REVERSAL OF FORTUNES
“He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).
If I tell you a woman called Madonna has a song with some controversial lyrics, you might think I’m talking about a famous exhibitionist who’s made herself millions as an entertainer. But that’s not the Madonna I have in mind. I’m talking about the real Madonna: Mary, the mother of Jesus. There’s a song of Mary which is far more radical than anything the pop star ever came up with. Some of the lyrics in Mary’s song are so shocking that missionaries have been instructed not to read it in public.
You might wonder how a song of Mary be so controversial. Well, here’s the situation. The angel Gabriel told Mary that even though she was a virgin, she would give birth to the Son of God, and Mary accepted the Lord’s plan for her. Not long after, Mary sang a song, which the Bible records in Luke 1. It begins like this:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he had been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name.
A few verses later, Mary says that the Lord “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
That’s the shocker. Because of these words, William Temple, who at the time was Archbishop of Canterbury, told missionaries in certain areas not to read Mary’s words in public. It was too radical. When you talk about a God who topples rulers and lifts up the humble, who satisfies the poor but sends the rich away empty, it can arouse controversy and persecution. People in power don’t like to hear things like that. But like it or not, that’s what Mary’s song says. God turns the world upside down. He brings about a complete reversal of fortunes.
Mary saw a glimpse of this in the fact that instead of choosing a rich, important woman to bear the Son of God, God chose a poor, humble nobody like her. And Mary knew the God of the ancient prophets. In Ezekiel 34, for example, God speaks of himself as a shepherd dealing with sheep, and he says,
I myself will tend my sheep… I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
The Lord then describes what the sheep have been doing. The strong ones not only eat more than their share of the grass, but they trample grass that rightfully belongs to other sheep. They not only drink more than their share of water, but they stir up mud and ruin the water of the others. The strong bully the weak, they push them around with their horns, and the weak don’t have a chance. The injustice and inequality keep getting worse. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
But all that is going to change, says God. He’s going to judge between one sheep and another. He’s going to rescue the weak and punish the strong. Through Ezekiel, God says, “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them and be their shepherd” (34:23). Centuries later, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that Jesus would be a king to sit on David’s throne (Luke 1:32), it meant that Jesus was the promised one, the shepherd who would rescue the poor and ruin the rich. So it was right in line with ancient prophecy for Mary to sing about a great reversal of fortunes. “He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).
Let’s look what the Bible says about the gap between rich and poor, and then we’ll see the difference Jesus makes.
The Bible describes a number of ways that the rich hurt the poor. One is by exploiting laborers. Many workers are at their employer’s mercy. They have to settle for whatever work they can get, so they end up with pitiful wages and no benefits. This cheap labor increases the profits of owners and stockholders, and it makes a lot of consumer goods cheaper for the buyer. The underpaid workers often do jobs most other people don’t want: they milk cows or pick fruit and vegetables or hack sugar cane or labor on a production line for next to nothing. They do very hard work for very low pay. And this keeps profits up and prices down for everybody else.
It becomes so ingrained in the system that we take it for granted. Employers see it as good business, and consumers figure they have a right to low prices at the supermarket. We don’t stop to think that our abundance might be coming at someone else’s expense. But in the book of James, God says:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you… You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. (James 5:1-5).
Exploiting workers to our own advantage–that’s one way the strong oppress the weak.
Another is form of exploitation is to keep expanding your holdings without regard for the impact on others. It may be a corporate raider taking over a company just to turn a quick profit, or a giant corporation using its clout to grow even bigger and wipe out smaller competitors, or a farmer buying up as much land as he can. Again, this is so common we think nothing of it. It’s got nothing to do with God–it’s just business! But the prophet Isaiah says:
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: “Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants” (Isaiah 5:8-9).
Another way the rich exploit the poor: charging excessive interest. The Bible says that a wicked man “lends at usury and takes excessive interest” (Ezekiel 18:13). And this doesn’t just apply to loan sharks. Many credit card companies seduce people into a “buy now, pay later” mentality, and then charge extremely high interest on any amount the person can’t pay off. Many businesses promote buying things on monthly payment plans, prompting people to buy stuff they can barely afford, with very high levels of interest concealed in the payment plan. Now, I’m not condemning every credit card or payment plan, and I’m not saying that people who go into debt aren’t responsible for their choices. But the fact remains that people with plenty of money and financial shrewdness are getting even richer at the expense of people who are often not very rich and not very knowledgeable when it comes to financial matters.
The burden of excessive interest exploits individuals, and it can drain entire nations. Many poor countries find themselves paying more in interest than they receive in foreign aid. Their currencies collapse, inflation runs wild, and their economies become chaos. I don’t have all the answers to the foreign debt crisis. It’s not just the fault of the lender nations. Often the debtor nations have been ruled by people who are corrupt, or incompetent, or both. But still, the rich nations had better beware of draining too much money from poor nations. Wealthy countries should heed God’s warning to the king of Babylon, who was enriching his nation at the expense of others.
Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on? Will not your debtors suddenly arise? Will they not wake up and make you tremble? Then you will become their victim. Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you (Habakkuk 2:6-8).
God isn’t saying such an upheaval is the right thing to do, but it’s inevitable if exploitation and inequality go on too long.
Another way the rich sometimes prosper at the expense of others concerns the environment. We saw earlier, in Ezekiel, how God describes the rich Israelites as sheep who not only eat and drink more than their fair share but also trample on others’ food and muddy their water. Surely this applies to anyone who is so concerned with maximum profits that they pay no attention to whether they’re polluting soil, water, and air. Surely this applies to the clear-cutting of vast rain forests and certain kinds of strip mining. In the haste to make money, resources vital for other people and for the rest of creation are spoiled, and God’s judgment is aroused.
These are some of the ways that the rich sometimes take advantage of the poor. The Bible condemns such things, but that’s not all it condemns. God says that even if your wealth doesn’t come from exploiting the poor, you’re still in the wrong if you use your money to live in luxury while other people are in desperate need.
A lot of Americans listen to Rush Limbaugh. He’s entertaining, and sometimes he’s right. For example, one of Rush’s favorite slogans is that economics is not a zero-sum game. He says that just because you’re getting richer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making someone else poorer, and he’s right about that. Sometimes wealth comes at other people’s expense, but not always. It’s possible to get ahead by working hard and saving carefully. It’s possible to produce wealth through an enterprise that expands the total economy and creates new opportunities, rather than simply taking from someone else. So economics isn’t always a zero-sum game.
But even if you believe Rush Limbaugh and you feel you got richer without making anyone else poorer, does that mean you’re free to spend whatever you please on yourself, to live in luxury and and ignore the poor? Here’s a story Jesus tells in Luke 16:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say the rich man exploited Lazarus in any way. He probably made his money fair and square. He didn’t exploit Lazarus; he just ignored him.
The time came [says Jesus] when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:19-31)
What a complete reversal of fortunes! It’s good news for desperate people who hungrily and humbly depend on the Lord, but it’s bad news for self-serving, self-sufficient, self-satisfied fat cats. They don’t listen to the prophets, and even when a man rises from the dead, as Jesus did, they ignore his message. They don’t see their need for God, and they don’t see any need to bridge the huge chasm between rich and poor. Then suddenly they find that the chasm can no longer be crossed, and they’re on the wrong side of it.
If Jesus’ message of a great reversal is true–and it is–then it’s fatal to accept a status quo which give us many advantages and isolates the disadvantaged. But for those of us who have it pretty good, it’s not easy to change. Once we’re wealthy and secure, we don’t want to risk our security or give up any luxuries to help others. It’s too bad if others are destitute, but that’s not our problem. We’ve got to look out for ourselves.
When it comes to international politics, strong nations try to shape trade agreements and immigration policies to maximize their own advantage. And on the more local scene, the planning of neighborhoods and housing is based on econonomic segregation. Within suburban housing developments, the homes are all built to fit a rather narrow price range. The city planners and developers don’t mix homes of all different sizes and prices in the same subdivision. A person with a splendid house doesn’t want a bunch of humbler houses next door. It might hurt the property value of his expensive house. It’s easier to love your neighbor if he has the kind of home that boosts your own property values. So the rich live in one subdivsion, the middle income folks in another, and the poor in another. Everything is structured to keep the various income groups separate.
These income-segregated neighborhoods maintain the advantage of rich over poor, and increase it. The schools are better in rich areas, the streets are better, the hospitals are better, law enforcement is better, and when there are disputes, the rich have the best lawyers. Those of us who have all these advantages would rather not close the gap between rich and poor, and we certainly don’t want a reversal of fortunes like the one Mary sang about. We’d rather not hear about a God who satisfies the hungry but sends the rich away empty.
But like it or not, in Jesus Christ that reversal of fortunes is a fact. In Luke 6 Jesus tells his disciples:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets (Luke 6:20-26).
The poor, the hungry, the sad, and the unpopular are blessed, while those who are rich, well fed, happy, and popular, face a bleak future.
Why is this? Why is God’s kingdom good for the poor but not for the rich? Well, for one thing, before you can enter God’s kingdom, before you can honor God as the supreme Lord and put your faith in him, you first need to give up on your own resources and humbly depend on God. And that’s pretty hard to do when you’re proud of being a self-made success.
Another reason the rich often miss out on God’s kingdom is that, in order to be in tune with God’s mercy and love, you need to love your neighbor as yourself, and so you need to hate inequalities that bring luxury to some and destitution to others. That’s not easy if you’re rich. You like the status quo. The inequalities are to your advantage.
When you live in a splendid house in a rich neighborhood in a prosperous country, everything seems to be in your favor. It’s easy to assume that God favors you and that if other people are suffering, well, that’s their problem. It’s easy to be complacent about your need for God’s forgiveness and help, and to be calloused to the needs of those less fortunate. But according to Jesus, if that’s your attitude, you’re placing yourself under the judgment of a God who reverses fortunes. Only an encounter with Christ can reverse the direction of your life before it’s too late.
And it can happen. It’s hard, but it can happen. Jesus said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” but then he added, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:25,27).
Luke 19 tells about a man named Zaccheus, a short little fellow with loads of money, a lot of it from cheating others. But when Zaccheus met Jesus, he was completely changed. He said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” And Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9).
Jesus forgave Zaccheus his sinful past. Zaccheus stopped exploiting others, and what’s more, he realized he had a lot more money than he needed, and he decided to give a big share of it to the poor, especially to those he had ripped off. When Zaccheus turned to Christ, he accepted a voluntary reversal of fortunes. He became poor in spirit by repenting of his past ways, and he also became poorer financially by deciding to be generous. And in this voluntary reversal of fortunes, he escaped the fate of the wicked and entered the kingdom of God.
Listen again to Mary’s song: “He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). That’s good news if you’re poor and desperate. As the book of James says, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5)
This doesn’t mean that you’re automatically right with God just because you’re poor. The poor, like everyone else, need to repent of their failures and sins and trust in Christ. But it’s fact that, generally speaking, when you’re poor, you’re in a good position to see how much you need God, to depend on him to forgive your sins, reverse your fortunes, and give you eternal life in Christ.
And for those who are richer than others–and this includes most of us: if we humble ourselves before God and put our faith in Christ, and if by God’s grace we love others and try to bridge the gap between rich and poor, then we too can know the blessings that come to the poor in spirit. God’s Word says,
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth … but to put their hope in God… Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Lord Jesus, you gave up heaven’s riches to bridge the gap between us and God, and to break down the barriers between rich and poor. And so we pray that you will humble us to see our spiritual poverty and then lift us up into the joy and the new priorities of your Kingdom. Fill us with love for you and for others, and give us wisdom in our complex society to recognize and resist evil and inequality wherever it exists. And we pray, Lord Jesus, that you will come again soon and make all things new. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.