“Remember the poor.”
Those are the words of the Jerusalem apostles—Simon Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John—to the Apostle Paul (Galatians 2:10). In his preaching of his gospel to the Gentiles, these first witnesses to Jesus wanted an assurance from Paul that he would do this one thing: “Remember the poor.”
Theologians speak of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor. God acts especially on behalf of the poor, because they especially need God’s help. We see this emphasis throughout the Bible. The Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms all highlight concern for “the poor” alongside “widows and orphans,” often also including “the alien” or “the stranger.”
The apostles’ appeal to Paul to “remember the poor” is likely a specific reference to the poor in Jerusalem, a group that included a high proportion of widows (Acts 6:1). In the Gospels, Jesus focuses his ministry on “the last,” “the least,” and “the lost,” groups that include people who were sick, outcast, indebted, and imprisoned.
These descriptions suggest that “the poor” does not simply refer to the financially destitute. Or we might better say that various forms of poverty—a poverty of belonging, of support, of health, of respect, of purpose, really a poverty of power—intersect with economic poverty in significant ways. And so the God who is love pursues economic and social justice for the poor, seeking the empowerment of all who are impoverished.
Remember the poor.
This is a vital instruction for us in our evangelism or outreach, a necessary reminder that we cannot separate “evangelism” from “social justice” as some Christians attempt to do. It is also an important guide for us as we navigate group dynamics in our churches and communities.
If God is on the side of the powerless (Luke 1:46-55), if the gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18-19), if the poor hold God’s blessing and God’s kingdom (Luke 6:10), if in the impoverished in power we see the face of Jesus (Matthew 25:34-40), then it is vital for us as Christians to pay attention to power dynamics among us. In every situation we face, in every decision before us, we should ask ourselves, “Who holds power here? Who has less power here, or is even powerless?”
Power, in this sense, is one’s ability to shape circumstances to meet one’s basic human needs and the needs of others: physical needs like food and water, clothing and housing, health and safety and security; social needs related to belonging, loving and being loved; and spiritual needs like making sense of the world and one’s place in it, connecting to a purpose larger than oneself.
We acquire this social power in many ways, often simply because of who we are. In most Canadian social contexts, men have greater social power than women, white people have greater power than BIPOC, cisgender heterosexual people have more than LGBTQ+ people, adults have more than children, the middle-aged more than the elderly, the non-disabled more than persons with disabilities, the neurotypical person more than the neurodivergent, the wealthy more than the poor, those with approved pedigrees more than those without.
Our social power—the ability to shape circumstances to meet our needs and the needs of others—is a function of where we sit at the intersection of these diverse factors, and our power can vary depending on the particular situation.
All this means it is critical for us, in any given situation, to be aware of how we hold power, what gives us this power, and how our use of this social power affects others, especially those who are powerless. And then, following the way of God, we need to empower these who are impoverished in power. This is God’s kingdom way of justice, which we are to seek first before our own material needs (Matthew 6:33).
Remember the poor.
In our council and board meetings, in each decision we make—remember the poor.
In our congregational care meetings, our mission discussions, our visioning processes—remember the poor.
In our worship and communion, our preaching and teaching, our fellowship and service—remember the poor.
In our discerning of what love demands from us this day—remember the poor.
Attend to those who are impoverished in power. Remember the poor.
May our lives echo Paul’s own response to this challenge: “This is the very thing we are eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
Published in Canadian Mennonite 25, no. 24 (2021): 14.