Abolish Poverty, End Suffering

14 05 2012

President and Prophet Stephen M. Veazey recently discussed Luke 4:18–19 and the five Mission Initiatives with Apostle Linda Booth. The Herald will run excerpts from their conversation in a six-part series. To see videos of their interview, visit www.CofChrist.org/mission/Veazey-Booth-interview.asp.

Linda: Steve, we’re talking now about Abolish Poverty, End Suffering. For some reason, with this Mission Initiative, people go, “Ah, this is too bold. There’s no way we can ever achieve this.” I’ve even heard people say, “Well, you know the poor will always be among us.” So when you hear those kinds of statements, what it is your response?

Steve: My response is, let’s look at that phrase, how it was used, put it in context, and understand it before we use it as an excuse to maintain the status quo of poverty in our communities and the world.

If we go to scripture, we know the phrase comes from Matthew 26:6–13, and it describes an experience when Jesus was in Bethany about a woman who came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly perfumed ointment. And she anointed him. She poured it over his head as he sat at the table.

Now we know in retrospect she had discerned Christ was going to sacrifice his life, and she understood the significance of that. So before he was actually dead, she was honoring him with a ritual of the anointing of the body. It’s a sign of respect and a sign of devotion.

The disciples there didn’t understand what was going on. They missed the significance. So trying to score points with Jesus, they chastised the woman for what she had done. Can you imagine how that felt to Jesus? She had perceived the sacred nature of what was occurring, and they called it a waste.

They said, well, this could have been sold, and we could have given it to the poor. Wouldn’t that have been the better way to go? And Jesus basically said, you’ve missed the whole point. Leave her alone. What she’s done will be talked about wherever the gospel story is told.

This saying, that the poor will always be among us, he’s actually making a point that some things happen only one time and are so significant that we have to be willing to pause, take note of it, and understand what it is.

And what this woman had done was so sacred—sacramental so to speak—that everyone needed to see it as something unusual, not something that was just part of the daily circumstances and conditions of life. So Jesus said, for you will have the poor among you always, but I won’t be here forever, and we’ve missed that point.

Now where does that phrase come from, you’ll have the poor among you always? He was actually quoting a passage from Deuteronomy 15, where there’s instruction being given to the tribes of Israel about how to live in the land where they are, the land that they will inherit as God’s blessing and promise to them.

We need to hear the first part of the passage so we understand this phrase in context. Here’s what it says: There will, however, be no one in need among you because the Lord will bless you in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you if you will obey all of the commandments. Those commandments included always taking care of the stranger, the neighbor in need, and the poor among you.

And so the promise is there will be no poor if you obey the commandments of God that have been given to you as part of the covenant…of possessing this land of promise. Then the passage goes on and basically says if you aren’t living up to those commandments then here’s what you’re to do: If there happens to be someone in need because they haven’t been helped by someone else, then you should give generously to help them out. You should open your hand. You should willingly give enough to meet the need whatever it may be.

And it says to be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought toward them. Give liberally and ungrudgingly. God will bless all the work you undertake. This is the way to respond to those in need among you if everybody else is not living up to the commands I have given you.

So the phrase is in this passage, since there will never cease to be some in need on Earth, I therefore command you open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land. Now, I think Jesus was reacting to his disciples. He was using our need. He was saying basically it’s because of your own failings to respond to the commandments of God that the poor are always around you, but don’t use them as an excuse.

Don’t chastise this woman because there are poor all around you. Recognize the preciousness of what she did and then always work to alleviate the needs of the poor until there are no more poor in the land, which gets back to the original vision shared in Deuteronomy.

That’s a long way around to my response. My response is I think Jesus would be frustrated and chagrinned that we as disciples today might use his turn of a phrase in reaction to his disciples to justify or to tolerate poverty in our land.
If we took scripture—the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants—and took out everything that has to do with our obligation to tend to the needs of poor and to create justice for the poor and needy, there wouldn’t be a whole lot left.

So the weight of scripture is dramatically in the other direction from using this one phrase Jesus was using to challenge his disciples to justify the status quo of accepting that there will always be the poor around us.

On a practical basis, there are various organizations that have carefully calculated and strategized how poverty can be alleviated in the world. Our agricultural production is more than enough to feed the hungry in our world. What we spend on wars and other things, which we say are our priorities, is way beyond the funding needed to alleviate poverty and hunger.

It’s a bold initiative for the very reason that we need to be kind of shocked out of our complacency and to understand the passionate concern of God for the poor. It’s also bold and broad so that we will quickly understand we can’t do it by ourselves.

The only way to address these issues is to partner with other churches and other organizations and to be, as our Doctrine and Covenants says, at the forefront of organizations seeking to address those kinds of needs in the lives of people and affirming the Worth of All Persons.

We are going to have to work together. But if we can be part of a catalyst for some aspects of that, then we will make a significant contribution to abolishing poverty and ending suffering in the world. It’s an imperative from Jesus, and it’s an imperative of the mission of Christ as we understand it today.

Linda: Yes, it is. At the very core is Christ’s compassion, his compassion for all those people around him who he saw in need. So, if that compassion became alive in people and congregations, what might it look like, and what might the result be?

Steve: Compassion is one word that describes Jesus’ heart, his heart of hearts, the very core of who he was. The scriptures often say he was moved, not just with concern or being shocked at the condition of people; he was moved with compassion, and that’s a deep, penetrating movement of the Spirit. Compassion literally means to suffer with. “C-o-m” means with. Passion is not just enthusiastic feelings. It means deep suffering.

We talk of our Lord’s passion for us as being in the events that included his trial and death on the cross. That is our Lord’s passion for us. Compassion means to suffer with, and the only way we do that is to be present with.

You can’t have compassion from a distance. You have to be present as an instrument for sharing God’s love, God’s concern so people understand they are not alone in their suffering. It may be physical suffering. It may be emotional or mental despair or suffering. It may be spiritual suffering. It may be a person who has experienced brokenness in relationships and feels rejected. They feel cut off from their family or a community of loved ones that has been important to them.

All aspects of suffering are the focus of concern of compassionate disciples of Jesus. Jesus was God present with us in our suffering. God with us. Disciples of Jesus in Community of Christ are present in the name and Spirit of Christ with others who are suffering.

When we do that, the gospel is enfleshed. It becomes real. People are touched. They’re blessed. They have hope again. They believe in the future again. They understand their future does not have to be a continuation of their past.

That’s the good news of the gospel. To be suffering and alone is hell on Earth, and Community of Christ will not stand for that condition in people. We go, and we are present. We listen. We share as is appropriate in our testimony. We love, we help, we invite. We invite people into Community of Christ so they never have to be alone in their suffering again.

Linda: And when we love that much, then we get involved in the messiness of life. We don’t stand back when our neighbor is hurting. We are there to support them.

Steve: We’re present. We’re willing for our hearts to be broken. But we understand that in our brokenheartedness we have created a lot of space for the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ that is the witness of the Holy Spirit to move. Others are blessed and transformed, but we’re also blessed and transformed.

We grow closer. We grow more intimate with our Lord Jesus Christ in the process. It’s not enough just to know about Jesus. We have to know Jesus. And to know Jesus means we’re living the life that Jesus lived. Sometimes that means we’re willing to figuratively go to the cross for others. Sometimes literally.

We know of brothers and sisters in the church who have given their lives for the sake of others. That’s all part of the integrity of our ministry and witness as a church.

Linda: In the past on the first Sunday of every month we’ve given to Oblation, and many people have given to World Hunger. How does giving to Abolish Poverty, End Suffering link to how people previously have given?

Steve: It goes directly to the Mission Initiative, Abolish Poverty, End Suffering. So we want to be very clear about that. What we previously designated as Oblation or for Oblation Ministries, which was always used to meet the needs of the needy and those in emergency situations, that all goes to support the Mission Initiative, Abolish Poverty, End Suffering.

World Hunger is an aspect of that. We particularly want to focus some of our funding on alleviating world hunger and advocating for food security for people throughout the world and in our communities. So if we’ve given to Oblation or World Hunger we can…give to Abolish Poverty, End Suffering, which will include those ministries we have defined as Oblation or World Hunger Ministries.

Linda: And so may each of us who are listening to this conversation feel that passion and compassion of Jesus burning within us that we might be the true and living expressions of Jesus Christ in the lives we touch.



One response

16 05 2012
With So Much Pain In Our World Today, Where is God asking you to help relieve the suffering ? « bummyla

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