For more than six years I worked in a relief and development organisation. My job was to help Christians to understand poverty and injustice issues. My sense is that Australian Christians are sincere about their faith. They have experienced the amazing grace of God, and they want to respond to his love by showing compassion to the poor. But I find it hard to explain to them what it means to be poor. It is because to some degree poverty has to be experienced. Australia is such an affluent country that it is not easy for middle or high income earners to understand poverty.
I was born in a relatively poor urban neighbourhood in Asia. As achild I had to work to earn money so that we could have enough to make ends meet. Everyone in the family worked long hours in order to survive. We didn’t have a bedroom and the whole family slept in one bed. I find that people can understand these facts intellectually. But most don’t understand the anxiety and fear that are associated with these living conditions.
Working long hours for the sake of survival is not only tiring but also emotionally draining. When children have to work they don’t have time to play with their friends, and are deprived of a normal childhood experience. When a teenage girl has no bedroom she doesn’t have any privacy. Then there is the constant fear that the whole family will go further into the downward spiral of poverty. Indeed life in that situation is very stressful. Depression, mental illness and family breakdowns are all too common. I can say from my own experience that it was a life that I would rather forget, for it brings back horrifying memories.
Paul’s vision for the Christ-Community
For years I sought to find out how I could help people see the effects of poverty. I have come to realise that the answer lies in recognising the amazing power of what God can do in us when we share our lives with the poor and marginalised. Indeed, the Bible provides us with a clear picture of what it means to be people of God. Romans 12:9-17 is a good example.
In this passage Paul shows us his vision for the house churches in ancient Rome. To understand this passage we need to first take a look at what life was like for the Christians there. The Roman society was strongly hierarchical. People’s social status determined their identity, place in the society, and their prospect of life. Within such a social system, economic exploitation and social oppression were common. The vast majority of Rome’s inhabitants were non-elites. Slaves consisted of around 25-40 per cent of the population. Children of slaves and female slaves were often subject to sexual abuse. Many residents were war-captives or their descendants.
It was also a multicultural society, with many Greeks, Jews and Africans, in addition to local Romans. Homeless people were not uncommon and many others lived in crowded apartment blocks or even slums. Indeed Bruce Longenecker, a respected New Testament scholar, estimates that roughly 65 per cent of Christians in Paul’s churches lived at or below subsistence level, and 25 per cent with only minimal economic resources. Life in Rome was difficult for most people.
It is to Christians in this society that Paul outlines his vision for the house churches in his letter. Romans 12:9-17 speaks of some remarkable characteristics of a Jesus-community. It is a love-filled fellowship where people share life together. They love without pretence (12:9). They rejoice and cry together (12:15). There is profound healing power when a community shares their joy and sorrow in sincere love. They welcome strangers into their homes (12:13; CEB), which is immensely life-giving for a city with lonely people needing shelter and love.
It is also a life-transforming community, where people are honoured regardless of their social standing. They show honour to one another (12:10). They consider everyone as equal, and associate with people who have no status (12:16; CEB). This is most countercultural – and at the same time life-transforming – in an intensely hierarchical society where slaves are not honoured and unskilled workers are despised. Thus Paul envisages a community that practises status-reversal and hence redefines people’s identity according to their intrinsic value in Christ.
Modern and ancient perspectives
Reading this passage from our perspective in Australia can be misleading, because the majority of us are not poor. Many of us have sufficient resources (in terms of income, skill set and intellectual ability) to flourish in life. The reverse was true for Paul’s audience. Those with enough resources were the minority. Often we don’t have to spend time with the poor. But it was highly likely that in every house church in Rome there were slaves and unskilled workers, and beggars would probably be a familiar sight in Rome.
For us, showing honour to people living in poverty would mean something like not looking down on those living in the slums in Asia or Africa. To put into practice “crying with them” would be to give financially, like sponsoring a child through a Christian organisation. But for Paul’s audience it would be totally different. If they were to love without pretence, those with better financial resources would find themselves sharing their wealth sacrificially with the community. If they want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, they would be compelled to help someone on the verge of selling himself/herself into slavery. For them, to associate with people with no status meant to eat with them, allow their children to play with them, and share their menial tasks whenever they gathered together.
What does a Jesus-community look like in Melbourne?
What would this Jesus-community look like in Australia? I live in a suburb in Melbourne about 20km east of the CBD. But God led me to a little inner-city Christian community some years ago. It is there that I have come to realise that a measure of Paul’s vision can be realised in Australia.
I have been immensely blessed by people whose circumstances are exceedingly difficult. I have met asylum seekers who have spent months or years in detention centres. Their stories break my heart. I have come to know refugees who were persecuted because of their Christian faith. But their determination to overcome obstacles is amazing. I have heard stories of people living with a disability when they are bullied at work or treated unjustly by the society at large. But I have come to understand that they are people full of dignity. Their tenacity is inspiring. Their ability to look to God in the worst of times is extraordinary.
I now know that Paul’s command to honour one another is a mutually enriching experience for everyone. Both the rich and the poor benefit from it. Those at the lower end of the social ladder receive the rare honour that they would not otherwise get. But it is in honouring others that those at the upper end of the social hierarchy learn that indeed everyone deserves their respect. The faith and resilience of the marginalised and disadvantaged are profound.
In fact, there is no such a thing as the rich helping
the poor in the Christian community that we are part of. It is true that the well-to-do often assist others financially in private. But we all know that this community is about mutual giving, for the haves and have-nots are equally generous.
Some years ago we provided accommodation for about a dozen asylum seekers. These folks were treated as second-class residents in Australia, for they held a temporary visa that did not allow them to work (even though they wanted to) and had no idea whether or when their application for permanent residency would be accepted. They did not have their families with them and would not know when they would be reunited with their loved ones. Then Victoria experienced the worst bush fire in memory a few years ago. On hearing this, these socially disadvantaged and financially poor people showed us their exceptional generosity. They ran a fund-raising dinner to support our church’s effort to assist the victims of the bush fire. Those who suffer are often the ones who love most.
My experience in our community has convinced me that sharing lives with the poor and marginalised will help us come to a better understanding of the Scripture and God’s heart. Paul’s vision is that we will associate with the lowly – the outcast, the poor and needy (Romans 12:16). It is not about the rich reaching down to the poor. Instead, it is about learning from them and realising the grace of God that has been poured out into their lives. It is about crying with them and standing in solidarity with them.
Paul’s mission and ours
I understand that most of us, for valid reasons, will not relocate to a low socioeconomic area. But as I speak with Christians across Melbourne I have found that there are many churches and community groups that participate in serving the poor and disadvantaged. It is not hard to find ways to get involved. The more we enter into their stories, the more our own lives will be transformed.
Where did Paul get his vision of the church from? I suspect that he has been inspired by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. In his letters Paul repeatedly talks about the grace of God that has been accomplished through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, and that we are to participate in his life, death and resurrection in every way. I believe that Paul reckons that his mission is to proclaim Christ and form Christ-centred, love-filled and life-transforming communities everywhere in the Roman Empire, for that is God’s way of turning the world upside-down.
May our lives be so transformed by the life-giving Gospel that we will give our lives totally to participating in God’s community-forming project.