The Sign of the Poor

To ignore the poor is to show contempt for both God and Humanity.


The Poor – a Sign we are not yet Saved

A Poem by Mike Garner followed by the essay The Sign of the Poor


Jesus belongs to the poor

Jesus came to liberate the poor,

from oppressive idols of power

To fail to love the poor

Is to worship idols

To end poverty

is to heal the world

Only the poor understand Jesus’ suffering

       The sign (presence) of the poor in a world of wealth demands that all who know God seek to liberate the poor. The work to liberate the poor from systemic structures of power is consistent with the heart of God who hears the cries of the afflicted. All theology is the study of God in relation to humanity. This is so because God is a relational redeeming creator who binds God’s self to humanity with words that form promises. God’s holiness is affirmed by God’s promise-keeping. To speak of God apart from verbally communicable relational realities is to halt at the categories of mystery and transcendence. Neither of these (transcendence and mystery) is practical for healing the world since they are both outside the sphere of human existence.

It is the ‘sign of the poor’ that means national leaders who rule systems of power and government have failed to serve those they are to protect.

         Jesus brought the reality of the reign of God into the world through his person and koinonia with the Holy Spirit. God entered the world as a human being and that human being brought God into the world by living a life, and teaching a way; a way that fulfilled the image of God in a human life. Death is the terminal illness that besets all of humanity’s efforts at self-governance. Only in Christ Jesus can a human being overcome the eclipse of death that permeates our reality. To face death, as ‘spirit’ is to love humanity with an indomitable hope rooted in the faith of God, who raises the dead. To face death is to expose the systemic structures of human governance to the demands of love; love for God and love for neighbor.

       To love God and neighbor is to contemplate on reality and the scriptures for the purpose of bringing God into the world. When God is present then the justice that liberates the poor and oppressed is present. When truth is present concepts of righteousness based upon power and conformation to legal structures that sustain poverty and oppression are exposed as evil. Justice in the scripture is not penal; it is merciful and healing. Justice is a relational word that brings equity into economic affairs so that no one is born into a debtor nation to suffer, so that no one suffers an oppressive social structure that inhibits their development as a human being.

The presence of the poor across the earth testifies to injustice existent in economic systems.

       The contemplation prevalent in the scriptures is on the human predicament in relation to God and the temporal powers of humanity’s institutions of governance. So, the person who studies and knows scripture is prepared to apply a living and present theology to the injustice in the world. The ‘sign of the poor’ is the injustice that calls for theological application so that the world might be healed. To contemplate the predicament of the poor, to wrestle with the powers that oppress is the demand of theological practice. The healing of the world begins with the liberation of the poor and not with those who hold power.

The failure to abolish poverty is a statement on the morality of existing power structures.

       To give voice to the poor is the task of theology that matters to both God and in the everyday affairs of life for most of humanity. In order to give voice to the poor, it is required that the liberative worker listen to the poor, record their stories, and begin as an intermediary voice. When a liberative worker lifts up the poor through educational awareness on the structures that oppress, then the poor begin to gain their own voice. Education is at the heart of liberative efforts to empower the voice of the poor.

       The church that does not stand beside the poor will hold to an errant theology that causes harm and shames the faith of Jesus. When the challenge of faith’s call to heal the world with Jesus’ kingdom is replaced with therapeutic sermons then a static religion of self-help makes people easy prey for idolatry and empty theology. Theology that cannot be embodied and or bring challenge to change the world is simply useless. Remember that loving God is inseparable from loving the poor.

 The Earth is the Lord’s


The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof;

the world, and they that dwell therein.

(Psalm 24:1)

       God created the world for human beings to live upon and become children of God. We are caretakers of God’s earth, God’s land. We share the earth with one another. Sharing is relational; it works functionally as a sign of love for others. Not only is the world claimed as the Lord’s in Psalm 24, but all of life and in particular human beings. Life is a gift and our temporality is to be received as an essential experience preparing us for the gift of life in the resurrection.

       Leviticus 23:22 requires a landowner to leave the corners of his field for the poor to harvest. The legislation is rich with meaning. First, I will work from the translations that prefer ‘corner’ rather than ‘edges’ to designate the area to be left untouched by harvesters. Nature is without natural squares. The Lord has Abraham build altars in the land that are not squared. They are built of stones that have not been chiseled. Abraham lives in the land of promise as a foreigner and the only piece of land recognized by others, as his, is a graveyard that he purchased.

        Abraham’s life is instructive; the only land we truly own is the piece we become a part of as our body decomposes. Memorial sites with extravagant displays will not mark Abraham’s life; rather, Abraham’s life is preserved as story both verbally and in writing. When land is farmed it is squared for irrigation rows. So, it is consistent with farming practices to recognize a square by corners rather than the term edges.

     The Levitical legislation does not specify the size of the corner to be marked off. If, a corner were marked off it would be done so with a line. Where to place the line is left to the decision of the ‘landowner’. At this point human culpability for interpreting the intention of the Levitical legislation comes into play. How much of the corner will be left? I think the intention is that there is enough marked off for the poor who are dependent upon (due to proximity) the corners for their food. If this requires the landowner to mark off a large area and be left with a smaller portion in order to meet the needs of the poor then this is to fulfill the intent of the legislation.

Leviticus 23:22 is about sharing and maintains the ‘spirit’ of Psalm 24:1, the ‘land’ (ha-aretz) is the Lord’s.

     Human beings continually square the world with lines that reach upward to the sky and outward to mark our possession of land. It is interesting to note that across the world the remnants of civilizations mark the countryside. Often these civilizations remain a mystery because their stories have not been preserved, their ideas and history not written.

      The first city was built on the foundation of murder, of fratricide. The first city was built by a man (Cain) who in spite of being a murderer was marked by God with a sign of hope for reconciliation. The first empire is referenced in the Babel story and it was left to crumble under the design of God. The story also records the reason God created our linguistic formation, or our ability to use speech and for language to be living, that is always changing, in order to resist unification in our own name. Diversity is God’s design for humanity, embracing difference and language learning is healthy for us. All of history and reality is about God’s creating a people to be the children of God, a people of diversity, embracing difference, and sharing the earth.

     The invisible (clear as glass) city of Revelation is squared denoting its humanness. The metaphors abound in the description of the city, gates of pearl and streets of gold. The pearl begins as an irritating speck of dirt, much like the children of God. The trying of our faith is more precious than gold so the path we walk in the city of God is depicted as streets of gold. The embrace of humanity with our limits, with our need to measure and control is healed and embraced into the spiritual city of God. Humanity, flesh, is to be embraced into the Lord Jesus Christ to be qualified as spirit. The city of God is people living out the governance of God in a world without poverty, a world where chaos has been abolished and death forgotten.

Literacy and the Poor

       The enemy of poverty is education. Once a person is educated they possess something that cannot be taken away. The powers of social stratification have always used economics to keep people in ignorance. Education is a human right because education is a societal responsibility to be fulfilled in the life of every human being. Education is not ‘job training’ or assimilation into the existent powers of governance. Education is the power to think critically about reality and access the literature of humanity that records history and the laws that govern us along with philosophy, science, and other aspects of empowering knowledge.

       A literate, educated, person filled with the hope of God is an indomitable force and it doesn’t matter how much money they do or do not have. In the economy of God, education is an imperative to be provided to every person. Without a public school system, Jesus learned to read. It is the distraction of entertainment that increases the void of ignorance. Entertainment is for the affluent, celebrity is a cruel device that leaves undeveloped people, but reading produces prophets.

      A literate, educated, person possesses a sense of self that cannot be silenced or humiliated. This empowering sense of self is an equalizer that resists all forms of social stratification designed to exclude a person or a group of people from the flourishing of the earth. A literate educated person is empowered with courage and cannot be held in the grips of fear by legalized injustice.

The Violence of Poverty

     The sign of the poor is the interpretive lens for understanding the theology needed to heal the world. Theological need is subject to human need. Theology’s purpose is to serve the poor because the liberation of the poor is essential for the healing of the world. In order to create a world without social stratification, a world where sharing the earth and all its life giving resources is a guiding ethic and love for the poor is the call of God.   

     Poverty is an avoidable act of violence when it is the result of systems and institutions of power. Poverty can only be maintained by injustice. The presence of systemic poverty is war on humanity by humanity; it is madness, greed, complacency, godless, and intolerable for people of faith. The violence of nature we cannot entirely control but we can control our response. Poverty by any cause is an intolerable condition to be healed by everyone through sharing of our resources with the afflicted.

      The chasm faced by the rich man was of his own construction. It was a chasm of indifference, of calloused comfort unable to contend with the call of God in human reality to lift up the poor. His picture in hades is of a condition; his condition was self-consuming, he awoke in the afterlife as an incomplete human being. He still would not, or could not, weep for Lazarus. James warns of a form of misery that will come upon the rich. He does not explain what those miseries will be. Will it be the eternal call of God to love the poor man at rest in Abraham’s bosom?