be, too.”

And we can imagine Jesus adding: If these friends are not there, then I’m not either.

This might not be exactly what Jesus meant by his comment after Judas complained that Mary had wasted some expensive perfume by anointing Jesus feet. But the idea is consistent with the life of a Messiah who defined his mission as preaching good news to the poor, who respected women, touched lepers and generally practiced a radical inclusion that religious people found offensive.

And it matches this description of Jesus’ entourage: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15). Jesus spent his time with those whom respectable society despised.

“You will always have the poor among you.” How does it sound now? What about the poor in spirit? Who would Jesus find among us today?

Many of us would have to admit our congregations are not as inclusive as they should be. The economically poor are not among us in great numbers on a Sunday morning. As for the spiritually poor, we might turn the question around and consider how our exclusiveness causes our own spiritual poverty.

Exclusiveness hinders not only our opportunities for ministry but our chances to be ministered to. If we exclude women from the pulpit, we deprive ourselves of gifted leaders. If our congregation lacks racial or ethnic diversity, we learn to think that our cultural preferences are normal and right. If there are no poor among us, we take our power and comfort for granted and imagine that those with less privilege are morally inferior. If we don’t say publicly that we welcome everyone regardless of sexual orientation (because a history of exclusion creates the understandable assumption that we do not) our churches will never benefit from the spiritual gifts LGBTQ people offer.

Writing for Mennonite World Conference a couple of years ago, Colombian Mennonite leader Ricardo Esquivia told this story: “A refugee complained to God because they did not let him in a church, and God responded: ‘Don’t feel bad. They don’t let me in either. ’ ”

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