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A Duty to the Poor

So what then is the mission of Jesus? In the synagogue on the sabbath day in Nazareth, Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

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Then Jesus said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21). Later he would say to the crowds, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4:43).

What is the mission of Jesus? It is to bring good news to the poor.

This scripture passage is the very first passage in the very first session of the very first program encountered by anyone who is invited to participate in the life and mission of some Christian ministries. This is the first Bible quotation in the orientation session of a Christian life program.

We have given this passage a “spiritual” meaning. We have said that the poor are those who live lives apart from God, the captives are those who are in captivity to things, desires and ideas of no real worth, the blind are those blinded by prejudices, pride, wrong self-image, false ideals and ideologies, and the oppressed are those in bondage to various things. This interpretation is not wrong, but it is not complete. The reason the passage is given its spiritual meaning is to bring spiritual transformation and renewal. Thus the passage focuses on such renewal in Christ, leading participants to repentance and faith, and then to empowerment by the Spirit.

But the full meaning of the passage is that the poor are not just those living lives apart from God, but those who are materially poor. They are the anawim (Hebrew word used in the Hebrew scriptures to refer to those who are oppressed due to economic poverty), those who are deprived of the needs of life, those who have no status in society, those who suffer oppression. The poor are those who are deprived of what God intends for them to enjoy as His children - food, clothing, shelter, medical care. The captives, the blind, the oppressed are all expressions of being poor.

Missing the point again

Indeed, so many Christians and Christian groups and parishes have missed out on the fullness of the mission of Jesus. There is much good going on, but we have been missing out on what is essential. We have been missing out on what is the priority of Jesus in doing his ministry.

Might this explain why after 2,000 years of Christianity, the world is the way it is? After 2,000 years, there is massive poverty in the world, and it is getting worse. And poverty gives rise to many other ills. Poverty breeds criminality, when poor people have no more options in the face of their children starving or dying for lack of medical care. Poverty sustains insurgency, when those with a political or ideological agenda feed on the discontent and wretchedness of the poor. Poverty contributes to environmental degradation, when the poor live in squalid polluted conditions or where poor sustenance farmers cut down forests for farmland. Poverty burdens social programs and inhibits economic growth. Poverty allows terrorists to recruit angry and disillusioned people who have nothing more to lose.

With the world the way it is, can we say that there has been a failure of Christianity? Or perhaps, more properly, since there is nothing wrong with the faith founded on Jesus Christ, has there been a failure of Christians and the Church in living out its faith and mission?

Indeed that seems to be the only conclusion. And we say this because there was a time when the world became a much better place. There was a time when the poor were cared for, so that no person was in need. This was the time of the first Christian community after Pentecost. Do not miss that very significant aspect in the life of the early Church: “there was no needy person among them” (Acts 4:34)! The first Christian community had solved the problem of dire poverty! Every person enjoyed the basic necessities of life.

With the way of life of the early Church, the Christians enjoyed “favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47a). They were truly witnessing to the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit in their lives. And the result? “And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47b). In other words, they were effective evangelizers, and the plan of God for the world was beginning to happen.

Building the Church of the Poor In this third millennium, the Church has proclaimed that its mission is to build the Church of the Poor. In doing so, it is on the right track. But the question is: how do we truly build such a Church of the Poor? How do we proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free? How do we work for total human liberation?

We accomplish these as we minister to the needs of the poor.

Such a mission is of eternal importance. It not only is according to the plan of God for the world, but it will determine what will happen to us in the afterlife. In speaking about the final judgment, Jesus speaks about the one criterion that will determine whether we go off to eternal life or to eternal punishment. And what is that? It is what we do for the least of our brethren.

'“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”' (Matthew 25:35-40)

Recognizing Jesus in the world

Evangelization is bringing the good news of Jesus to the world. It is proclaiming Christ such that people who accept him as Savior and Lord will begin to experience salvation. Authentic evangelization results in Jesus being present in the lives of people and thus changing the very situation of the life of the world.

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How then can we say that Jesus is truly present in the world?

John the Baptist had basically the same question. The mission of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for the messiah. He had baptized Jesus at the Jordan. When Jesus performed his mighty deeds, what he did spread throughout Judea and the surrounding region. Later John was arrested. He needed to know if the messiah had indeed already come in the person of Jesus, so that he could know that he had done his task in preparing the way, if his ministry was coming to an end. Told by his disciples about the mighty deeds of Jesus, John sent two of them to him to ask if he was the messiah. The answer of Jesus is very revealing.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” (Luke 7:22)

How do we recognize Jesus in the life of the world today? If we are asked, we might say we can gauge the presence of Jesus by the numbers of people going to church, or by the vibrancy of worship by charismatic groups, or by growing missionary activity. But gauging by the response of Jesus himself, we recognize the presence of Jesus when we see that the good news is being proclaimed to the poor. And who are the poor? They are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead. They are the hungry, the naked, the homeless. They are the deprived and oppressed of the world. They are those who have less in life, those who are underprivileged, those who are less fortunate.

It is interesting that people refer to the poor as the “less fortunate” among us. But since they are a special object of God's love, and since the mission of Jesus is directed at them, and since they will possess the land (Ps 37:11), the phrase “less fortunate” seems misplaced and inappropriate, at least from God's point of view.

Another aspect of authentic evangelization then is that it must be a mission to the poor, which is the very mission of Jesus.

Massive, Rapid and Global

Now we know who are the poor, but where are the poor? In the world today, a world of massive poverty, social injustice and oppression, the poor are everywhere. The poor comprise the great majority of the population of the world, and they are in all the countries of the world, especially the so-called Third World. How can they be reached with the good news?

The Great Commission in Mark is stated by Jesus as follows: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16: 15). What are the disciples of Jesus to do? They are to proclaim the gospel, that is, they are to evangelize. Where? Into the whole world. To whom? To every creature.

The term “Third World” has come to refer to poor nations. The designation of First, Second or Third World is a product of the Cold War after World War II. First World referred to the so-called Free World nations such as the USA and other countries that opposed the spread of Communism, Second World referred to the Communist nations or the Soviet bloc, and Third World referred to neutral or nonaligned nations including India, Switzerland and most of the African countries. Through the years the designation has evolved, with First World referring to the highly developed and industrialized nations of the so-called Western world, and Third World referring to the poor nations of Asia and Africa and elsewhere. The Second World, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, has ceased to exist. The designations thus seem antiquated.

How it is

Now if Christians are to reach everyone throughout the whole world, it cannot be done on a comfortable pace, on a limited scale, or with a parochial mentality. But this is what is happening in much of Christian ministry! Those Christians who serve often do so with whatever is their spare time or resource, and zealously preserve their comfort zones. Prayer groups want to keep their cozy fellowships and not threaten it by rapid expansion. Parishes are focused inwardly towards their own needs and jealously guard their resources and refrain from doing trans-parochial mission.

There is a lot of work being done, but it is not enough. In fact, with the rapid pace with which the enemy is expanding his territory, the little good that Christians are able to do is easily overtaken and overshadowed by the evil the other side is able to produce. Christians who evangelize help save one marriage, but the evil one is able to destroy ten marriages. A teenager preserves his/her purity with the strong support of a truly Christian environment, while ten other teenagers without such support easily fall into premarital sex. And so even while there is a lot of Christian activity, the darkness over the world continues to deepen.

How it should be

How do we overcome? It can only happen if evangelization is rapid, massive and global. Only in this way can Christians be able to obey Jesus' command to go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Only in this way can Christians overtake and eventually overcome the massive work of the evil one in the world today.

When we look at the pattern of evangelization of the early Church immediately after Pentecost, we see that it was rapid, massive and global. But what happened then is no longer happening today.

  • Then, Peter preached one sermon and three thousand persons were converted (Acts 2:41). Today, many sermons are preached but rather than converting people might actually be boring them or turning them off.
  • Then, every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:47). Today, the Church is losing members every day.
  • Then, great numbers were added (Acts 5:14). Today, evangelistic efforts, aside from some exceptions, often yield sparse results.
  • Then, the whole civilized world was converted to Christianity in a few centuries. Today, Christian nations are rapidly becoming pagan.

For the Great Commission to be carried out, for the whole world to be won for Christ, evangelization must be rapid, massive and global. This is the third aspect of authentic evangelization.

Thus, in accomplishing the very mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor, evangelization must follow the pattern of the first Christian community. It must be evangelization that is rapid, massive and global.

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