Learning from the Least of These
by Christine Jeske
Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read in the temple at the start of his ministry, is often sited as motivation for action among the poor and disempowered. "The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor," the powerful passage reads, "to bind up the brokenhearted… comfort all who mourn…" and so on. Just beyond those famous words, though, Isaiah continues: "They will called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, for the display of God's splendor… Their descendents will be known among the nations… all who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed."
Here it is not the person going to "preach good news to the poor" who is called blessed; rather it is the poor themselves. These are people like Thembi of South Africa who cares for her nine orphaned relatives, Carla who serves on her own children's school leadership committee in Nicaragua, or Burmese refugees in America caring for their urban poor neighbors out of Christ's love. These people are the oaks of righteousness, and they are everywhere in the world, from the slums of Guatemala City to the prisons of North Korea to the streets of San Francisco. The stories of these "people the Lord has blessed" could fill a thousand books.
For years the main motivation behind Western Christians learning about other cultures has been to be problem-fixers. We want to fix other people spiritually, and in many protestant churches there has been a growing push to fix people's physical needs also. We want to build the kingdom of God, get it done right, and sit back and feel good about ourselves. "Why shouldn't we?" we ask proudly. "We have done well economically, have more education than most people in the world, and we have been saved from our sins!"
To this end, we tell stories about the poor with a certain slant. Either we describe people in misery, desperate for an NGO to come help, or we describe the miracle cases of the compassionate organization that changed so-and-so's life.
This mentality strays toward playing God, and it damages our relationship with both God and God's people. When people addicted to fixing things interact with people who have been chronically poor or disempowered, they make a bad equation: wealthy people wanting to be needed plus poor people feeling needy. This combination resembles the kind of dating relationship that strays toward abuse, the kind you would advise any friend to get out of in a hurry.
Instead we need to stop and learn from people in traditionally marginalized cultures. Rather than lumping the poor together as objects of pity, we need to notice "oaks of righteousness" among them, let them lead, and ask how to join them. Among the poor are luminaries in faith, perseverance, love, worship, hospitality, godliness, surrender, and of course, on loving the poor.
Jesus loved to teach through unlikely heroes. He never said, "Look at this leader in economic growth, this political giant, or this religious leader known throughout the world." Instead he said look at a child and learn humility. Look at a widow giving her last coin and learn generosity. Look at a woman of questionable repute washing his feet with her tears and learn worship. Look at a sinful tax collector and learn repentance. He said "Blessed are you who are poor," not because the poor will receive gifts from the wealthy, but because theirs is, already in their poverty, the kingdom of heaven.
Certainly whatever culture or economic level we come from, we need to ask God how we can pour ourselves out generously as servants for God's glory. May it not be said of us, though, that we've studied, sacrificed, and visited the poor just to fix them. Instead, we need to hang out with the poor knowing that we also are being fixed and that God in his funny way of working loves to teach us and shape us through heroes among "the least of these."
Christine Jeske and her husband Adam recently coauthored This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. Drawing on years of experience in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa, they reflect on North American culture and seek out the amazing in even the most mundane days. She blogs at intothemud.com, works toward a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, and teaches for Eastern University. Connect at Into the Mud or follow @christinejeske.