Pentecost 15B: We Are All Beggars

The readings for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost are…

Old Testament      Isaiah 35:4–7a

Psalm                    Psalm 146

New Testament     James 2:1–10 (11–13) 14–17

Gospel                   Mark 7:24–37

Concurrent with the pandemic has come the challenge of social justice. With the killing of Briana Taylor, George Floyd and others, has come a long overdue reckoning with the heritage of white supremacy and the systemic oppression of blacks. Then seeped to the surface the hidden insanity that was falling on Asian-Americans as people insulted, assaulted and even murdered them for their imagined responsibility for Covid-19. And it wasn’t long before we were forced to remember centuries of bias against Asians and all people of color.

So racism is the cause of the day. But prejudice against the poor is an even more universal force for evil; and it would serve us well to wake up to it if we are going to bring into the cause of social justice those of all races, including the whites, who feel overlooked.   

One of the things that connects all of the readings for this Sunday is that they show a God who is intent on turning things around, and who invites us to be part of the plan. The chosen of Israel will be vindicated, and those who oppress her will receive their due payback.

But the New Testament continues another strong theme that the prophets all emphasized: God’s bias for the poor who are always and everywhere oppressed.

Our reading from the Book of James says something startling: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

Wait a minute: We thought God chose us! Not the poor!

James is particularly bothersome for Lutherans who like to claim we are saved by faith alone. But James writes, “Faith without works is dead.” And in the first line of our reading today he goes even deeper. He says faith without care for the poor isn’t faith at all.

James challenges all church folk by picturing their Sunday mornings. He says, “If someone drives up in a Mercedes, gets out wearing fine clothes, and drops a thousand dollar check in the collection plate, and you snap to attention, shake their hands and make sure the pastor follows up on them and gets them to join the church; but on the other hand, when a guy in worn out jeans and a torn shirt and calloused hands walks in and asks for some help with food for his kids, and you try not to look him in the face, or you give him five bucks and say don’t come back no more, something is out of whack!” James asks, “If you act like that do you really believe in Jesus Christ?” What James is saying is, “Faith without works isn’t just dead, it’s not faith at all. If you don’t care for others then you better look again at what you truly base your life on.”

Look at it this way: False faith is founded on the idea that there are two kinds of people in this world: there are people like you and me – and then there are the beggars. You and I somehow made ourselves. We earned our place on the inside. The beggars just beg. They have earned nothing. And we owe them nothing. And so we are blinded to systemic poverty—blinded by the way we moralize about it. Jesus, I think, satirizes this tendency when he speaks as a Jew to the Gentile Syro-Phoenician woman, begging for her child’s life in today’s Gospel, “It’s not fair to give the children’s food to the dogs.” We have a hard time honoring or even sympathizing with any poor person when we moralize, and stand on fairness in such a way. And we cannot see that the mercy of God far outstrips any fairness.

But true and living faith is founded on the idea that there is only one kind of people:

We are all beggars who live by the grace of God. In fact, Martin Luther’s final words on his death bed kind of summed up his whole theology. He said, “We are all beggars, this is true.”

 
There was another man named Martin—in fact Luther was named for him—who history identifies with beggars. As he was ending his life of death, serving as a soldier of the Roman empire in the mid fourth century, he met a beggar shivering from mid-winter cold. He raised his sword and used it—to cut his own cloak in half. Then he gave half to the beggar.

After a long saintly life he was acclaimed as the bishop of the city of Tours. The day he was expected to arrive, the city magistrate spruced up the city for his arrival. His final act of sprucing was to chase all the beggars off the main street. When he told the last beggar to make way for Martin the new bishop, the man said, “I am Martin the bishop.” Of course the magistrate was mortified and apologized profusely, but Martin replied, “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to the beggars of your town.

The magistrate’s faith was a false one. But Martin’s was true, because he knew who Christ is. It is said that one night, while he was deep in prayer, Martin had a vision. Christ appeared to him, radiant as the sun, and wearing fine robes and a bejeweled crown. The vision spoke, “Bow down and worship me, Martin.” Martin looked the figure over and said, “But where are the nail holes?” And the apparition disappeared. It was not the Christ who dies for us beggars. It was the devil.


James warns us against the ingrained habit we have of judging books by their cover. So, we think what makes us rich is money, when it is really God’s love and the relationships we have with others that are built on that love. When we mistake the money-rich for the good guys, we get suckered, and they oppress us and take us to court. But when we read the poor we meet like the good books they are, we see that them as the blessed ones of God.

Earlier in his letter James says the reason we can’t do God’s Word, and live truly fulfilled lives, is that we don’t read ourselves either. We judge ourselves by the cover, and miss the fact that we are covering up. “It’s like looking at ourselves in the mirror and walking away and immediately forgetting what we truly look like,” he writes. Indeed, Martin Luther pointed out that the most important use of God’s Law is as a mirror. He advised that we use the Ten Commandments to hold up that mirror in our daily confession and repentance. And, in today’s society, when we hear that self-esteem is everything and that we are great, and there is nothing we can’t do if we dream and work hard enough at it, using the Commandments this way is a great corrective. We always know, deep down, we can’t do anything. We know self-esteem must be tempered with  realistic humility. We know deep down that we cover up our flaws and mistakes with more money, more make-up, and more stuff.

Look hard at the mirror God gave us as a gift of grace. And let all this drive you to the foot of the cross as a fellow beggar. Then appreciate that it is beggars God receives. It is as people who are dead in sin and ungodly that Christ dies for us.

We are all beggars, this is true. And we are invited to kneel at the altar rail together,  with our hands out. And into our beggars’ hands is given the Body and Blood of Christ, the Giver.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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