Equals before God

Back in January Cindy Rollins wrote a wonderfully honest post about what it had been like for her family to live among middle-class churchgoers during a period of reduced circumstances. I sent her a response via email because I did not want to hijack the comment thread, which was developing in valuable ways without my help. With five months now gone by, I thought this would be a good time to bring her post back to the front burner.

I think the situation you describe calls for the church not to be more understanding and accommodating, but for her to bow her head in great shame for the scandalous situation that has developed.

Who does the New Testament hold up as our example, those with much or those with little? Why was the man who wallowed in his abundance called a fool (Luke 12:13-21)? What did Jesus tell the rich young ruler to do? Who was invited to sit at the head of the table, and who was told to go down? Who did Jesus tell us to invite to our luncheons and dinners?

More important: the church was once a place where rich and poor, master and slave, could gather together as equals. Because the poor and the slaves were made honorary rich people and masters for a moment? No, I think it must have been because the rich man and the master set aside his wealth and authority as he walked in the door, knowing that those things mean nothing in the eyes of God. He knew that "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him."

Paul even told us how to handle the situation you describe (1 Cor 11:18-22):

In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

I assume Paul was being sarcastic when he wrote: "No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval", shaming those who were causing divisions with their displays of affluence. But did he tell those with the food to share it freely with those who had little? No, he told them to eat their nice dinners at home! Since elsewhere we’re told to share with those in need, I have to imagine that the ones going "hungry" didn’t actually need they food—they probably ate their meager but sufficient meals at home, so as not to even raise the (completely irrelevant) issue of who was affluent and who was not.

(O, Abondante Living, where art thou?)

Even as I write this, I’m dismayed at how upset it makes me, and so I’d better not dig much deeper. But I want to point out that, as clear and shame-inducing as your post is, the church has its defenses and will probably twist even this into the usual pious hand-wringing: "Yes, we really do need to be more sensitive those in our midst who aren’t as materially blessed as the rest of us." And I’d like to share an anecdote I read recently that came to mind as I read what you wrote:

In fact, I always date the beginnings of my conservative leanings to a sunny day that summer when I walked into a cotton field to tell an elderly black man and woman who were tending their crop about the wonders of the welfare system. They were old enough to qualify for Old Age Assistance, I said, and their low income was probably sufficient. Therefore they should accompany me down to the welfare office to apply. They stood there nodding and smiling in that silent way until I suddenly realized the old man had tears in his eyes. It hit me like a thunderbolt. This couple had worked all their lives to achieve what they valued most — their independence and self-respect — and now I was telling them they should give it up to become wards of the government. I walked out of that field thinking, "I wonder if I’m doing the right thing down here." It has been a long journey but it started right there.

I think that "wise" man was shamed by the weak things of the world, and was blessed to recognize the encounter for what it was. Would that the church would purify its collective behavior so that we can gather as equals, rather than condescending to accommodate those it sees as less fortunate.

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One thought on “Equals before God

  1. This whole experience has been such a long haul of changing ideas for me. I have gotten to the place where I cannot even listen to someone from the pulpit speak about caring for the body of believers. I just don’t believe that happens anymore and I am beginning to see that the system is just set up to fail as most systems are. I am certainly past looking for a model that works and am now just trying to live and breath in my own community as salt and light.

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