Preach on Poverty at Your Own Risk
- Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Some topics intimidate preachers. And that's actually a good thing. When preachers realize they're handling a difficult issue, they know to be careful, aware of the hazards on every side. The problem comes when someone launches confidently into a sermon without realizing the complexities of their topic. That's like boldly flying your spaceship into an asteroid field, blissfully unaware that your odds of survival are only 3,720 to 1.
In the last few weeks, I've heard several people do this with sermons on poverty. It's as though we think poverty is a relatively simple topic, something that you can handle in a single, 30-minute sermon. Just offer some thoughts on the importance of hard work, make sure you point out that we're supposed to be nice to poor people, and you're good to go. After a clever introduction, several amusing anecdotes, and some interesting asides, you should be able to handle the issue of poverty in the twenty minutes you have left.
At that point, you're not just flying through an asteroid field, but you're doing it at the fastest possible speed. Don't be surprised when you get crushed into oblivion.
Here are four reasons that preachers should include poverty on their list of topics to handle with extreme caution. I'm not suggesting that we avoid the topic, quite the opposite. I think we should preach on poverty regularly. After all, God has a lot to say about the subject. But it's far from a simple topic.
1. The Scope of the Biblical Material on Poverty
The Bible contains hundreds of verses on poverty (some have suggested as many as 2,000). That makes it one of the most prominent topics in the entire Bible.
Can you imagine preaching on what the Bible has to say about the human person? It starts in Genesis 1, doesn't end until Revelation 22, and nearly everything in between has something to say on it. What sane preacher would launch into a sermon on humanity without being aware of how huge and complex the biblical material on that subject actually is?
Yet we do it with poverty all the time.
Let's appreciate how much the Bible has to say about poverty. Reading, even carefully exegeting, a handful of verses on the subject isn't going to cut it. In many ways, the Bible's perspective on poverty also runs from Genesis to Revelation. Adequate preaching on the topic should take that scope into account.
2. The Diversity of the Biblical Material on Poverty
It wouldn't be that bad if all the verses said pretty much the same thing. But they don't. Instead, we get verses like "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20) and other verses that say God rewards those who fear him with riches (e.g. Prov 22:4). And I've heard sermons that ignore both perspectives: either making poverty sound like the height of spirituality and equating wealth with greed and sin, or naively associating poverty with laziness and identifying wealth with blessing. Both approaches neglect some aspect of the biblical perspective on the subject.
To be clear, I'm not saying that the Bible contradicts itself on poverty. It's just that the biblical material is far more complex and nuanced than what I hear presented in many sermons. A good sermon should not bury the Bible's diversity in an attempt to make the material more palatable. A good sermons wrestles with the difficulties of its subject matter, respecting its hearers enough to help them navigate the biblical world in all its complexity. (For more on this, see "If You Can't Explain Something Simply, Maybe It Isn't Simple.")
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