Service Title: Winter Offensive: “All these things will be given unto you”
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, director of the Kairos Center
Scripture: Matthew 6:25-33
The Winter Offensive continues. This week the founder of the Apache Stronghold, Wendsler Nosie, along with Rev. Liz and other leaders from the movement led us in a discussion of Thanksgiving, the first chapter of American history, and the curse (not blessing) of poverty. The following is the reflection offered by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis:
I used to avoid this passage at all costs. It seemed to say that God is not concerned with material things like food or housing or clothing, and even belittles people struggling to survive, and worrying about where their next meal will come. As if the earth was not plentiful for all to share in its abundance.
I have heard it used to assert that people are poor because we are of little faith, and therefore those with money and individual prosperity have it because they pray hard and exploit the earth. As if God blesses those deserving with abundance but punishes the poor and weak with poverty.
It’s often interpreted to juxtapose God’s kingdom with a community where all are fed, clothed and housed and portrays God’s kingdom as a patriarchal, hierarchical, trickle down economy and political system, and that this kingdom is what really matters, rather than a mutual society where feeding and housing and clothing of the people and of all creation is what is God’s concern.
I even remember when I was petitioning my church to be ordained to do the work of addressing and ending poverty, that church leaders affirmed that the work was good but not the core work of the church and Jesus’ followers.
But just like so many biblical texts are used to beat up on the poor and those who would aspire to transform this world for the better, for the poor and everyone, we have been hearing this passage interpreted wrongly as well.
As we continue in this winter offensive and prepare for the observance of Thanksgiving, where we cannot leave out the first chapter of American history, the historic and ongoing genocide of indigenous and native peoples, we would do well to explore the biblical passage from Matthew, one of our lectionary texts for today, in a little more depth.
Matthew 6:25-33 follows directly after one of the most radical statements about God, poverty and wealth in the entire Bible. Matthew 6:24 says that you can’t worship both God and Mammon or wealth. In fact it says that those who look to money and power and wealth or a justice system that only produces injustice for their security, cannot also look to the God of justice, the God who led the people out of slavery and poverty for solutions to our problems and a good life – because Mammon and God are not compatible.
Rather, everyone must choose. Do we worship the Creator of all, in my case, as a Christian, a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew who turned over tables of oppression and never charged a leper a co-pay? Or do we worship, offer deference to, and look to solutions from Wall Street, Congress, Resolution Copper, those who would take the abundance of the world and hoard it for themselves?
And then we get to Matthew 6:25-33. Which might be the biggest critique of capitalism and economic systems that exploit the labor of the poor for the benefit of the rich in the entire Bible.
This passage tells Jesus’ followers – which we must remember are poor fisherpeople and farmers, day laborers and city dwellers who were indebted, overworked, enslaved – that they should not have to worry about having adequate food and clothing and housing. It’s a story and a message about everyone having the right to live.
And the passage points out that the birds don’t have to work to deserve good food and the flowers don’t have to earn a wage so that they have beautiful clothing.
It says that instead these poor movement leaders should work first towards making God’s reign, God’s empire, a reality here on earth. In fact, a few lines before this passage in Matthew, in the prayer that Jesus teaches, often referred to as the Lord’s Prayer, debts are cancelled, everyone is fed, and earth, today is the focus, rather than having pie in the sky when you die.
These passages say that if Jesus’ followers seek God’s (not Rome’s) empire and God’s (not Rome’s) justice, then there will be a reign of abundant food, and housing and clothing for absolutely all. It will be a kingdom, a reign of everybody in, nobody out.
The passage tells the impoverished followers of Jesus and movement leaders that worrying takes up so much energy. It’s so hard to be poor and blamed for your poverty. To internalize that it’s your fault that you don’t have adequate food to feed your kids takes too much out of you. It’s a lie of empire. And God does not wish such abuse, such lies on anyone.
But instead, like in other passages throughout the Bible, we are reminded that God created abundance. If we follow God’s economy, there is no poverty, there is no hunger, there is no homelessness. And there isn’t just the absence of poverty and need and want, but the presence of justice, if we follow God’s commandments, if we are stewards of the earth and not exploiters of it.
Perhaps you have heard this quote from Dr. King – that “peace is not just the absence of tension but the presence of justice”. Or from Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative, that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice”.
This is the meaning of this passage. In this moment, as we prepare to continue the struggle and give thanks for God’s abundance, but mostly for the abundance of leaders coming together to build a beloved community, let us usher in God’s reign and push out Mammon and the empire’s reign of poverty, dispossession, and oppression.
In the name of a God of abundance and justice, let it be so. Amen.
Watch the full service from November 21, 2021 here. Join the Freedom Church of the Poor this Sunday at 6pmET/5pmCT/3pmPT and La Iglesia del Pueblo at 7:30pmET/6:30pmCT/4:30pmPT on the Kairos Center Facebook page.
This season, Freedom Church of the Poor has released an Advent study series built off of several entries from the We Cry Justice devotional. We hope it will be used to reinforce the Winter Offensive and engage communities, especially as we mobilize for a Mass Poor People’s and Low Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington, June 18th, 2022.