“No thanks,” I said, over and over again, to the woman. We had spent the day visiting communities around Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala, and now our boat driver was ferrying us back across the greenish bluish waters to San Lucas, our home base for the week. The woman had jumped aboard the boat to catch a ride with us. As we traveled, her fingers briskly wound thread around a pen, creating a colorful pattern with a name embedded in it. Like many of the vendors in the local marketplaces, she was relentless in pressuring us to buy her pens. And we were a completely captive audience. She went around to different people on the boat, showing her pens, pleading and begging “You buy?” and insisting to know “What is your name?” She kept coming back to me and I kept on refusing. “No, thank you.” I was annoyed and tired. I hate being pressured to buy things. I did not need or want another pen. I just wanted her to go away. And, at the same time, I knew that much was at stake for her as she sought to break through my stubbornness. Maybe selling a few more pens would mean that her children could eat that night. I pushed out of my mind the images of what her house was probably like: small, dim, with a corrugated metal roof and a dirt floor, a smoky cooking fire without adequate ventilation, a bare mattresses shared by several adults and children. Continuing to refuse her outstretched hand, I thought to myself, “What’s the use?” This small bit of income won’t help her overcome poverty. Dozens of vendors will meet our boat when we come to shore, hounding and heckling us, and I can’t buy from all of them, can I? As I stepped off the boat and headed up the hill to eat a simple but bountiful supper at the mission, I immediately began to regret my hardened heart, my rationalizations, and my refusal to buy a pen. Why didn’t I show the small bit of compassion and solidarity that was, on that particular day, within my power?
I am sure that this Guatemalan woman has not given me any further thought. But this small interaction remains painfully vivid for me. It speaks to me about the spiritual hazards of living with wealth in a world of such incredible inequality. The author of James is blunt about God’s “take” on disparity: “Let the believer who is lowly [a more accurate translation would be ‘poor’] boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.” These words echo Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55), which declares that God, in the birth of the Christ child, has acted decisively to bring down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. James’ words about poverty, riches, and God also correspond with the basic premise of liberation theology: God has a preferential option for the poor. In other words, God sides with the poor in their struggle for liberation.
Emily Badger of the Washington Post reviews Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which is about the effects of inequality on US children. “Not,” she explains,
“[Inequality] between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but between two groups that have also fallen further apart: children born to educated parents who are more likely to read to them as babies, to drive them to dance class, to nudge them into college themselves—and children whose parents live at the edge of economic survival.”
She summarizes Putnam’s findings, saying:
“The poor children in “Our Kids” are missing so much more than material wealth. They have few mentors. They’re half as likely as wealthy kids to trust their neighbors. The schools they attend offer fewer sports, and they’re less likely to participate in after-school activities. Even their parents have smaller social networks. Their lives reflect the misfortune of the working-class adults around them, who have lost job prospects and financial stability . . .. Their view of the world around them is a deeply lonely one.”
Clearly, those who are poor suffer the most from the loneliness that comes from the breakdown of community institutions and social networks that is afflicting our American culture. But I would argue that those with wealth also experience isolation, in a different way, a way that allows inequality to remain the norm. Neighborhoods and workplaces and even schools are often segregated by income so that people of different economic classes rarely develop intimate relationships. People who have enough resources to survive and even thrive don’t usually get to hear the stories of people who live in poverty from one generation to the next. And those who can take care of themselves and their immediate family (even when it is a struggle) may not feel it is necessary to cultivate the support of a wider community.
The letter of James, along with books like Proverbs, Job, and Psalms, belongs to the genre of “wisdom literature” in the Bible. These texts are very different from each other, but they all focus on the question of how to live a good and meaningful life. James is an antidote to our often “heady” approach to faith in the Protestant church—offering practical, “on the ground” kind of advice. The three different sections of the opening chapter which we read today at first seem discrete and disconnected, but in reality they are interwoven tightly with each other. In his opening words, James states that the Christian should face life’s trials and tests with joy. We don’t behave this way in order to avoid divine judgment or receive a divine reward, but because this way of being will bring fulfillment. It will complete us, make us into the people we need to be. This approach to life is counterintuitive, but God generously and ungrudgingly gives the wisdom we need to grasp it. If we ask for wisdom without doubting, we will get it. Doubt is not doctrinal here. Doubters are double-minded; they can’t make up their minds about what kind of a person to be. The opposite of doubt is commitment and trust.
Whereas some biblical wisdom books view wealth as a sign of God’s favor, James teaches that the security that comes from wealth is fleeting and illusory: “The rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” Wealth is dangerous and destructive when we treat it as the key to our life’s happiness and meaning. As Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, points out, when Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” he did NOT say “Blessed is poverty.” Poverty is a dehumanizing, degrading evil. If wealth, or the desire for wealth, keeps us from joining God in standing with the poor, against poverty, then it cuts us off from God. Such a relationship with wealth in fact destroys our lives—causing us to “disappear,” “perish,” and “wither.”
Truthfully, Jesus does not bless either poverty or wealth, but calls all people to a just relationship with one another and with the material resources that sustain life. I think that is what Matthew was trying to communicate when he penned Jesus’ saying as “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Spiritual poverty is a radical openness to God, a radical trust in God, and a radical commitment to a life grounded in God’s counterintuitive wisdom. For those with wealth, following Jesus in the way of spiritual poverty may very well mean relinquishing some of the resources and possessions that insulate and isolate us from the majority of the world’s people, who are poor. Gutierrez writes: “A spirituality of liberation will center on a conversion to the neighbor, the oppressed person, the exploited social class, the despised ethnic group, the dominated country…. Our conversion to the Lord implies this conversion to the neighbor. To be converted is to commit oneself lucidly, realistically, and concretely to the process of the liberation of the poor and oppressed.”
My trips to Guatemala have been a trial and a test; the woman selling the pens is one example of why. Being there is uncomfortable. It makes me feel many things at once: angry, troubled, sad, ashamed, amazed, grateful, converted. I am sure you have faced similar trials and test as you’ve interacted with your neighbors, whether far away or right here in our own city. The Gospel, the good news of Jesus, is an unfinished struggle within our hearts and the hearts of our world. Let us welcome this struggle with joy, as the life- giving opportunity it is. Let us ask God for the wisdom to grow toward the fulfillment that is our calling. Amen.