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Jesus and the Disadvantaged

Hilton Head Island, SC –October 28, 2018
The Chapel Without Walls
Luke 14:1-6,12-14; Luke 18:18-27
A Sermon by John M. Miller 

Text – And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” – Matthew 18:22 (RSV)


Presumably Jesus of Nazareth was a poor man. We cannot know that for certain, but we may properly deduce it from those among whom Jesus spent most of his time in his three-year ministry in the Galilee. Only one verse in one Gospel indicates what Jesus’ occupation was. Mark 6:3 has a crowd in Jesus’ home synagogue say this about Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” Whether carpenters were generally poor in the time of Jesus is debatable, but most Church traditions have always assumed Jesus was poor. Apparently Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth thought he was much too uppity as a poor man to be talking to them about anything.


Jesus’ disciples also were reckoned to be poor. We know the occupation of only four of his twelve disciples, and they were fishermen. We don’t know and can’t know whether fishermen were relatively poor or wealthy, but again, tradition says they too were poor. Jesus was in the social class known in Aramaic in the first century as the Am ha-Aretz, the People of the Land. They were the peasants, artisans, and shopkeepers, In Judea then or in Israel now such folks are not wealthy or even middle-class people; they are poor. This is not to say Jesus never encountered rich people; one of our scripture readings for today belies that skewed idea. But for the most part, Jesus rubbed elbows almost all the time with low-income people, because the vast majority of first century Judeans had meager incomes. As Abraham Lincoln said, “God must have especially loved poor people, because He made so many of them.” But it is not God who makes people poor; it is economic and political and cultural conditions – or plain laziness - which does that.


Fifty years ago I heard a preacher say that Jesus talked more about money than any other subject. Whether that is correct would require some extremely close biblical study, and I have never attempted to verify the claim. But I have not forgotten it, either, and for theological reasons I choose to believe it is true. In any case, Jesus does refer often to wealth. If he was a poor man --- as is so often stated --- he was skeptical of the true value of money. He frequently implied that having wealth distorts attitudes toward those who don’t have it. Surely Jesus was not theologically opposed to those who possessed great wealth, but he warned such people to be very careful about how they considered the nature of wealth and how they used wealth. Whenever Jesus spoke of the disadvantaged, he did so affirmatively, and whenever he spoke about wealth, it seems that he did so with an ever-present measure of skepticism.


We turn now to our first Gospel reading. Luke 14 begins by telling us that Jesus was invited to dinner at the home of a synagogue leader, who also happened to be a Pharisee. It was Shabbat, the sabbath. There was a man at the dinner who suffered from what the RSV calls “dropsy,” which we would call edema, or excess fluid in the body, primarily in the legs and feet. Jesus asked the experts in the religious law and the Pharisees in attendance at the dinner whether it was valid to heal someone on the sabbath. Thinking Jesus might be trying to trick them, they gave him absolutely no response. Therefore, saying not another word, Jesus healed the man.


After telling a parable, Jesus said an unusual thing to his host, the Pharisee who had asked him to dinner with his other guests. “When you give a dinner, do not invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you are repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Luke 14:12-14).


Carefully note the kind of people Jesus said we should invite to dinner or to parties. They are not people like us, who are middle class, relatively affluent people. They are disadvantaged people. First are the poor, those who are at a much lower station in life than people such as we are. Next were the maimed, those whose arms or legs were damaged or made useless by accidents or by orthopedic deficiencies and were incapable of being treated two thousand years ago. Then there were the lame, those who could not walk well, either because of injuries to their legs or because of orthopedic or neurological deficiencies, which were much more commonly seen then than now. Finally, Jesus told his Pharisee host that he should invite blind people. In Judea back then, and even in Israel or Palestine today, there are a far higher percentage of blind people than there are in this country, except for our very elderly. Every time I was in Israel, I saw several blind people on each visit, mainly poor Israelis or Palestinians. They didn’t have the money for the medications or treatments to overcome their eye diseases, and so they ended up blind. If that is the case for anyone in this century, it was far more prevalent in the first century.


Twenty-first century Americans, be certain of this: Jesus of Nazareth had a philosophical and theological predisposition toward the disadvantaged. Deliberately or inadvertently to ignore that is to miss one of the essential features of the radical ministry of Jesus. For various reasons, we might choose to overlook the poor and disadvantaged, but Jesus did not. They were especially close to his heart, and he spent more time with them than with any other group of people.


Without question there are many people who are poor because they refuse to work hard enough to improve themselves. But there are as many or more people who are poor because they are incapable of rising above their depressed status. Circumstances or other people or “the system” or whatever else prevent them from escaping their poverty. That isn’t an observation of pie-in-the-sky social liberalism; that is a fact of cold, implacable reality. Only the intentionally or ignorantly hard-hearted suppose that everyone who is poor deserves to be poor.


Remember Alfred P. Doolittle? He was Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady. Alfred never claimed to Professor Henry Higgins that he did not “deserve” to be poor,” those whom the British upper crust looked down upon so imperiously. Alfred openly admitted to Professor Higgins that he was a member of the “undeserving poor” class, those clever rogues who took advantage of the system as well as they could, cheating kind souls out of every farthing they could squeeze from them. Alfred was a poor bloke who didn’t mind being poor, so long as he didn’t starve to death. He was a loveable lazy lout who stole the show with his loveable lazy loutitude.


There have always been legions of undeserving poor. To deny that is to deny reality. But to become self-appointed judges of whether any particular individual is a deserving or undeserving poor person is intentionally to step outside the boundaries Jesus so carefully drew for all of us. Jesus never rejected a poor person. He never really rejected anybody, although the Gospels often make it sound as though he did. Jesus wanted all people to be better off spiritually, physically, and economically than they were, no matter who they were or what they did or did not do. But he especially wanted the disadvantaged to have their lives improved. Again and again Jesus implied that we are the ones who must make that happen, that it cannot and does not happen automatically or miraculously. We are the ones charged by God to improve the lives of the disadvantaged. That is what Jesus said over and over.


Laws are almost always written by the advantaged. Laws often are written to disadvantage the already disadvantaged. But these laws might not appear to disadvantage the disadvantaged. For example, laws stipulate the prison sentences which various crimes warrant. But black or brown people tend to be given stiffer sentences by judges and juries, regardless of the skin color of the jurists. White people tend to pay lower interest rates than black or brown people, and more affluent people of any color tend to pay lower interest rates than people with lower incomes and lower credit scores. That is because interest rates are determined by usually advantaged white people. To express it differently in an observation I just made up, the rich are the stick-ers and the poor are those who get stuck. Another way to state that is to say, as has long been said, that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In the meantime, in between-time, as the song doesn’t say but could, ain’t we made a mess for ourselves? Unintentionally, most of us unwittingly contribute to the situation where the poor stay poor and the affluent stay affluent, and it is in part because it is mainly the affluent who are elected to public office, and it is they who make laws which tend to benefit mainly the affluent.


Political policies also tend to disadvantage the already disadvantaged. That was true in Jesus’ time, and he knew it. It’s also true in our time, and we need to know it. In democracies, policies are passed which benefit the already benefitted. For example, policies are adopted which make it harder for poor or black or brown people to vote than for other kinds of people. Policies make it harder for certain kinds of immigrants to enter virtually all countries than for other kinds of immigrants. Usually it is the poorest immigrants or the politically disadvantaged who are excluded. It may also be because they are from the wrong political backgrounds in the countries from which they are emigrating, or they are the sickest or the least competent or the most indigent who are turned away. There are understandable reasons behind those policies, but it is amazing how universal in all countries those policies are followed. I suspect Jesus would be appalled by those policies. I don’t know that, because neither I nor anyone else can know that, but nevertheless I strongly suspect it.


Taxes tend to advantage the already advantaged, and they also may provide advantages the disadvantaged, but not nearly as many. What do I mean by that? To begin with, most Members of Congress are millionaires, meaning either that they have at least a million dollars of income each year or that they have at least a million dollars’ worth of assets. Millionaires tend to write tax laws to benefit millionaires. The reason the US tax code is twenty thousand pages long is because probably 19,950 of those pages are written for people who have oodles of money, and they either stipulate how the wealthy can avoid paying taxes and under what circumstances they must pay taxes. Incidentally there are far more pages devoted to the former than to the latter.


Tax laws clearly benefit the wealthy more than middle or lower income people. The Tax Reform Act of 2017 is a sadly dismaying example of that. There are a number of reasons why the American economy is doing much better in the last year, but the 2017 tax bill is perhaps the primary reason. The very wealthy have even more wealth than they had before, because they paying considerable less in taxes. By means of that 2017 legislation, they need to invest their extra money somewhere, so they put it into various business enterprises, which is a big boost to the economy. Jesus seems to have wasted no thought or sleep over whether the rich would stay rich, but he thought a great deal about what kept the poor poor.  


Hard work helps the rich to get rich and to stay rich. Irresponsible indolence causes some of the poor to become poor and to stay poor. Nevertheless, culture and governmental laws and policies are far more influential in making and keeping people either rich or poor than either hard work or laziness. We like to think it is really up to us as individuals to determine our own economic status. Nonetheless, if the system is stacked in favor of the wealthy and against the poor, it is much more difficult for individual endeavor to be the primary determinative factor in explaining our social class or economic status.


That brings us to our second scripture reading. It is the story of Jesus and the wealthy would-be disciple, a tale that is found in all three synoptic Gospels. The man came up to Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus could have said there is nothing anyone can do to inherit eternal life. Eternal life is a gift from God; period --- end of story. But Jesus deliberately didn’t say that. He decided to answer the earnest man by telling what the Bible says. Therefore Jesus recited a few of the Ten Commandments. The would-be disciple happily answered Jesus that he had kept all those commandments for his entire life.


Then, probably looking at how well the man was dressed, Jesus said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.”


That was a stinging statement to the man tradition calls “the rich young ruler.” “When he heard this, he became sad,” Matthew tells us, “for he was very rich.”Listen carefully, because this is important. Jesus didn’t say what he said because he was anti-rich. He said it because he was so uniquely pro-poor, not pro-poverty, but pro-poor. Jesus had endless compassion for those who lived in poverty. Most of the people of Judea were poor, and most of the people who became followers of Jesus were poor. Compared to the very rich, nearly everyone else is relatively poor. Even we are relatively poor compared to the regally rich.


It is imperative to recognize that Jesus had an obvious affinity for the disadvantaged. Most people are not thus inclined, and most governments are not thus inclined. Governmental policies with respect to the disadvantaged are some of our most egregious and unjust policies. In general, people with unusual physical disadvantages get less attention than those who are physically able. “Pre-existing conditions” exclude many people from the best possible health care. People who need money the most have the hardest time borrowing it. In the first lecture of Banking 101 in every MBA school in the country, the first thing the lecturer says is this: “People who don’t need to borrow money are the ones who should get it, and people who need to borrow money are the ones who should not get it.” The corollary to that statement is the second statement the professor always makes: “The people who can afford to pay the highest interest rates must be awarded the lowest rates, and the people who can least afford to pay the highest interest rates must be forced to pay them.”


The poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind are the ones whom society is quickest to forget and most eager to avoid. They are the very ones to whom Jesus devoted most of his time and energy. There was a reason for that. He wanted to illustrate to his disciples how they too should direct their efforts, their lives, and the life of the nation of Israel.


Jesus lived among a people who found themselves in a heavy-handed occupation by an imperial power headquartered almost two thousand miles away from them. We live in a liberal democracy which became the first major democracy in the world. Nevertheless, our government frequently  treats the disadvantaged in much the same the way monarchies or autocracies past and present have always done and continue to do.


Therefore we must ask ourselves a question. Whatever can citizens in a democracy do to overcome that?










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