Charity and Justice for the Poor
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
What follows is adapted from Rev Albert Hamstra’s devotional in the Advent series provided by CRWRC and the Office of Social Justice. The words of the denominational “Charge to the Deacons” came to my mind as I read. “Be compassionate to the needy.” “Be prophetic critics of waste, injustice, and selfishness…” I admit I squirmed a little. Do these words speak to your heart too? I asked if I could use this devotional here, and I'm delighted that I was given permission.
Our hearts may be warmed by the charity celebrated in Mary’s song: “…he has filled the hungry with good things,” but her song of hope becomes more challenging when it moves beyond charity for the poor to judgment: “…but he has sent the rich away empty.”
How are we to participate in the kingdom activity of sending the rich away empty? I can’t say I have ever heard a sermon about that.
The hope upon which all Christian action for justice is based, must, however, have this double prong. Charity and Justice are inseparable twins, two sides of the same coin: we really cannot have, or do, one without the other. So, we must seek deliverance for the oppressed AND judgment upon oppressors. Generally speaking, it seems to me, we are not good at this. We are better at giving charity than advocating for justice. Charity is less costly; justice is more disturbing.
One cannot be involved in ministry that sends the rich away empty in any significant way without arousing major opposition. In our work of anti-racism I notice that talking about how racism hurts people of color elicits almost universal sympathy: “Isn’t it awful!” But when the discussion turns to how racism benefits white people, the room turns suddenly cold. Then the “yeah, buts….” come out. Then one starts hitting brick walls. Defining “the rich” in some way that excludes us is a favorite trick. Skimming a little cream off of our top is one thing; actually challenging the systems of who gets what is another.
However, the clear witness of Scripture requires Jesus’ disciples to act so that charity and justice complement each other perfectly. The Word of the Lord is both a word of salvation and of judgment. We cannot “do” the filling of the poor part without also “doing” the sending of the rich away empty part. Charity devoid of justice brings only a superficial kind of hope.
The birth of Jesus was for many in his age, and in ours, bad news. For those whose values and loves tie them to the sustenance of social systems in which they are unfairly privileged while others are unfairly deprived, the coming of Jesus in the world is “a sign to be spoken against” as Simeon said (Lk. 2:34). By leaving out this word of judgment against the rich, we deprive the poor of the real joy of Christmas; we deprive them of the real hope of the kingdom.
The hope of Advent is that charity and justice in all their fullness prevail in the kingdom Jesus embodied. In this kingdom there’s even hope for the repentant rich. Zaccheus is called into life and service. Having met the requirements of justice, he too can have his hunger filled. Our challenge as lovers of God and as seekers of justice is to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.