For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, God reminds the people of Israel that “the poor will never cease out of the land” -- a statement that our Lord himself echoes in Matthew’s Gospel when he tells his disciples that “you always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11). This was something that I was never allowed to forget about at my previous parish in Champaign, Illinois. The church was something like a hub for the homeless population in Champaign -- which was quite significant -- and the church grounds served as a reliable place for them to set up makeshift dwellings for themselves at night. It was a regular part of my routine to be greeted at the church door by some individual who was still asleep on a pallet of cardboard boxes and I would gently wake them to be able to get in and start my day. We also had a long-standing ministry of handing out sack lunches from the church office every weekday morning to the homeless and the working poor -- no questions asked. All of this struck me as exactly what a church should look like.
But “the poor will never cease out of the land” and “you always have the poor with you.” I think it’s vital that we understand that these are lamentations. They point to how the stubborn persistence of poverty in our world is a mark of its brokenness, a sign of the Fall, a measure of how far things are from the way things should be. Poverty was not built into the world at creation, after all; humanity’s original home in the Garden of Eden was defined by abundance. “Insufficiency is not what God finally intends for us,” as one writer comments, for “Nature’s provision is meant to reach those for whom God intends it, that is, those who need it” . The implication, therefore, is that the failure of nature’s provision to reach those who need it is not the fault of creation itself, but of the systems by which people manage that provision. Poverty is an artificial problem: it is an obstruction that sinful human societies install in the allocation of resources that produces the scourge of poverty. Far from being a tacit acceptance of poverty as “just the way things are” -- and therefore as something that we’re exempted from worrying about -- Scripture’s reminders that the poor will always be with us is a judgment. They are an indictment on our neglect of the poor and our willful and collective failure to steward the world according to God’s intent.
But beyond even the immediate, material deprivations that afflict the poor, the main reason why poverty stands as a sign of the Fall is that it is a sign of death; it is a mark of the curse of mortality. Again, this relationship between poverty and death is pretty straightforward in a certain sense: we all know that the poor are disproportionately vulnerable to illness, malnutrition, untimely death, etc. But since Christians understand mortality itself to be a kind of loss -- as human beings only fell under the dominion of death as a consequence of sin -- death represents for us a kind of poverty. We are mortal because our lack of immortality. So death is the ultimate deprivation; it is the original poverty from which all other poverty descends. And this is why Christ’s mission to overthrow the power of death necessarily entails a mission to overthrow the power of poverty as well.
We can see this just by considering our Scripture readings appointed for this morning as a group. To return to our reading from Deuteronomy, note that the presence of the poor in the land imposes an obligation on the people of Israel that “you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Remember that the “land” here is the Promised Land -- the land of the covenant -- and thus it represents both the original promises of creation and the future promise of redemption. And for the Israelites, each and every act by which they supplied the needs of the poor made the land look a little bit more like what it was supposed to be. These commandments to give the poor what they need pointed to something beyond the present state of things. They were acts of hope.
Now, what Christians hope for above all else is everlasting life, which is simply the fellowship with God. But what stands between us and everlasting life is the obstacle of death, and so every act of Christian hope is an act that points beyond death, beyond the present state of things. And this is precisely the kind of hope that Jairus has in our Gospel reading. He comes to Jesus and falls at his feet, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” For Jairus, there is something about Jesus that suggests that death does not have the last word. And so he acts on this hope and begs Jesus rescue his daughter from the threat of death.
But “while he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” Apparently, these people don’t share the hope that Jairus has, nor do those who laugh at Jesus later on at the house when he tells them that “the child is not dead but sleeping.” Death for them does have the last word. Death is just the way things are. So why trouble the Teacher any further?
“But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’”
I said earlier that Christ’s mission in the world was to overcome the tyranny of death which held the world in bondage -- and, in a way, we can see him fulfilling that mission in raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. This miracle is like a preview of his own resurrection from the dead that is to come. And this all might all sound pretty straightforward, standard-issue Christian stuff. But what might be less apparent at first is that Christ’s mission to overcome death necessarily entails the mission to overcome the effects of death as well -- effects like that of poverty. The way the Lectionary grouped our readings together suggests as much. Jesus opens his hand to Jairus’ daughter in order to give her life again, which mirrors the commandment from Deuteronomy that the people were to open wide their hands to the poor. The gift of life -- whether of actual life given from the hand of Jesus or of the means of life given from the hand of the almsgiver -- is what ultimately overcomes both the power of death and all its effects.
Finally, though, the Incarnation itself is Christ’s humble descent into poverty. Not only was he materially poor -- with “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) -- his very entrance into the world as a human being was itself an infinite condecension when compared to the courts of heaven. As St. Paul says in our Epistle today, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” And elsewhere in Philippians, that “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). Human life was an experience of poverty for the Son of God. We know something of the mystery of his victory over death simply by meditating on his poverty -- his descent into the world as a human being was already a foretaste of his descent into the tomb.
But as Herbert McCabe puts it so cleverly, “the success story for Christians is from riches to rags” , for the only way to begin imitating the example of our Lord is to descend with him into the poverty of obedience and sacrifice. And yet, for Christians, every descent is followed by an ascent. He became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. Not rich with the riches of wealth, of course, but rich with the abundance of the divine life. The only path to resurrection and newness of life is through death, specifically the death of Christ. Jairus believed this, which is why be fell at the feet of Jesus, the only one who had the power to bring his daughter back to life. His belief united him to the mission of Christ; it made him a recipient of the gift of Christ’s victory.
But while death has lost its sting for those who are in Christ, it still remains ahead of us all, just as it remains ahead of Christ himself at this point in the Gospels. Christ vanquishes death not by taking it away altogether, but by transfiguring it into the very means by which this mortal human race can share in the life of God by resurrection. Likewise, while poverty still afflicts the vast majority of people on earth, it too has been transfigured. Like the Cross, it too can be taken up as a means of overcoming the power of death. Giving freely to the poor not only gives them what they justly deserve and loosens poverty’s grip on the world, it also induces some degree of poverty in the giver as well. Giving to the poor is one way in which we prove that our love is genuine, to quote St. Paul again. For by descending into poverty, even if ever so slightly, we follow the way already paved by Jesus Christ. Giving to the poor is thus an act of hope; an act of hope that looks beyond poverty to the riches of Christ; and like Jairus, looks beyond death to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
To conclude by quoting our Gradual Verse again:
Who is like unto the Lord our God, that hath his dwelling so high, and yet humbleth himself to the things that are in heav’n and earth. He taketh up the simple out of the dust, and lifteth the poor out of the mire.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Christopher A. Franks. He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ in Aquinas’s Economic Teachings, 166-167.
 Herbert McCabe. God, Christ and Us, 54.