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The Problem with the Poor


The spirit of the poor is often far removed from being 'poor in spirit'. When social workers realise this, disillusionment can easily follow.

Being poor in spirit means being content with little, and trying to live on less rather than trying to get more. If the poor had this attitude for long, even their material circumstances could improve. Gambling and stealing would cease, for starters, and they would soon have enough to share a little with others.

Most poor people in the West are drunks and druggies. But even in India where people can be working hard and still be poor, there is a tendency amongst the poor to grab greedily without thought for the long-term consequences. Fittings are broken off public toilets and sold for the metal in them, even though it means the people doing the vandalism don't have a place to go to the toilet afterwards. We can't even plant fruit trees on public land because fights develop over the food, which is never allowed to mature for fear that someone else will pick it if you don't take it now.

If the poor could become poor in spirit (and some are) they would learn to wait for personal gratification. It is this inability to look ahead that distinguishes so many poor people from the rest of society. It is often accom-panied by a lack of motivation, lack of productivity, and a feeling that the world owes them a living.

It's an ugly picture. It makes us want to teach them to be more like us - ambitious, hard-working, and careful with every cent we own.

We want them to see beyond the next meal. For even in health issues, they often suffer because of an unwillingness to take precautions, turn up for appointments, finish their course of antibiotics, change bandages regularly, or follow other helpful advice. Many have no interest in their health until the pain becomes unbearable. And often that's too late.

So we educate them and they learn to look ahead... to save money... to practice good hygiene... and even to study hard at school in the belief that years from now it will make their lives more productive if they listen to their teachers today. As a result, we make the poor rich... or at least a little richer than they were.

Is this what Jesus meant for us to do? Is it what he was getting at when he said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs"? (Matthew 5:3)

Not really. But it may be an intermediate step. We haven't finished our job until we've taught the poor to delay gratification, not just for a day or a year, but for a lifetime. The rich know how to sweat it out at medical school for a few years in order to be well-off for life. But they don't know how to forsake all that wealth in order to live forever and find spiritual happiness. That's what we eventually want to teach the poor who are not yet poor in spirit.

It's terrible to be trapped by circumstances (including your own laziness and selfishness) into a life of poverty. But it can be correspondingly liberating to be given the ability to rise up from this poverty and then choose to use this ability to help others instead. This is what we ultimately hope to give to the poor.

(See also Liberated Poverty, Part 2 (Clutter).)

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