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Regarding the Poor as Members of the Body of Christ

Jonas ( recently asked me this question, based upon my review of Jon Sobrino’s latest book:
Would you like to explain the view of the poor as Christ´s body? Does that mean that the poor [are] incorporated into Jesus, the Messiah, even if they verbally deny him and don´t want to follow him? What would be the biblical base for this teaching?
Here is my response:
Fair question!
I wouldn’t necessarily say that “the poor [are] incorporated into Jesus, the Messiah” but rather that Jesus, the Messiah, incorporated himself into the poor. Therefore, there is now an indissoluble and sacramental link between the poor and Christ. By choosing to identify with the poor, the marginalised, and the damned, Christ revealed to us that these people are priests, administering God’s presence to the world. Not only that, but Christ reveals to us that God has chosen to locate himself in and amongst the poor. Hence, the poor are the people of God — because they are the people with whom God has chosen to identify. Therefore, as Porfirio Miranda reminds us, if we are seeking God, we should go where God has told us he can be found — in and amongst the poor. We are foolish to look elsewhere, when God has already revealed his location!
But let us explore this sacramental connection a little further so that too much is not left in the realm of mystery (which is far too often a refuge for any ideological position).
First of all, the poor reveal to us, in history, the bleeding and suffering of God due to the brokenness of the world. Hence, the poor are the sacramental presence of the body and blood of Christ just as much as (if not more than) the sacramental presence of the body and blood of Christ found in the Eucharist.
Secondly, by bearing our sins — by taking nothing from us while we take everything from them, by taking our hunger while we take their food, by bearing death as we flee from it — that poor also hold the potential to be ministers of salvation to us. They reveal the falsehoods structuring our societies, they make manifest the perverse results of our ideologies, and they expose the hypocrisy that runs through our expressions of piety. Hence, in this regard, the poor are the sacramental presence of the Christ who proclaims, “I am the truth”.
Thirdly, the poor and those amongst them who choose to act non-violently towards the rich and privileged — that is, the majority — are also agents of God’s grace. By choosing to work with us in pursuit of new life together, by refusing to respond to us by taking away our lives, our loved ones, and our daily bread, the poor treat us with a value which we have never ascribed to them. This truly is ‘amazing grace’. However, to be clear, this does not mean that we can simply go on living lives built upon the blood of others. Such an approach would be the worst example of the ‘cheap grace’ that Bonhoeffer despised. The grace shown to us, by the poor, is not an opportunity to go on sinning, it is a call to conversion.
This means that the poor are counted as members of the Church, even if they verbally deny Jesus and assert that they do not want to follow him. For, just as with the confessing members of Christ’s body, they are simul justus et peccator — righteous and, at the same time, sinners. If the sin of a good many of the confessing members of Christ’s body is their refusal to journey into solidarity with the oppressed, then the sin of a good many of the crucified members of Christ’s body is their inability to confess Jesus as Lord (for now anyway). Note, however, even here the sin of the confessing members is greater than the sin of the crucified. Often the crucified have never been truly presented with the gospel, or with individuals or communities who genuinely reflect the liberating news of Jesus’ lordship to them — thus, the Jesus they have rejected is not the historical Jesus and risen Lord. The confessing members, alas, have far less excuses for missing that which is so obvious within Scripture.
As for the biblical basis for this teaching, I would simply point to manifestations of God’s preferential option for the poor contained within Scripture. Think, for example, of the fact that the very poor are left in the land when all of Israel is carried away into exile. In this event, the poor are spared the judgment that is poured out on all, not because they have lived righteously, but because God identifies with the poor and show them preferential treatment because of the ways in which they have been dehumanised by the social powers who act in the service of Sin and Death. Similarly, think of the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness that Jesus offered to the poor, the sick, and the marginalised. To the poor, Jesus said, “You already are forgiven; come, journey with me” — it was only to the comfortable and powerful that Jesus brought harsh warnings of judgment. For a multiplication of examples, I’ll simply refer you to the writings of Gutierrez, Boff, Sobrino, et al. I think I have adequately made my point.
However, let me reaffirm my prior assertion, while switching the emphasis. Yes, the poor are members of the body of Christ, but they are not the only members thereof. This is why I continually speak of both the ‘crucified’ and the ‘confessing’ members of Christ’s body. The key thing is to bring those two halves together so that the body can be whole, and so that the Church can truly manifest the presence of Christ in our world. The goal is for the crucified members to become confessers of Christ, and for the confessing members to become crucified with Christ. The new creation of all things is (proleptically) contained therein.

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  1. To pick up from my comment on the old site. Perhaps your title helps to clarify it. Christ comes for those in exile from the world’s power/kingdom. Again, I am not sure ‘poor’ as an overarching name is as helpful in our context (certainly not to negate the economic component.)

  2. This post was very clarifying for me regarding some of the changes I think God is drawing me toward. If one is a crucified Christian, the challenge is to confess Christ is Lord in the midst of life’s darkness. If one is a confessed Christian, the challenge is to become crucified in the midst of life’s abundance. Both seem equally challenging, though for different reasons.
    As a side note, I am also understanding more and more why Jesus and Paul chose not to marry and have kids. I have a huge resistance (or at least a lot of tension) regarding some of the things God is driving me towards that would be completely absent were I single or even married without kids.

  3. Dave: I’m working on a post explaining how I understand the title ‘the Poor’. Hopefully it will be up soon.
    Brent: This is precisely why we should be married and have children — to demonstrate that following Jesus (and imitating Paul) is something possible for all Christians, and not just an option for some celibate/monastic/radical fringe group.

  4. Well, I think the greek word ekklesia in the typical case in its historical context means simply “gathering of people” (especially for decision-making) (Acts 19:32). (Hence, there are different churches, not only the God´s church.) And I think the most common way in the NT to use the word is to refer to a particular group that gathers together (I like Robert Banks on this topic). There are some instances that seems to point towards a broader use (Ephesians, some texts in Acts, and Matthew 16), but I would prefer interpreting those texts as referring to the process of gathering people around Jesus, rather then to the total sum of individual believers.
    So for me, God´s people consists of many churches (governed by Christ only) (and probably a lot of people outside the church/es).
    Also, as I see it, a church is a group of people that are structured according to and obeys the words of Jesus (Matthew 18:15-). If “poor” non-believers are included in the church, that means that they will be disciplined according to the instructions of Jesus, even though they haven´t in conversion and baptism made a vow to follow Jesus.
    I´m not sure this comment made anything clearer…?

  5. Picking up from the comments on the previous site:
    In highlighting the 3rd option I gave for “identify”, that Jesus was one of the poor, what biblical basis (sorry I couldn’t think of any other word to use) do you have for this beyond it being the metaphorical usage of poor; especially since Jesus seems to differentiate himself from the poor and refers to them as a separate group which he is not apart of?
    You also agreed with the first two options I gave, he was particularly nice to them and he reached out to them, as what it means for Jesus to identify with the poor but it seems then that we could highlight how he did that with basically everyone, not even just the marginalized and excluded. I wonder if it waters down what it means for Jesus to identify with a particular group then since everyone seems to have been identified with by Jesus?
    Thanks for the challenging thought.
    Bryan L

  6. Jonas: While I mostly agree with your definition of the word ekklesia, I think that you are leaving out an important part. Yes, the ekklesia consists of the “gathering of the people” (a term drawing both on the Greek political understanding of the ekklesia and on the OT understanding of the ekklesia as the ‘Assembly of YHWH’) but a key part of the NT use of this word is an emphasis upon the aspect that these are people who have been called to gather. These are people God has summoned together. So, IMO, the Church is not only those who have already gathered, but also those who have been summoned to gather. This would easily include the poor. Moreover, could not gatherings of the poor also be an expression of the Church? I think so, for I often see far greater expressions of Christian love in the communities of the poor than I do in communities of confessing Christians.
    I also find it interesting that you mention baptism in this comment, given that you were trying to move away from a sacramental understanding of the Church in your previous comments (due to my sacramental understanding of the poor, no doubt).
    Bryan: My understanding of Jesus’ identification with the poor is really quite simple and not at all metaphorical. The simple fact is that Jesus was poor, and that he chose this poverty deliberately (cf. Mt 8.20; Phil 2.5-11; and any other number of verses). Furthermore, not only was Jesus poor, he also identified with the poor by making them his top priority (Lk 4.18-19 is pretty much Jesus’ ‘mission statement’). Thus, Jesus was both poor, and he chose to walk into ever deeper solidarity with others who were poor — culminating in his death upon the cross.
    Secondly, I don’t think that saying that Jesus was “particularly nice” to the poor and that he “reached out to them” waters down what I am saying, because I don’t think that Jesus actually did act this way towards everybody. The key thing to realise is that Jesus was particularly nice to the poor as a group, whereas with the religious and political leaders as a group, Jesus was particularly hard-hitting and difficult. This is not to say that Jesus offered salvation to one group and not the other, but it is to say that the offer of salvation looks very different depending on where one is situated. This, then, also highlights the different ways in which Jesus “reached out” to different groups. Jesus reached out to the poor by becoming one of them, and he reached out to the wealthy by inviting them to become poor. To oversimplify my case, Jesus went to the poor and said, “You’re already ‘in'” whereas he went to the rich and said, “if you want to be ‘in’ come and journey with me and the poor’.

  7. Hey Dan,
    You said: “Jesus, the Messiah, incorporated himself into the poor. Therefore, there is now an indissoluble and sacramental link between the poor and Christ. By choosing to identify with the poor, the marginalised, and the damned, Christ revealed to us that these people are priests, administering God’s presence to the world.”
    Your post seems to hinge on the above quotation. For example, since Jesus incorporated himself into the poor, there is now (by default) an “indissoluble and sacramental link between the poor and Christ.” I don’t necessarily have a problem with this assertion, I’m just wondering if everything you are saying must also apply to Jews and Humanity everywhere (since Jews and more generally humans, are groups which Jesus incorporated himself into also).
    A question: Does God show partiality to the poor?
    Grace and peace.

  8. As to sacramental, I am roughly on the lines of Yoder. Definitely sacramental in one way, but not so much viewed from another angle.
    Interesting point about the gathering. I´ll take that with me and think about it. What would you say was “the call” that the poor has heard?
    I´m still interested, though, in my example about Matthew 18.
    As to the communities of christians, I don´t have that much problem with this anymore, since I regard most of christianity as a fake that should be opposed. (We discussed this somewhat in connection to an earlier post.) Still I know what you mean, I have also had the most profound experiences of God´s prescense together with the marginalized. Theologically, I interpret this as God´s love seeking them (and me?) in a special way.

  9. Dan:
    Thanks for your reply. Some thoughts in response (sorry this is so long and I don’t expect you to reply to all of it or any of it if you don’t feel like it):

    “The simple fact is that Jesus was poor, and that he chose this poverty deliberately (cf. Mt 8.20; Phil 2.5-11; and any other number of verses).”

    How does Matthew 8:20 mean Jesus was poor and chose a life of poverty? It doesn’t even say he was poor and if anything it just seems to highlight the nature of itinerant ministry, which he and his followers lived. It doesn’t seem that it had anything to do with their economic means especially considering they had a treasury for giving to the poor.
    As far as Phil 2:5-11 if this could even be seen as mentioning poverty it would clearly be metaphorical but I still don’t even see any mentions of poverty or being poor in that passage much less metaphorical ones.
    Can you give me some of the other many verses you had in mind?

    “Furthermore, not only was Jesus poor, he also identified with the poor by making them his top priority (Lk 4.18-19 is pretty much Jesus’ ‘mission statement’).”

    Lk 4.18-19 It only mentions that the poor had good news preached to them (and they aren’t the only groups mentioned in that passage). I don’t see how this means they were his top priority. And in fact if you look at what Jesus actually did most it seems his mission was healing the sick, exorcising demons and teaching people. Other than the times where he quotes Isaiah in Matthew 11:5, Luke 4:18-19 and Luke7:22, mentioning that the fulfillment of the preaching of the good news to the poor is fulfilled in him, he actually doesn’t seem to do much with the poor like he does with the other groups mentioned in the Isaiah passages he quotes (blind, sick lame). He does give some teaching to his disciples about charity to the poor and in Luke even says to invite them to their banquets they throw so they will be rewarded in resurrection but in that passage he mentions them along with those other groups (blind, sick lame) and doesn’t seem to single them out or give them top priority.

    “Thus, Jesus was both poor, and he chose to walk into ever deeper solidarity with others who were poor — culminating in his death upon the cross.”

    I don’t see how his death on the cross is the culmination of him walking with people who were poor or being in solidarity with them. I don’t think those are necessarily linked.

    Jesus reached out to the poor by becoming one of them, and he reached out to the wealthy by inviting them to become poor.

    Which wealthy did he invite to become poor? Even if you appeal to the rich ruler that went away sad (I think showing more that he loved money more than anything and so wasn’t as well off as he thought he was) Jesus still seems to have had people who were well off following him and they didn’t seem to think that he wanted them to be poor. Women even helped support him (I imagine they were well off to be able to follow him around and support him) and he had a rich disciple–Joseph of Arimathea.
    I guess I just don’t really see that Jesus identified with the poor by becoming one of them nor that he made them the top priority of his ministry. I’m sure he emphasized generosity to them in his teachings and was even generous to them himself, but I think they got the same message of salvation that everyone else did: that they needed to follow Jesus.
    Bryan L

  10. Bryan:
    (1) Sure, I can give you a whole host of verses. I reckon it would be good to begin with Mt 1.1 and you could work your way from there all the way through to Jn 21.25. The key is trying to put aside the ways in which North American Christians are generally taught to read the bible. Instead, allow what the texts say, and the contexts thereof, to dictate your understanding of Jesus (you seem to be a big fan of Fee, so I’m sure that you’re familiar with his famous dictum about the significance of context). If you find this type of reading to be difficult (and we all do), then I would suggest Warren Carter’s commentaries on Matthew and John, Ched Myers’ commentary on Mark, and Joel B. Green’s commentary on Luke would be helpful reading aids. Or, if you prefer more focused study material, I sugest you begin with Richard A. Horsley’s The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context and work your way forward from there.
    (2) On Lk 4, I disagree with what you say. The poor actually are the only people mentioned in Jesus’ manifesto… its just that modern readers tend to miss the fact that the captives, the blind, and the oppressed would all be subcategories of the poor. The captives were usually either social nobodies exploited by the wealthy (take a look at the rules around litigation that existed in the first century) or bandits/rebels (lestes) who were usually people who had been plundered and had no alternative source of income. The blind were poor because they were incapable of working, and the oppressed were poor because they were being exploited and robbed by the powers-that-be.
    Also, in your comment you forget that the disciples were also poor, having given up everything to follow Jesus (hence, in Acts and in the Pauline epistles that mention the early Jerusalem Church, we notice that this Church has adopted the title ‘the Poor’… meant literally, so don’t be too hasty to impose a strictly spiritual definition of that title!).
    (3) Seeing as Jesus and the Victory of God is on your list of favourite books, I’m puzzled that you fail to make the connection between the cross and the poor. You may want to reread the relevant passages and, if that still doesn’t convince you, look up what N. T. Wright has to say about the cross in his various books about Paul. Or maybe take a look at Hengel’s classic text on crucifixion.
    The point is that crucifixion was a form of punishment reserved for the utter dregs of society — slaves, rebels, really violent criminals. Crucifixion was so shameful that it wasn’t even mentioned in polite society (and citizens could not be crucified). Thus, by choosing to travel the via crucis, Jesus completes his solidarity with “the least of these”.
    (4) That Jesus had wealthy people around him, suggests to me that there were simply people at various stages of discipleship who were interested in Jesus. Perhaps the (positive) Gentile reactions to the Jewish diasporic Synagogues may be a helpful analogy here. Some Gentiles came around simply out of curiousity, some went a step further and became sympathisers with, and (financial) patrons of, the Synagogues, but only a few went even further and actually became proselytes of the Jewish faith (circumcision and all). I reckon the same could be said of the circles of those around Jesus.
    (5) To say that Jesus just emphasised generosity to the poor is precisely the sort of pseudo-Christian understanding of “charity” that I want to reject and counteract. What Jesus and the rest of the biblical narrative, call us to is soliarity with the poor, not just some sort of token generosity that simply ends up maintaining the status quo. Hopefully, once you’ve explored the additional verses I have provided, you’ll also agree with this!
    Grace and peace.

  11. Jonas:
    It seems to me that you are actually asking two very different questions.
    You see, hopeful universalism would suggest to me that all people are now revealed as saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So, yes, I believe that the poor are saved… along with everybody else, so using that title might not further this discussion (at least based upon my perspective).
    The question of the use of the title ‘the holy’ is an interesting one. What does it mean to be holy? Biblically, I believe that to be holy is to be set apart for God. So, yes, I believe that the poor qualify for this title, because God has claimed them especially as God’s own. However, there is also, perhap, another performative element to holiness — being set apart for God, means that one should exhibited some of the characteristics of God. Again, I think the poor qualify, based upon the reasons I listed in my original post.
    Having said that, I have very much enjoyed all the ways that you (and several others) have challenged me on these things. I’m still working through all of this myself, and I’m often thinking off-the-cuff in my responses to your questions… but don’t think that means I’m not taking your challenges to heart! I am and, who knows, perhaps I’ll change my mind.

  12. Dang, two further points based upon your earlier comment (and then I really need to respond to JT). First, I believe that the call heard by the poor goes something like this: “Here I am, ‘God with you’, revealing that you already are forgiven and welcomed as beloved children of God. Come, then, and journey into new life with me.”
    Second, regarding Mt 18, I believe that all members of the Church — crucified or confessing — are called to discipline and all that. I’m just not sure how this is an objection to my argument.

  13. Dan:
    After reading your response and especially #1 its clear that you don’t really want to have this discussion. You can say what Jesus did and didn’t do and what we was the church should do but when I ask you to show some examples you just tell me to go read the gospels and some commentaries? I’m not going to even bother with the rest.
    Bryan L

  14. Bryan,
    Perhaps my first point was a little too tongue-in-cheek to translate well into this form of dialogue. Basically, my point is that the Gospels are so inundated with material related to my point, that you could basically open to any passage therein in and what I have said would be confirmed. Consequently, when people fail to see this relationship between Jesus and the poor, I doubt that providing one or two proof-texts is going to be much help — especially when people have overly spiritualised interpretations at hand, ready to counter what I say (like you already pre-emptively did with the story of the rich young ruler).
    The fact is, you and I are probably reading the bible through such different lenses that nothing I could say is likely to influence your opinion (which is why I mentioned others who might be more able to convince you). I might be wrong about this, but the way you blow of my second to fifth points (where I actually did get more specific) would seem to confirm this suspicion.

  15. Dan. To me this seems to be (at least close to) oppression, should it be practiced. We should not demand a christ-centered lifestyle from those who haven´t decided to obey Jesus (as we should from disciples). We can encourage people and give the our advice, but we should not expect them to obey the words of Jesus.
    As to the call, does this somehow come to the poor unmediated (in a non-sacramental way)? Or how can they have heard if no one has preached to them? Or are you only talking about poor in the christian world that has come across the Message of Jesus in different ways?

  16. Hi, Dan
    Long time reader, first time responder. I know I’m coming in late in this conversation, but as I’ve long put off commenting on your blog (mostly because I’ve hardly felt qualified to throw in my two cents), I find that this one here stuck out to me for some reason, enough for me to want to take a whack and saying something, and so I thought a response here would be as good an opportunity as any to introduce myself.
    Before I get into my feeble attempt to add something to this already-old post, I will mention that I very much appreciate your blog, and your point of view. It’s been quite a blessing in more ways than one. I am an African-American, and come from a rather conservative, predominantly Black, non-denominational, charismatic (and quasi-fundamentalist) evangelical background. I grew up in the whole prosperity/word-faith name-it-and-claim it tradition, but thankfully my family got out of that bullshit several years ago. As of now, while I more or less still consider myself an evangelical Christian, I am in the midst of a years-long struggle of faith, trying to figure out what I truly believe and what I ought to believe (i.e., what is the Truth), about the Christian faith, Scripture, and the Gospel. While I don’t agree with everything you have to say, I have found your blog to be very helpful in my own spiritual journey (do pardon–I actually loathe the term “spiritual journey,” as it more often than not strikes me as a little trite, but it’s rather late and I’m not as eloquent as I’d like to think I normally am). I am not as well-read as I would like to be, but I am somewhat familiar with the thought and works of N.T. Wright, Moltmann, Hauerwas, and a few others. That’s my personal introduction…
    …as for my actual comment, I don’t see where you addressed JT’s question, that is, do you believe God shows partiality (and not just preference–assuming there is a significant difference in this conversation) toward the poor. I would see this as a very important question, because while I find more than intriguing (if not enlightening) your thesis that the poor are incorporated into Christ, to the point that they are ministers of God to those who seek solidarity to them (forgive me if that’s not an accurate summing up of where you’re coming from), I raise an eyebrow at the way you explain it. It does seem like you’re saying that God shows a kind of partiality to the poor, which cannot be true, as God is no respecter of persons.
    I do hope I am not overly spiritualizing the verses in question (and forgive me if I don’t cite them, at the moment), but when Jesus speaks about “the poor” in the Sermon on the Mount, I tend to understand “the poor” as a kind of umbrella or “catch-call” term that refers to those on the lower rungs economically, and, as well (if not more so), along with the downtrodden and marginalized, or “the least of these,” which are generally one and the same anyways. But also under that umbrella would be “the poor in spirit,” those who are broken, downtrodden, marginalized in any way at all (economically, socially, emotionally, mentally, physically, etc.). Technically, this would mean all of us, as man is fallen and broken, and we all suffer in various ways to various degrees, though quite differently, as we are all bound to sin and sinfulness.
    This, of course, would include the oppressors among “the poor,” those who live comfortably within systems fueled by and based upon and which perpetuate cycles of suffering, oppression, and death. The wicked suffer along with the innocent, even if they don’t know it–it is corrosive to the soul to be complicit in the destruction of other souls. I’m sure you’re as aware of this as anyone, from your journeying alongside the marginalized. You’ve mentioned you’ve had relationships with those who would be commonly understood as “the wicked”–murderers, rapists, pimps, johns, etc. and have still come to love them and see them as the least of these whom we are charged by Christ to love.
    Is it not possible, then, that the wealthy and middle class who tend to shun the poor, or at least live comfortably in societies and systems that cause their suffering, are in a certain sense in the same boat? I think your emphasis on solidarity with the poor is key here, because the humility demanded by God entails understanding our own brokenness and sinfulness–indeed, our own poverty–the fear and/or callousness that keeps us ensconced in these death-dealing systems, or the various neuroses and existential emptiness and ennui often found among the bourgeois. I’m not saying the suffering endured by the pampered, depressed daughter of a corporate fatcat is on the same level as that of a heroin-addicted teenage sex-worker who’s regularly raped (but if I may be so bold, I’m not saying it can’t be, either). But I am saying that they are both broken, they both suffer, they both sin, Christ has died to save and heal both and incorporate both into His body.
    Maybe I’m ultimately agreeing with you here (insofar as I’m making any sense at all), but I think Christ’s preference toward the poor highlights the sinful state of all men, which is to say the poverty of all men; and that the poor are blessed because they are aware of it. The tax collector (an oppressor, by the way) was justified rather than the Pharisee, because he acknowledged his own sinfulness–brokenness, “poverty”–before the Lord, and thus threw himself upon God’s mercy. In a certain sense, are you really saying, in a nutshell, that salvation is basically, not “becoming” poor, but coming to terms with the fact that, no matter who or where we are or our circumstances, we are already poor, broken, marginalized, downtrodden, because we are prisoners to sin; and “the Poor” are preferred by Christ because they exemplify this state?
    Forgive both my long-windedness, and my jumbled communication. I hope I can articulate my thoughts better as the conversation goes on. God bless!