How Does God Hear the Poor?

“See and be glad, you who have nothing! You who seek God, take heart! For YHWH hears the poor; God has not neglected those who are captives” (Ps. 69:32-33).

This is a refrain throughout the psalms — that no matter what injustice is afoot right now, God’s ear is attuned to those who are left out of a sharing in the abundance of life. Other psalms offer praise to God for the experience of plenty, for enough food and shelter and security from war; but threading throughout the psalms is the recognition that we sometimes pray amid poverty.

Interestingly, there almost always seems to be a sense in the psalms (unlike the proverbs) that poverty is not one’s own fault, but is instead something brought about by exploitation, exile, or the corruption of the wealthy. What’s visible to the eyes of the psalmist is not only the weight of need and alienation felt by the poor as individuals, but the larger social framing that seems immovable, keeping the poor from finding a basic flourishing. What’s at stake is not only a need for charity, but a sense that God’s covenant itself cannot forever sustain corruption and an imbalance of power that leaves a few wealthy and many without the ready means of survival.

It is easy to ask what exactly it means for the psalmists to repeatedly affirm that God hears the poor, while they are yet poor.

One meaning is simply that the corrupt are mortal: “A little while longer, and the violent will be no more” (Ps. 37:10a).

Another meaning is eschatological: God will transform the world itself so that “the gentle will inherit the land, and will enjoy abundant peace” (37:11); the “power of the corrupt will be broken; but YHWH champions the just” (37:17).

One dimension of this eschatological vision applies now and always, though — even before the unjustly powerful die, even before the reign of God comes forth in its fullness. To say that God hears the poor is to say that the most dynamic, hidden, yet ever-present reality will not tolerate the acceptance of poverty or injustice as normal. Resignation is not a feature of God’s covenant with Israel, the church, or the world. To say that God hears the poor is to say that the Holy Spirit will not let any of us be at ease accepting lies, accommodating corruption, or justifying a lack of access to food, shelter, water, and security.

This kind of divine hearing may not immediately end the suffering of the poor among us, but it does absolutely refuse to silence the voice of the poor.

None of us, however poor or rich ourselves, can satisfy the needs of all. Nor can any of us as individuals give our energy to every effort to transform public policies in the direction of social justice. It is mightily easy to feel discouraged, to feel we are never doing enough — those of us with enough resources at the moment to not be scrambling to meet today’s basic material needs. But this morning in lectio about verses about God hearing the poor, I was reminded that our imperfect, partial efforts to address our own or others’ poverty can and must flow out of an awareness of what the world is like grounded in a vision blessed and carried by God, a vision of a world that never sanctifies injustice of poverty.

Of course it’s not enough just to hold this vision in our heart’s eye without acting on it in some way. But if God’s timing in transforming the world is not immediate, neither should we expect to be instant God’s ongoing conversion of our own lives towards an ever-modulating way of living out a vision of the Kingdom of God. It’s good for us to be stalked by a sense of God’s own wrath and passion against injustice, but also to remember that this dissatisfaction is itself the seed of how God hears the poor.

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