Reflections on climate change and the urban poor

To me, suffering, climate change, and poverty are interconnected.

I grew up in a crowded city in East Asia in the 1970s. Most of us were poor, though not destitute. We were able to put food on the table, but had to work very long hours in unsafe conditions in factories in order to make ends meet. Common urban environmental issues—such as air pollution and dirty sewage—affected us all the time. But through hard work and perseverance, we made do.

Today, the area I lived in continues to be one of the poorest districts in the city. In fact, the city’s rich-poor disparity is the worst among developed countries. Although the city is undoubtedly one of the wealthiest in the world, the living condition of the poor is quite appalling.

Climate change will affect the urban poor severely. Rising global temperature is a health hazard for the poor, not least the elderly and young children, in this very hot urban concrete jungle. The increasingly frequent extreme weather endangers the life of the poor who live in makeshift accommodation, often in the form of substandard rooftop dwellings. The urban poor’s lack of economic resources and low social status means that it is hard for them to adapt to or take part in mitigating the effects of climate change. They cannot afford to have energy-efficient housing. Nor can they opt for renewable energy at its current price.

cardboard_lady_1But if we think that they are not active participants of creation care, we are wrong. Their poverty means that they do not worship the idols of materialism and consumerism. (But of course they are often victims of a highly market-driven economy). They contribute to negligible greenhouse gas emissions, for they don’t use much electricity anyway. In fact, they naturally minimise energy usage for that is their lifelong habit.

In my view, it is important not to think that the urban poor are simply victims of climate change, or passive participants of creation care. Yes, the poor do suffer more than others, but we should appreciate their resilience and tenacity. The Bible says,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1–5; NRSV)

Even though this passage is about the Christian life, it sheds light on the fact that suffering is not necessarily a negative experience, whether Christian or not. The urban poor have learned to live in hope. Their character has been shaped by years of patient endurance in suffering. I will finish with a symbolic picture of a phenomenon in an Asian city.

Everyday you can find a large number of elderly people collecting cardboard boxes, old newspapers, and aluminium cans on the streets. They sell these recyclable items for a small amount of money so as to make a living. So, ironically, these people in their 60s and 70s (or older) take part in recycling and waste management to protect the environment, while the wealthy continue to indulge in consumerism and materialism. Despite their old age and declining health, these urban giants persevere with dignity. They live in hope and self-respect even though the city has forgotten their lifelong contribution to its welfare. Paradoxically, the silent resilience of the vulnerable is a loud voice that speaks against Australia’s lack of serious action on climate change.

Source of picture: Accessed on 20th June 2016.

The display of wealth of the city and the urban poor

I came across an article written by Dr Jayakumar Christian, someone I respect greatly. It is entitled The Rise of the Urban Poor. There is much to ponder, but I will only highlight a few things using the following quotes.

Jayakumar Christian talks about the “vulgar display of wealth” of the city, and observes that the rich-poor disparity is an increasing problem.

In a strange way, the city brings to the fore in a pronounced manner the gap [between the rich and the poor]—the worst of urban poverty. The rich display their wealth as if the poor do not exist in the cities. The malls and neon lights overshadow the dark corners where the poor eke out their living. Shining India happily coexists with abject poverty as though poverty was a mere landscape issue. One wonders if this is a consequence of our religious philosophies and worldview . . . There is a parasitical relationship––not manipulation but helplessness. In the process, the poor and vulnerable children get exploited and oppressed.

What is often touted as a ‘lack of political will’ in our governance and bureaucratic leadership is really an intentional (ideological) effort to crush (never allow) any uprising of the poor and to suppress any emergence of hope. This is about a powerful collective playing god in the lives of the poor and wounding the souls of the poor, reducing them to a state of hopelessness.

In terms of the church’s response, Jayakumar Christian has the following (and much more) to say.

Grassroots practitioners/agents of change must:

reflect their ‘inner being’ through their engagement. Poverty and powerlessness are human and relational; therefore responses to poverty must also be human and relational. This requires investment of life. It cannot be reduced to mere action plans; demonstrate covenant-quality inclusive relationships based on truth practitioners must allow truth to confront their public and private life;

be competent to exegete God’s work among the poor-trace the ‘patterns’ in God’s movement among the poor in the city; be competent to analyse the worldview of a people and the ideology that drives the economic, political and other systems that crush the poor; and be countercultural in a society that values entitlement over sacrifice.”

The church—the prophetic community—must rediscover herself in her own neighbourhood. The church must locate its mission in the space . . . between hope and hopelessness, life and joy, and pain and death. The church is the evidence that our God has not given up on the urban poor.

Source: as at 8/9/2014

Some thoughts on giving to the poor and Shepherd of Hermas

Some years ago a respected minister and scholar gave a talk on the church’s giving to the poor. He listed how the church was involved in some of the best charity work in history.

Most of the audience loved his message. But I was somewhat uncomfortable with the lack of discussion on what the church is doing now in Australia. I don’t mean that the church is doing little for the poor today (because it does do a lot for the poor). But the tone of the talk seemed to be more about how well the church did in the past, rather than a thoughtful evaluation of what the church in Australia is doing now.

More importantly, I am not sure whether the speaker successfully described the sacrifice of the early Christians when they gave to the poor. As a result, the message was more about how charitable Christians were, rather than challenging us to learn from the sacrificial giving of the early church.

Some months ago (April 2015), John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor Divinity at Durham University, UK, gave an excellent talk at Houston Baptist University, USA, on a similar topic. He surveyed how the early church gave to the poor sacrificially. (Click here to watch the lecture.) Prompted by some of the things he said, I looked up an early church writing, Shepherd of Hermas, and found the following.

This fasting,” he continued, “is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.” (Emphasis added)

Source: Shepherd of Hermas, Fifth Similitude, chapter 3 accessed on August, 17th, 2015.

I also found the following quote regarding Shepherd of Hermas.

These passages in the Shepherd of Hermas reflect the common attitude of Christians towards property in the early Church. It has its dangers: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Too much wealth makes a believer vulnerable in time of persecution. On the other hand, wealth can be used generously, for the good. No one need give up all their possessions, but they should not have too much and should use what they have for the benefit of others. So Hermas urged his readers to give indiscriminately to all in need: ‘give to everyone, for God wants his gifts to be given to everyone.’ Almsgiving was linked particularly to fasting; Hermas advised his readers to use the money they have saved on a fast day and give it to the widow, the orphan or the needy person. Hermas even goes so far as to depict the poor and the rich in a relationship of mutual dependence. The prayers of the rich are weak. They need the prayers of the poor, which are so much more powerful before God, and their almsgiving makes up for the inadequacy of their prayers. The poor, meanwhile, need the rich to support them in their need and they pray for the rich in thanksgiving. (Emphasis added)

Source: Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 116–7.

We do need to study the Bible itself on these issues. Also, we should not be legalistic about giving. Nor should we give to the poor because of guilt. But I think the Shepherd of Hermas does leave us with a challenge.

The widow’s offering: Scripture, justice, and honour and shame reversal

A fresh look at the widow’s offering

The widow’s offering in Luke 21:1–4 is well known for its example of sacrificial giving. The widow’s devotion to God is admirable, and her willingness to give out of her extreme poverty challenges all of us today.

But Luke 21:1–4 can hardly mean that every widow should give all she had to live on, given the fact that widows in the ancient world were among the poorest of the poor, and that the temple was an adorned and magnificent building (Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5). To ask a widow to give to the temple treasury is like asking a low-income person living with a disability to give away their disability payment to the church for a brand-new auditorium. It is also like requiring someone living below the poverty line to pay GST for basic food (e.g., bread, milk, rice, fruit, and vegetable).

It should be noted that Jesus did not ask other widows to “go and do likewise.” Instead, when Jesus said that the widow had put in more than all the others, he was probably saying that the gifts of the rich were in fact acts of religiosity that were incompatible with God’s requirement to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised. On the contrary, the widow was commendable because she did not allow her poverty to stop herself from loving God wholeheartedly. Let us look at the context of the passage.

The links to the previous three verses

The three verses before the widow’s offering, I think, are crucial.

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:45–47; NRSV)

Here Jesus asked his disciples (in the hearing of all the people) to beware of the scribes—the experts of the Law of Moses and religious leaders in Jesus’s day.

It is easy to miss the connections between the widow’s offering (Luke 21:1–4) and the previous passage (20:45-47). It is because most English translations insert a heading at 21:1. But in the original Greek text there were no chapters or verses, let alone paragraph headings. The break between the two passages is artificial.

There are in fact many points of contact between 20:45–47 and 21:1–4.

First, the word “widow” is used in both passages (20:47; 21:2, 3). Second, in both places there is a reference to the livelihood of the widow—“houses” (20:47) and “all she had to live on” (21:4). Third, in both 20:45–47 and 21:1–4 the powerless are contrasted with the powerful—that is, the widow versus the scribes/the wealthy.

With these in mind, it is likely that the widow’s offering is in fact an illustration of Jesus’ teaching concerning the wealthy religious leaders.

Wealthy scribes versus a powerless widow

Jesus said that the scribes loved being greeted in the marketplaces and having the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets (20:46). In antiquity these were the practices of the rich and powerful. In the words of New Testament scholar, Joel Green, the scribes “enjoyed being treated as persons of status, as though they were wealthy benefactors.”

Jesus rebuked these religious leaders and said that they devoured the widows’ houses. Indeed they would receive the harshest judgment (20:47). We don’t know how exactly they devoured widows’ houses. But the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 suggests that widows were subject to systemic injustice.

Without a husband representing them, widows—both in antiquity and in many parts of the world today—are among the most vulnerable in the society. They are defenceless and are often impoverished. But the Scripture says that the LORD loves them and he defends their cause (Deut 10:18). No wonder the Law demands Israel to look after and protect them (Exod 22:22; Deut 24:17–22). In fact, Moses says in Deuteronomy, “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” (Deut 27:19a; NIV). It is, therefore, astonishing that the Scribes—the experts of the Mosaic Law!—should devour the widows’ houses.

It is in this context that Luke mentions the widow’s offering. The rich gave out of their abundance, but the widow gave to the temple treasury everything she had. Here, Jesus turns the prevailing social convention of honour and shame upside-down. The widow is honoured, but the rich are dishonoured.

The widow’s sacrificial giving demonstrates her devotion to God—something to be praised, although probably unnecessary in practical terms given the enormous size, beauty, and magnificence of the temple. Her devotion is commendable because she did not stop loving God despite her socioeconomic condition.

In light of the wealthy scribes’ oppression of the poor, it is not surprising that immediately afterwards Jesus announced the upcoming destruction of the temple (21:5–6). But the destruction of this religious centre had deeper reasons. In earlier passages Luke has spoken of the failure of the leaders in Jerusalem to understand God’s purpose and recognise Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 20:1–44, especially verses 41–44). The chief priests and the scribes failed to understand the Scriptures and put them into practice, and the widow’s offering served as a penetrating illustration of that.

The question we should ask ourselves as Christians in Australia is: Do we really understand the Scripture and the heart of God towards the poor, the vulnerable, and those who cannot fend for themselves?

Scripture, justice, and mercy

I belong to a Christian tradition that upholds in the authority of Scripture and the moral ideals of God. I have come to love the Bible and sought to live a life that is pleasing to God. But I have to admit that at times—though not always—we fail to care for the poor and defend the cause of the powerless, even though the Scripture demands us to do so.

At times I feel uncomfortable with the fact that some Christians do not think that our governments’ treatment of asylum seekers lack compassion, despite the Human Rights Commission’s damning report into children in immigration detention early this year. I am ashamed of the repeated cut in foreign aid since the current government came into office last year, bringing the level to one of the lowest on record. I am, therefore, disappointed that a Christian leader told me a couple of years ago that the domestic economy was more important than overseas aid, despite the affluent lifestyle of his church members. I am also very much aware of the injustice our country has done to Indigenous Australians when their land was taken from them. It seems that it is often unrecognised by my Christian friends.

Sometimes I wonder whether we are like the scribes who failed to understand the Scripture and hence God’s demand for justice and his love for the poor and needy? I wonder whether our churches are like the temple system in Jesus’ day, that we forget about the plight of the poor and the marginalised while we enjoy wonderful worship services and church programs? These questions are particularly poignant in light of Jesus’ judgment against the temple.

About ten years ago God led me and my family to a church in an inner-city suburb. It has been a blessed adventure. In our midst there are many asylum seekers and low-income people, and some of our members live with a disability. Their tenacity in adversity is an inspiration to us. Up until recently we had a wonderful Indigenous family. (They have now moved interstate.) They taught us about love and forgiveness despite the injustice they and their kindred experienced.

I am thankful for these wonderful people. They do not have many material possessions. But in them I see God’s handiwork, for they bring glory to God in their perseverance and trust in him. Like the widow in Luke 21:1–4, they love God despite their socioeconomic situation.

Although Luke paints a gloomy picture of the religious leaders of his day, in the Book of Acts (his second volume) he vividly depicts the amazing community of the disciples, whose solidarity with the poor can be found at the very conception of the church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35). The challenge for us today, then, is to learn from this early Christian community and seek to be genuine disciples of Jesus. I think I have had a glimpse of that in my recent church experience, for which I am deeply thankful.

(I am indebted to Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997], 72–78, for his insights on Luke 20:45—21:4.)

Tim Costello on faith and political power

The Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers in recent years has been appalling. What is also appalling is the government’s latest cut in foreign aid. The cut will mean that Australia will slip to the 19th position in aid in the 2016/2017 financial year, even though Australia is the fourth richest nation in the world (according to the article below).

The Baptist minister and CEO of World Vision Australia, Tim Costello, has written an article today (5th January 2015) regarding the current Coalition government, which has many Christians in the Cabinet.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

Despite ignorant populism that aid is wasted, the opposite is true; it is a runaway success. It saves lives through immunisation and clean water and gives girls an education, a chance for a better life. And it is not trade alone that has lifted people out of poverty. The halving of infant death rates over the past 20 years – from 30,000 kids under five years old dying a day to 17,000 today – has been as great in landlocked sub-Saharan Africa nations …

Christians believe the resurrection of Jesus brings not only forgiveness of sins but also liberation for the down-trodden and God’s promised justice for the poor and oppressed. Pope Francis has further attacked “savage capitalism” that allows inequality to grow; with profits flowing to the richest and the poor are abandoned.

History has recorded the inescapable transmogrifying of faith once it is married to political power. The typical solution of the devout politician is to privatise faith and truncate the Gospel so it only addresses the personal dimension of forgiveness of sins, with the social dimension contracted out to market technocrats. Worse, Christianity is diluted to some conservative moral principles that act as cultural glue to support the state sometimes in its worst nationalistic chauvinisms …

The article can be found by clicking here or here.

The biggest cut in foreign aid in Australian history, according to Ben Thurley

Ben Thurley (at Micah Challenge) has written a blog post about the recent announcement of the cut in foreign aid by the Australian government. Here is an excerpt.

With due deference to the terror and tragedy of unfolding events in Sydney’s Martin Place yesterday, the Government delayed by a few hours the release of its mid-year budget update. However, when the Treasurer finally announced his plans, it was terrible news for Australia’s aid program.

On top of the $7.6 billion already ripped out of Australian aid since coming to office, the Government is planning to cut a further $3.7 billion from aid over the next four years. Despite the fact that aid represents just over 1% of the Federal Government’s budget, cuts to aid represent more than a quarter of all the budget cuts this Government has made in the 15 months since coming to office.

These cuts will take Australian aid to their lowest recorded levels and include the largest single-year cut to aid in Australian history – $1 billion or 20% taken out of the budget from this year to next.

Click here to read the entire post.

Micah Challenge has provided the following diagram to explain what the cut means.


Jayakumar Christian: The poor are made in God’s image

I met Jayakumar Christian, National Director of World Vision India, in person several years ago when he came to Australia. I loved his warm personality, which, to me, was an outworking of his love for God.

The following is an interview with Dr Jayakumar Christian (from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Canada). Here are a few key points from my notes (which include my interpretation of what he says in the video).

  • The church wants to find a solution for poverty, but that’s not the right place to start.
  • The most important thing to realise is that the poor are made in God’s image. This recognition is critical.
  • We need to have a relational—not an individualistic—understanding of poverty. This is the understanding of Indians (and Asians). If we understand poverty this way, then our starting point will not be activities and programs.
  • Poverty is the result of broken relationships. Injustice and oppression are manifestations of broken relationships. When the powerful exclude the marginalised, relationship is broken. When the poor have no choice but to submit to the powerful, they become non-persons.
  • The poor live as “whole persons.” They do not live life in “categories.” When we separate words and deeds into two categories, we fail to treat them as “whole persons.”
  • Living among the poor is important.
  • We need to study the Bible in context. There is no point to study the Scripture in isolation from the poor.

Stanley Hauerwas on “remembering the poor”

ABC online has published an article by Stanley Hauerwas (which can be found here). Hauerwas makes many good points, and one really has to read the entire article. For example, Hauerwas talks about the interconnection between worship and walking with the poor—which is something that Christians often do not see. He also discusses Bruce Longenecker’s book Remember the Poor, which is a great study on Paul’s letters.

At the risk of a long post that no-one will read, I will cite quite a few things from the article. I will begin with Hauerwas’ call for friendship with the poor, and then list some quotes on other topics (such as Adam Smith, capitalism, etc).

Here Hauerwas’s call for friendship with the poor.

I suspect most rich Christians, filled as we are with the anxiety about our wealth, try to do something for the poor before we have listened to their story. Of course, listening, being with and working with the poor are not mutually exclusive activities, but I fear we often want to help the poor without getting to know who the poor may be. I suspect we do so, not from some ideology against the poor, but rather I suspect we prefer to do for the poor rather than be with the poor because the poor scare the hell out of us.

As an alternative, I think as Christians we need to know how to be with the poor in a manner that the gifts that the poor receive do not make impossible friendship between the giver and the recipient. For friendship is the heart of the matter if we remember that charity first and foremost names God’s befriending of us. If the poor are not befriended, there is no way to avoid the problems I sketched at the beginning of this essay. I do not mean to suggest that friendship is some kind of magical relation that will make the dependencies associated with aid less likely. Friendships, at least superficial friendships, are just as likely to produce dependency as direct aid.

Hauerwas cites Pope Francis, who says,

A Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering of Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.


Hauerwas’s understanding of Adam Smith and capitalism is interesting.

Sympathy, for Smith, is the key to our moral lives. It is so because sympathy makes possible the imaginative possibility that I can imagine, even against my own will, other peoples situations and lives. We are people affected by other people, making possible our ability to understand lives quite different than our own. Smith saw no tension between sympathy and self-interest, given the fact I am only able to know myself by seeing myself reflected through the eyes of others.

Yet it was Smith’s hope that capitalism as a system for the production of wealth would provide an alternative that would eliminate poverty. Indeed, one way to think of Smith’s vision is to see capitalism itself as a system of charity. No longer will individual acts of charity be required because the system itself will raise all the boats as the water rises. Capitalism so understood is an extraordinary utopian project.

Of course, the difficulty with such projects is they invite the illusion that, though things may not be working out – namely, we still have the poor among us – all we need is more time and the system will take care of itself. The other alternative is to blame those who have not become self-sufficient by suggesting they lack some essential virtues to make the system work. As a result, the poor get blamed for being poor. I hardly need to mention that the poor are often subject to such judgments in advanced capitalist societies.

Hauerwas, however, has the following to say about Reinhold Niebuhr.

I think it fair to say that Niebuhr changed the world in terms of how Christians particularly in America understood how the poor were to be served. Rather than focusing of individual acts of charity, now Christians tried to imagine social policies that would make the poor no longer poor.

Hauerwas cites Peter Maurin, who says the following about how Christianity has changed in the past 2,000 years.

At the beginning of Christianity the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, the homeless were sheltered, ignorant were instructed at a personal sacrifice. And the pagans used to say about the Christians, “See how they love one another.”

The pagans do no longer say About the Christians, “See how they love one another,” but say, “See how they pass the buck to social agencies.”

Here is one more quote from Hauwerwas’ article.

For, in truth, the deepest problem is most of us want to be agents of charity without having to receive charity.

Our willingness to keep the door closed

I just came across the following quote concerning how our hearts can be closed to the strangers. It is a great reminder for us all. Let us reflect on it.

Our willingness to keep the door closed and our growing capacity to look the other way when confronted by poverty in the public sphere lead us to accept not only the segregation of our neighborhoods and public places, but also the segregation of our consciousness and being. When we close the door or turn away from the stranger, a door closes within us, as well. Whether by crossing the street to avoid a bag lady or a homeless person, … we endow the fragmentation and corrosion of our own spirit and being. Ultimately, continuing to close the door to the stranger rends the fabric of our own soul, as well as the society in which we seek to live.

Source: Stanley P. Saunders and Charles L. Campbell, The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 160.

The meaning of “blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3

The Beatitudes in Matthew is well known. It starts with the following,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3) 

This is a little different from what Luke says,

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b)

Is “the poor in spirit” in Matthew very different from “the poor” in Luke? One common interpretation of Matthew 5:3 is that it is those who are humble who will be blessed. That is, “the poor in spirit” do not particularly refer to those who are economically poor, but those who humble themselves before God. Some simply say that “the poor in spirit” are those who are poor spiritually. I often wonder whether this view is too simplistic.

As mentioned before, I am enjoying the articles in the second edition of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (edited by Joel Green, Jeannine Brown and Nicholas Perrin). It is an invaluable resource for all New Testament students. Last week I came across an article written by Seung Ai Yang in this Dictionary. Yang’s interpretation of Matthew 5:3 is similar to mine.

In the Bible “the poor” denotes a broader category than just the financially impoverished. It refers to those who are economically, socially or politically marginalized, for whom God is the only one who can help. What, then, does Matthew mean by adding “in spirit” to “the poor” (Mt 5:3)? The same expression, “the poor in spirit,” is found in a Qumran document, where it is contrasted with a “hardened heart” (1QM XIV, 7). Assuming that Matthew must use the phrase in exactly the same way as in 1QM XIV, 7, some scholars suggest that “the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3 refers not to “the economically marginalized” but rather to “the humble in heart” (Talbert, 51; Luz, 233–34; cf. Davies and Allison, 443–44). This interpretation, however, is unconvincing. Even if the phrase “the poor in spirit” has a connotation of humbleness, it does not necessarily exclude the fundamental semantic value about the oppressed and marginalized condition embedded in the term “the poor.” As Betz says, “The characterization of Matt 5:3a as ‘spiritualization’ and as a softening of Jesus’ original radicalism … is misleading” (Betz, 115). The poor in spirit are, then, the people whose spirits or hearts are crushed by their suffering from unjust marginalization. From the socio-historical and literary context of Matthew, it is not difficult to identify who are the poor in spirit. They are the women and men who come to Jesus from all over to be healed and to follow him (Mt 4:18–22). They suffer from all kinds of illnesses because “they bear in their very bodies the harmful effects of the imperial system,” especially the deprivation of human dignity and of material and spiritual resources under the weight of imperial rule, and because “there is no hope for change” (Carter 2000, 132). The poor in spirit, therefore, mourn the social system that runs against God’s will (Mt 5:4). They are meek because they have none in the world to rely on but God (Mt 5:3). They hunger and thirst for righteousness because their daily life is full of injustice (Mt 5:6) (see Betz, 129). It is to these marginalized people, Jesus proclaims, that God’s kingdom belongs (Mt 5:3), and in this kingdom their lowly status will be reversed. They no longer need to mourn, for God comforts them. They are no longer deprived of resources, for God provides them (cf. Ps 37:11) [in Heb. The “meek” … are the poor]. They no longer need to hunger and thirst for the system running in accordance with God’s righteous will, for the life in God’s kingdom is filled with righteousness. (Emphasis added)


Climate justice for the poor

I don’t claim to be an expert on climate change. But I have been thinking for years that the issue has much to do with doing justice for the poor. Low-income countries do not have the economic means and infrastructure to minimise the effects of climate change like high-income countries do.

Take a look at this clip from ABC (Australia), and hear this emotional speech by a Filipino official after typhoon Haiyan. (The news article can be found here.)

God’s justice for the world: The story from Genesis to Revelation

The following is an excerpt from the fifth study of the study guide Talking about: Poverty (which can be found by following the link here). It outlines the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation, and seeks to succinctly summarise what it has to say about God’s heart for the poor.

The biblical narrative starts with God creating human beings as his image-bearers (Genesis 1:26-27). Their role is to be his vice-regents to rule over and care for his good creation. But Adam disobeyed God, and sin and death entered the world (Genesis 3:1-24; Romans 5:12-14). The history of Israel shows that the dominion of sin and death manifests itself in terms of dehumanising behaviours between individual humans and within societies. Systemic social and economic exploitations are part and parcel of this sin-bound world. But God has not abandoned his image-bearers. He called Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the peoples of the world, and they are to do what is just and right (Genesis 12:1-3; 18:17-19). God rescued Israel out of Egypt, and called them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). He set them apart and gave them the Law. An important part of the Law consisted of decrees regarding a just society, which included the Jubilee regulations and justice for widows, fatherless and resident foreigners (Exodus 22:21-22; Leviticus 19:33-34; 25:1-43; Deuteronomy 10:18; 15:1-18; 24:17-22). These instructions ensured that Israelites would never permanently lose the land allotted to them (Leviticus 25:23-24) and that they would not be treated as slaves (Leviticus 25:39-43). Through these regulations, periodic redistribution of wealth was instituted to ensure that the poor were not exploited.

As Israel’s story continued, the reign of king David was characterised by his just and righteous rule (2 Samuel 8:15). But as we have seen in our studies, Israel failed to maintain justice for the poor and oppressed (Isaiah 1:16-17; 21-23, 26-28; 58:6-7; Amos 2:6-7; 5:9, 11-12, 15, 21-24; 8:4-6; Micah 3:1, 9-12; 6:6-8). God called the prophets to advocate with the poor by holding their duty-bearers – that is, the religious and political leaders of Israel – accountable. Unfortunately, Israel’s idolatry and injustice eventually led them into exile.

Despite their rebellion, God has not abandoned Israel or humankind. The prophet Jeremiah foretold that from David’s line there would a Righteous Branch, who would do what is just and right (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15). As the drama of Scripture continues, we see the story of Jesus emerge, who was born as a descendant of David. Luke 2:7 tells us that Jesus was born in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. He came to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:16-19; 6:20-23), and ministered with healing and acts of mercy. He came to gather a new people of God from all socioeconomic backgrounds, who would take up the cross and follow him wholeheartedly. In the Book of Acts, we see the expansion of this community of believers throughout the world. The apostles proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus to the peoples of the nations, that through repentance and faith their sins may be forgiven (Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 17:30; 20:21; 26:18, 20). The apostles ministered with word and sign, and the people of God shared their possessions with each other (Acts 2:42-47; 3:1-10; 4:32-35).

In view of the Christ-story, the apostle Paul looks back to the creation stories in Genesis, and speaks of believers’ liberation from the dominion of sin and death through Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 5:12-21). He believes that Christians are being conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18), who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Paul thinks that God’s project of salvation is about the reversal of the effects of Adam’s disobedience, so that those who are in Christ may bear his image again. This image-bearing is be lived out in a love-centred Christ-community, in which God’s people will honour one another regardless of their socioeconomic statuses and ethnic backgrounds (Romans 12:9, 10, 16). They will practise hospitality, welcome strangers and weep with those who weep (12:11, 15). They will not repay evil with evil, but repay evil with good (12:17-21).

Paul looks forward to the day when believers will be raised and the whole creation will be renewed (Romans 8:19-23). God’s triumph over evil will be complete. Sin and death will no longer reign. There will be no more poverty or social injustice. God’s image-bearers will once again reign as his vice-regents. Such a picture is found in Revelation. There will be no more death, mourning or pain, and there will be healing. God will dwell with humankind in a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-8; 22:1-5).

So, from Genesis to Revelation we see God at work. We are called to participate in this biblical narrative and life-giving project of God.

Talking about Poverty: A Study Guide

Are you looking for a resource for small group discussion on poverty? Are you interested in a short but thoughtful material on this topic?

I want to introduce to you a Study Guide called Talking about: Poverty published by Ridley Melbourne. It can be downloaded here.

Here is a short excerpt at the beginning of the Guide.

Poverty is not simply about the lack of money and material possessions. It is about the marred identity of human beings, which manifests itself in terms of marginalisation, vulnerability and social exclusion.

The Study Guide is kindly recommended by Professor Joel Green, Professor Tim Gombis and Dr Justin Denholm.

Talking about: Poverty gives us exactly what we need to reflect with Scripture on our practices as God’s people. Siu Fung Wu helps us to take seriously God’s concern for people on the margins of society, and encourages us to embrace following Jesus as friendship with the poor. I’m using this material in my congregation, and I encourage others to do the same! (Dr Joel Green, Professor of New Testament Interpretation & Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary)

Too often books or studies on poverty are short-sighted in that they generate guilt or other sentiments that don’t actually lead to sustained and thoughtful action on the part of Christian people.  On the other hand, there are very few practical studies that generate reflection through genuine and well-informed engagement with the Bible.  In Talking about: Poverty, Siu Fung Wu draws on his personal experiences and engages thoughtfully with Scripture to set before Jesus-followers a hopeful and life-giving vision of caring for those whom God loves.  This is an excellent resource for those who want to participate strategically in what God is doing in the world and experience God’s empowering and life-transforming grace as they do so. (Dr Timothy Gombis, Associate Professor of New Testament, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary)

In Talking about: Poverty, Siu Fung Wu offers a sensitive and deeply informed series of studies to help us think about issues surrounding poverty from a Christian perspective. His studies encourage us to read the Bible with fresh eyes, looking to understand what the good news we have in Christ means in a world full of marginalisation, poverty and power structures. I highly commend it for individuals and small groups, and look forward to many good conversations around this material in the future. (Dr Justin Denholm, Coordinator of Centre for Applied Christian Ethics, Ridley Melbourne Ministry and Mission College)

Here is an outline of the Study Guide.

Study 1 will use a story in Luke’s Gospel to demonstrate that poverty is complex and multidimensional.

Study 2 will look at Jesus’ mission to proclaim good news to the poor and what it looks like in practice.

Study 3 will take a good look at what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus today, in view of what we have learned about poverty so far.

Study 4 will examine the meaning of true worship and its inseparable relationship with justice for the poor.

Study 5 will serve as a reflective conclusion, where we shall survey the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation to see God’s purpose in his redemptive plan. It is in this overall purpose that the themes of the above four studies will make most sense.

(“Study 5” can be found by clicking here.)

(The study guide can be downloaded by clicking here.)

Australia’s asylum seeker policy and what the Bible says

In an article posted by Jane Hodge at Champions of Change, Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, Australia (on 13th April 2013), Australia’s intake asylum seekers is not high at all, compared with other countries. I haven’t checked the data myself, but what the article says is worth noting. Here is an excerpt.

“So what does this tell us about Australia’s hysteria around receiving 3% of the industrialized worlds asylum applications? (3% take note, is the amount of applications lodged, not the amount of visas granted). What this tells us is that other industrialised countries, and many more poor developing countries, take many more asylum seekers than we do in Australia, and that they deal with the situation much better. Take Sweden, for example, who accepts nearly 3 times the number of asylum seekers per year than we do in Australia. In Sweden asylum seekers are welcomed, are assigned their own case worker and lawyer, are allowed freedom of movement and work rights, are allowed to live with friends or family, and are provided financial support and a housing allowance, all whilst their claims are processed in a maximum of 3 months. Sweden, it seems recognizes asylum seekers for what they are; everyday humans like you and I fleeing persecution.” (Click here to see the full article.)

Dr Christopher Wright says that the Old Testament Law says a lot about caring for foreigners.

“What did the Old Testament law have to offer such foreigners? A great deal… The Old Testament speaks of protection from general oppression (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33) and from unfair treatment in court (Ex. 23:9; Deut 10:17-19; 24:17-18); inclusion in Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:9—11; 23:12; Deut. 5:12-15) and inclusion in worship and cov­enant ceremonies of Passover (Ex. 12:45-49), the annual festivals (Deut. 16), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29), and covenant renewal ceremonies (Deut. 29:10-13; 31:12); the economic benefit of the triennial tithes (Deut. 1-1:28-29; 26:12-13) and access to agricultural produce (gleaning rights) (Lev. 19:9- 10; Deut. 24:19-22); and equality before the law with native born (Lev. 19:34).”

Source: Christopher Wright, The God I Don’t Understand (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), pages 103-4.

See also the similarity between the second greatest commandment (as Jesus affirms) and the instruction to look after foreigners (both found in the same chapter in Leviticus).

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18)

The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:34)

I hope these Scriptures can help us formulate our view on asylum seekers policy in Australia.

(A related post on Australia’s refugee policy and resources for discussion can be found here.)