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You asked for a sermon on Who Are The Poor?


Matthew 5:3     Mark 14:3-9    Luke 6:20     Jonah 4:11    Isaiah 55:1-2   Galatians 2:10

[1] Who are the poor, anyway? Those who lack money? In 1968 I was an impecunious student at the University of Toronto. But even though I lacked money, was I poor? That year I was hospitalized for forty-five consecutive days. I was seen daily by the physician who admitted me, as well as by the orthopaedic surgeon who had me placed in a body-cast. When I was discharged from hospital the orthopaedist continued to see me until he deemed me fit to play hockey again. I had received medical treatment incomparably better than the treatment 99% of the world will ever see; I was treated him a hospital whose services cost hundreds of dollars per bed per day. At the end of it all my expenses were zero.

In 1986 my mother, seventy years old, was hospitalized for seventy-five consecutive days. She too was billed nothing. She is kept alive by the excellent care she receives from a cardiologist. He is a chemical magician whose prescriptions leave my mother’s bedside table resembling a bowlful of “Smarties”. Since she is over sixty-five she pays nothing directly for her medication. Could she ever be poor?

A few days ago I took the several cases of applejuice which Maureen had purchased to Foodpath, our well-known foodbank. When I arrived I found many clients waiting to have a food-hamper filled. None of them appeared rich. But in view of the fact that they would never be allowed to go hungry, how poor were they when compared to the 35,000 people who starve to death every day?

So far I have not attempted a definition of poverty and will not attempt one now. But I will say this much: if to be poor is to be without food, clothing, elemental education and medical care, then it would appear difficult to be poor in Canada.

Yet even in Canada there are those whose material misery (to speak of only one kind of misery) is so very pronounced that we do not hesitate to call them poor, regardless of the definition of poverty. Think of the families who are “double-bunked” in Cooksville. (There are 25,000 “double-bunked” people in Toronto, but I mention Cooksville in that Cooksville is the area of Mississauga where the practice is most apparent.) One family, adults and children, rents a two-bedroom apartment-unit. The entire family sleeps in one bedroom. This family in turn sub-lets its second bedroom to another family. Now we have seven, eight, nine people living in a two-bedroom apartment, elbowing each other aside to get into kitchen and washroom. Can you imagine the frustration, the flare-ups, born of overcrowding? Is it any wonder that from time-to-time someone “boils over” and the police are called to yet another domestic irruption? What school-performance can be expected of children in such a setting? Two television sets blaring, no defensible space, no solitude, no incentive to study. A further dimension, a frightening dimension, to this state of affairs is this: since education is the single most effective means of escaping poverty, lack of educational opportunity and encouragement fixes yet another generation in the same sort of poverty.

When I was living undercover in Parkdale while researching my magazine article on chronically mentally ill people I learned that the more severe one’s illness (itself a form of poverty, intellectual and emotional poverty), the worse one’s living accommodation. I visited several of the infamous boarding houses in Parkdale. The worst one — indescribable, really — housed two dozen people who were utterly deranged. Never mind that social assistance pays their rent and thus forestalls death by exposure; never mind that when they have appendicitis they can get a free appendectomy; they are deranged, they live in degrading filth, and throwing eversomuch more money at them would still find them poor in any non-economic sense of the term.

Who are the poor? When I was newly-ordained Maureen and I found ourselves in a small village of northeastern New Brunswick. Most families there were sustained by fishing or lumberjacking or peat-bog excavating. The villages surrounding ours were sustained in the same way. Yet the villages surrounding ours were manifestly wretched! Shanty-houses with earth floors; two-by-four partitions but no walls, with the result that the entire house was illuminated (as it were) by a single unshaded lightbulb dangling from the ceiling-peak (if the house had electricity). All of us have seen icicles hanging from the outside of a home; have you ever seen them hanging from the inside? Why was it that our village and the neighbouring villages fished the same water and cut the same trees, yet our village appeared relatively resplendent?

When we moved east Maureen and I had just finished reading Catherine Marshall’s novel, Christie, with its heart-catching character, Fairlie. The first time Maureen met Opal Murray she rushed home and shouted, “I’ve just met Fairlie, right out of the book!” A few days later Opal, together with a friend, called on Maureen and announced, “We’s here to learn you about babies”. (The learning “took”, I might add.) Opal and her husband Jack lived in a home which had been a fish-processing plant. They had purchased it for a few dollars, the only few dollars they had. As a result their six children had slept on straw ticks. Come Sunday morning all eight of them appeared at church radiant, happy, confident. Opal said she couldn’t afford shampoo and so she washed her children’s heads (in rural New Brunswick you don’t wash your hair, you wash your head) with a bar of Sunlight soap. When Maureen had to be hospitalized for surgery Opal and Jack had me to their home for supper. As Opal served up thick slices of bologna Jack beamed at me and said, without a hint of embarrassment but with more than a hint of triumph, “Victor, it’s poor man’s steak!” And so we feasted.

Were Jack and Opal poor? The villagers in the villages surrounding ours were certainly poor, as everyone agreed. Compared to us Streetsvillians Jack and Opal were very hard-pressed financially. (Whose children here have slept on straw ticks?) But were Jack and Opal poor, poor in any extra-financial sense?

Who are the poor, anyway? Are the Arab masses poor? They appear wretchedly poor whenever we see photographs of them. Are we to conclude that they are citizens of wretchedly poor nations? We shouldn’t draw this conclusion. After all, the per capita income of Saudi Arabia is greater than the per capita income of the U.S.A. The nation of Saudia Arabia is exceedingly rich. Then how does their claim on our charity compare to that of people in countries where the per capita income is very low?

The per capita income of Israel is lower than the per capita income of the Arab states. Yet the average Israeli is much better off materially than the average Arab. Are we to conclude, therefore, that the Israelis are less poor? On the contrary in some respects they are far more poor than the poorest of the Arabs. Surely one aspect of poverty is vulnerability. Israel is far more vulnerable than any Arab state. Right now Israel receives one-third of the U.S.A.’s foreign financial allotment: ten billion dollars per year. Ten billion dollars per year are spent on a country whose entire population is scarcely larger than that of metropolitan Toronto. The twenty-two Arab nations (whose population outnumbers Israel’s 100 to 1) which surround Israel have vowed, in the Arab Covenant, the destruction of Israel and the annihilation of every living Jew. What will happen when either external pressure or internal pressure forces the U.S.A to alter its support? Israel is at risk in a way that no Arab state appears to be at risk. I can foresee the day when external or internal pressure (or both together) will force the U.S.A. to alter its support. On that day Israel will disappear in blood, while the Arab nations, with their unquestionably wretched masses, will survive. So who is poor?

Who are the poor, anyway? Consider this: anyone is poor who lacks recognition. When Elie Wiesel was a fifteen year-old in Auschwitz an S.S. guard taunted him, “I know why you want to survive, young man; you want to survive in order to tell the world how horrific Auschwitz and its perpetrators were. But the world will never believe you. So horrific is this camp that humankind will refuse to believe this of itself. No one will believe your testimony, and you will have survived for naught.” Not to be recognized is to be poor.

On the other hand to be recognized is always to be non-poor, whether one has much money or little. Ned Vladomansky was a Czechoslovakian hockey player whom Harold Ballard wanted for the Leafs. Because Vladomansky the hockey player was recognized his escape from Czechoslovakia was engineered and his flight to Canada paid for even as Canadian immigration officials lied through their teeth and falsified every document they laid their hands on, as ordered by their political superiors. Never mind that Vladomansky was a dud as an N.H.L. player and therefore didn’t draw a rich man’s salary. He was recognized. People in Ireland have waited twenty-five years to emigrate to Canada. But they aren’t recognized. They are poor.

Who are the poor, anyway? I am not going to answer the question. I shall allow you to answer the question for yourself. We must each answer the question for ourselves. Who are the poor? “Does Victor mean merely those who lack money? or also those who lack health, lack friends, lack opportunity, lack responsible parents, lack support?” I cannot reply. We must each answer the question, “Who are the poor?”, for ourselves.


[2] All of which brings me to the second point of the sermon. The apostle Paul tells the church in Galatia that he is “eager to remember the poor”. He insists that all Christians remember the poor. Now because the Streetsville congregation has been schooled in the Hebrew meaning of “remember” you will recall that to remember, in Hebrew, does not mean to recall an idea or a notion or a concept. To remember is to make something outside ourselves in space and time a living actuality within ourselves right now. At the last supper, when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “Do this in remembrance of me”, he didn’t mean that we are to recall the idea or notion of his sacrifice. He meant that his sacrifice, which bears our sin, bears our sin away, and forms the pattern or template of our discipleship; his sacrifice, outside us in space and time, is to become living actuality within us — now and always. As we “remember” his sacrifice we find our sin borne and borne away, live in the freedom which is now ours, and cheerfully walk the road of crossbearing discipleship ourselves. When the apostle tells us we are to remember the poor he means that that which is outside us is to become a living actuality within us so that our heartbeat and the heartbeat of the poor are one. We have identified ourselves so thoroughly with the poor that they now have the freedom and the desire to identify themselves with us.

And who are these poor whom we have identified as poor? That is known only to us. Of course it could be someone without money or dental plan who needs dental work done. It could just as easily be the richest person in town whose grief or loneliness or anxiety are off the chart. It could be the youngster whose appearance or manner or ethnicity find him picked on. It could be the deranged person who has been robbed again inasmuch as schizophrenics are easy to rob and hurt. Who are the poor? We must each decide for ourselves. But once we have decided, we must be sure to “remember” them.

The romantics among us like to romanticize poverty. How silly! There is nothing at all romantic about poverty, as the poor have always known. The romantics among us who like to romanticize poverty assume there is something righteous about poverty. But there isn’t. If poverty were righteous then it would be our responsibility to increase the world’s poverty, thereby increasing the world’s righteousness. On the contrary, scripture insists that poverty is evil; like any evil it must be resisted and repulsed, even eradicated.

“But wasn’t Jesus poor himself?” It all depends on what we mean by “poor”. He wasn’t financially poor. During the years of his public ministry he was never gainfully employed. Anyone who can thrive without being gainfully employed is not poor financially. Jesus (and the twelve) were funded by wealthy women. He never hesitated to accept their support. He never hesitated to eat and drink the sumptuous fare which the rich offered him — even to the extent that his enemies accused him of “pigging out” and overdoing the wine. When he died soldiers gambled for his cloak, so valuable did they deem it; they didn’t toss it aside as worthless. Then was our Lord poor? Who are the poor? Now I shall attempt an answer: the poor are those in extreme need, extreme need of any sort. Was our Lord ever in extreme need? I recall reading that he wept, he sweat blood, he cried out, he was so distracted that he stumbled repeatedly. The poor are those in extreme need, any sort of need.

We must say a few more things about the poor.


(i) While poverty is never pronounced righteous, it is pronounced blessed. In Luke’s gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”; in Matthew’s gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. “Kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” amount to the same thing. What about “poor” and “poor in spirit”? Do they amount to the same thing? “Blessed are the poor” means “blessed are those in extreme need”. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means “blessed are those who admit their spiritual emptiness, their spiritual hollowness, their spiritual inertness”. The two expressions don’t mean exactly the same thing. Nonetheless those who are in extreme need are more likely to admit spiritual need. Poverty is blessed, says Jesus, not because poverty is good (poverty is evil); it is blessed just because the poor are more likely to cry to God with the hymnwriter, “Nothing in my hand I bring; nothing!”

Jesus pronounces poverty blessed in that the poor are more likely to see that the consolations of the world are finally spurious. One of the world’s consolations is wealth. Has wealth ever improved the spiritual condition of anyone? It has spelled the spiritual ruin of countless. What does wealth bring finally but a shrunken heart? Another of the world’s consolations is adulation. What does adulation bring finally but a swollen head? Poverty isn’t blessed because poverty is good; poverty is blessed because those in extreme need have the fewest pretences about themselves and their profounder need, even their ultimate need — which need, of course, is their need of the saving God. The more extreme our need, the less likely we are to think we need nothing; the less likely we are to think that we don’t even need the One who claims us for himself by his generosity in creation and claims us for himself again by his mercy in redemption.

When we come upon extreme need of any sort what do we do? What step do we take to “remember” the poor? I do not think we can specify this in advance; there is no formula or recipe which tells us what to do about the specific evil of this or that specific need. There is only our Spirit-sensitized discernment of poverty of any sort; there is only the unshrunken heart which throbs with the suffering of a fellow-sufferer; there is only the unswollen head which apprehends specific cross which a specific disciple is to shoulder in view of someone else’s specific need.

The one thing we must never do, of course, is use the text, “The poor you have with you always” (Mark 14:9), as a pretext for doing nothing. A grateful woman lavishes the costliest perfume — twenty ounces of “Escape” — on our Lord. Some hard-hearted nit-pickers pick, “It could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor”. Yes, it could have. But life can’t be reduced to the functional. Unselfconscious gratitude can’t be measured. Love can’t be exchanged for currency. The kingdom of God, while certainly including the material, cannot be reduced to the material. The woman’s gratitude was incalculable just because her spiritual need had been incalculable and our Lord’s gift of himself to her incalculable. Those who object to what she has done are not yet poor in spirit themselves; would to God they were simply poor, for if they were poor they might also be poor in spirit and then would find themselves made rich by the only Saviour they can ever have.


(ii) The last point I am going to make today. While not everyone is poor in the sense of extreme financial need or extreme social need or extreme emotional need, every last person is poor in the sense of extreme spiritual need. Since this is the case, we shall always be safe in beginning here as we endeavour to remember the poor.

I am moved every time I read the book of Jonah. Jonah has failed to grasp the enormity of the spiritual need of the Ninevites. Finally God jerks Jonah awake and tells Jonah that he, God, has immense pity for a vast city whose people do not know their right hand from their left. Centuries later Jesus would look out on crowds and say to his disciples, “See? Sheep without a shepherd!” But our Lord did more than say that the crowd does not know right hand from left. The Greek text tells us that at the sight of the crowd his gut knotted and pain pierced him as though he had been stabbed.

If we begin with the assumption of spiritual poverty, we shall soon find ourselves drawn into the orbit of those whose need of the Good Shepherd is extreme. Once in their orbit we shall find their needs, like ours, to be many and manifold, and manifest. At this point we shall never have to ask, “But what are we to do? How are the poor to be ‘remembered’?” We shall know. And the poor will know as well.



                                                                                                   Victor A. Shepherd
March 1993