Introduction: Preaching about Poverty and Hunger

Good News for the Hungry and the Full

By Raymond Bailey

Jesus’ sermon set the tone for his entire ministry. His choice of text indicated something about his own sense of mission and about the continuity between the old and new covenants. Luke records Jesus’ return from the desert and a personal experience of hunger as a prelude to the sermon at Nazareth. The physician tells us that Jesus, having faced the illusions of, Satan about power in the world, returned “in the power of the Spirit.” His example instructs us about preparing to preach in our own Nazareth.

We make much of the poverty of Jesus (born in a stable, and so on), but his was most likely a middle-class family. They owned an animal, Joseph was a craftsman, and they took Jesus to Jerusalem and the temple for the rite of passage to adulthood. More telling than his personal poverty is his willingness to identify with the poor. (1)

Jesus did not shy away from lepers, outcasts, the sick, or the hungry. He did not just look on their suffering; he had “compassion,” he suffered with them. It is worth noting that he went immediately from the baptism of John (identification with sinners) into the wilderness where he experienced loneliness, hunger, and spiritual temptation, all common to the lot of the poor.

The sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth was good news for the poor. (Lk. 4:18) What was it in the sermon that so incensed his neighbors? Jesus applied this text of grace to those outside Israel. His illustrations included examples in Sidon and Syria, countries and peoples despised by Israelites.

How like our own day this is! There are growing numbers of United States citizens, most of whom claim to be followers of Jesus, who want to deny the most basic benefits tainted as “welfare” to those born in other nations whom they view, as the Jews did Gentiles, as intruders. The anti-immigrant movement in the United States manifests the spirit of those who drove Jesus from his home “church” and his hometown.

Study after study demonstrates a willingness of people to help those who are most like them. The US Congress, with overwhelming public approval, moves rapidly to help middle and upper-class victims of floods, tornadoes, and other disasters. Support comes from those most critical of helping the victims of economic and social cycles. Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor and release of the captives. Too many today want to just help “our own kind.”

The call to feed the hungry is also good news to the rich. Jesus often warned of the curse of greed and wealth. The rich man and Lazarus, the postscript to the account of the rich young ruler, the judgment scene in Matthew 25, and the parable of the farmer who wasted his life building new barns are just a few of Jesus’ warnings.

Gordon Cosby says that God has called him to relieve the wealthy of the burden of their money. Such ideas are not original with contemporary reformers. Selfishness and indifference to the poor were popular themes in the writings of the early leaders of the church. St. Basil wrote:

Aren’t you a miser, a plunderer, when you use for your own benefit something which has been given to you to be administered?…The bread which you keep for yourself although you do not need it belongs to the hungry…You commit as many injustices as there are people with whom you avoid sharing what you have. (2)

John Calvin was not restrained in his attack on the grain combine of his day; he called them “murderers, savage beasts, biting and eating the poor, sucking in their blood.” He warned those in his congregation that “those who have riches, whether inherited or won by their own industry and labour, are to remember that what is left over is not meant for intemperance or luxury, but for relieving the needs of the brethren.”(3)

Money that is given to feed hungry people is a twofold blessing, for giver and receiver are equally blessed. The conscientious pastor will address the needs of folks to give as much or more than the physical needs of the impoverished.
The original offerings in the church were to feed the hungry. This was an extension of the best of Jewish heritage with its emphasis on forgiveness of debts, land redistribution and grain left in the fields for the poor. Providing for those in need was a jubilee experience. The offerings received in early Christian worship were to care for the poor. Paul’s fund drives for impoverished Christians are well documented in the correspondence to the Corinthians. Christian tradition provides ample evidence of philanthropy in the mission of God’s people.

Above I alluded to the popular attitude, “Let’s take care of our own” or “Charity begins at home.” Most of our giving is more ego-centered than that. The great majority of religious giving in this country is for the purpose of sustaining institutions. We, like the man Jesus told about in Luke 12, tear down our spiritual barns and build bigger ones. The support of staffs who serve us and programs that serve us is the primary purpose of revenue growth in American, Christian churches.
Musical instruments are purchased sometimes for use once a year or less. When preaching sacrifice on behalf of the hungry, be prepared to experience the rejection Jesus experienced when one went away because he had great riches. (Mk. 10:17-31; Matt. 19:16-20:16; Lk. 18:18-30) Before preaching on social issues, the preacher should examine his or her role in creating or encouraging such attitudes.
The painful question is how may sermons on social themes be diluted by personal and institutional lifestyles. Hosea noted that social conditions often reflect a situation where it is “like people, like priest” (Hosea 4:9). Grand words about the obligation of Christians to feed the hungry will be meaningless unless supported by a lifestyle of respect and concern for those in need.

Preaching on particular issues or for special occasions should reflect something of a systematic personal theology. The interpretation of isolated texts should be informed by one’s understanding of God and the overall biblical message. I would suggest three aspects of theology particularly relevant to the subject of hunger and Christian responsibility: stewardship, anthropology, and justice/righteousness.

We sing “this is my father’s (mother’s) world.” Do we believe it? If we do believe it, what difference does it make in our decisions about the use of natural and human resources? A stated religious proposition that is not a guiding principle for living is blasphemy. God created the world and gave humanity the privilege and responsibility for it. The world has been entrusted to us, and we are accountable for how we treat it.

The term “steward” is found in only two places in the gospels. (Lk. 12:41-48 and Lk. 16:1-13) In both instances it is a part of a story of unfaithfulness and judgment. As private managers and public magistrates, stewards were persons charged with the control of property and the care of persons. Stewards were not just to observe passively their domains, they were to develop them. The fact is that God gave to humankind “dominion” (Gen. 1:26). The environment is to be managed in such a way as to serve God’s purpose in creation.

The problem of hunger is one of political and economic circumstances—circumstances over which humans exercise control. Natural resources are not just for our comfort and enjoyment but for our development. Never has a famine covered the whole earth. The problem is one of distribution. These are theological as well as social realities to which there is usually great resistance. The experts tell us that fifty percent of the world’s wealth is controlled by six percent of the world’s population, those dwelling in the United States.

Begin with the Bible and God’s mandate of stewardship, and then use demographic data available through such publications as Seeds to give evidence of our sins of commission and omission.

Nelson Mandela has observed that “our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” It may not be what we do with our weakness but what we fail to do with our power that embarrasses us the most when we stand before God. Luke said that Jesus came in the power of the Spirit. Christian theology acknowledges that God has given us responsibility for God’s world and the power to do the job.

Human beings are a part of God’s creation. Certainly we should care for the environment, but only women and men are said to be created in God’s own image. (Gen. 1:27) The scriptures teach that all people share a common divine heritage. The value of human life is the highest value in God’s economy. The psalmist depicts the grandeur of God climaxed in the creature made “a little less than God…with glory and honor…with dominion over the works of thy hands.” (Ps. 8:5-6)

The care of persons is the primary task of the church. Time and again the Bible makes it clear that such care includes bodily needs. (see Isaiah 58:6-12; Amos 4:1, 5:11-12; Matt. 25:31-46; James 1:27, 2:15-16) “Who is my neighbor?” was a favorite question of the rich and middle-class of Jesus’ day and is repeated in many forms today by the same classes, perhaps for the same reasons.

Theology is about the existence, meaning, and presence of God. As Jon Sobrino says,

Theology becomes responsible in that it responds to the real world. Theology becomes practical because its motivating concern is not pure thought nor even pure truth but rather the building of the Kingdom of God and of a church that will be at the service of this kingdom.(4)

Justice is the end of God’s presence in the world. Jesus as God among us called for social transformation of the most radical kind. The course of history was retargeted according to the original purpose of God in creation. Sobrino contends that justice is a form of love and as such is essential to the gospel message. “Justice takes seriously the primordial fact of the created world in its given form…..”(5)

The interruption and distortion of creation produced injustice. Injustice is the result of sin, of a world and time out of joint. Justice in simplest terms is right relationship; all things and persons in right relationship to God. Paul’s natural theology in Romans most clearly states the situation. Chapters One and Two reflect on how the world became a realm of injustice.

The whole system is being reordered. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21) The world remains out of joint until all of God’s children are filled with the bounty of God’s world.

Let us now turn to some practical suggestions for preaching about hunger. Subjects like hunger, violence, war, and peace are too often reserved for special occasions. Certainly it is good to have special emphasis Sundays in which appeals for food, money, or political action can be the singular focus. This is not enough, however, for a problem of such magnitude. The need and the opportunity for ministry should be kept before the church.

I would like to propose a philosophy of campaign preaching. Do not try to do it all in one sermon. Plan a series that will lay a foundation and build upon it. False notions have to be challenged, problems exposed, solutions offered and tested, and hopefully consensus for action established.

A pastor might begin with a sermon on creation, follow with one on the uniqueness of humanity, deal with the fall, then Cain and Abel and separation, etc., and end up with the responsibilities we have to one another as a part of a single global family.

Sermons on different topics may offer opportunity for subpoints on injustice, poverty or hunger, or illustrations that raise consciousness of human suffering. An evangelical sermon might well note that God is interested in the redemption and healing of the whole person.

Congregations should not be allowed to drop a few extra bucks in the plate on a special Sunday or suffer a meal of rice and beans and then think, “Well, that’s over for another year.” Critical topics should be kept before them. Follow the biblical model and note the frequency with which obligation to the poor recurs.

Particular sermons should have particular behavior goals. The preacher should ask, “What is it that I want to happen as a result of this sermon?” It is easier to describe problems than it is to prescribe solutions. Too many sermons spend ninety-five percent of the preaching time on picturing the problem and then conclude with a weak appeal for concern and prayer.

The great frustration which many feel listening to sermons on social problems is the absence of hope or a plan of action for resolution. People may leave a hunger emphasis service feeling guilty, sad, and hopeless, thinking “so what?” An effective sermon on hunger will offer concrete suggestions for action. The people want to hear how they can make a difference.

A proven technique for organizing persuasive sermons is that called the Monroe Motivated Sequence. Monroe offered a five-step formula:

  1. the Attention Step,
  2. the Need Step,
  3. the Satisfaction Step,
  4. the Visualization Step, and
  5. the Action Step.(6)

This formula is audience-centered. The audience must be made aware of the problem and how it affects them. They then must be told how they can do something about it and helped to visualize themselves actually being a part of the solution.

Illustrations are the key to effective preaching on any subject. They help to link the familiar with the unfamiliar, to grasp the concrete, and to identify with actors in a particular scene of the human drama. Illustrations should be believable, have an air of the familiar, and reflect the life experience and values of the listeners.

Good illustrations have strong sensory appeal. Let the congregation see, hear, taste, and touch what the hungry person experiences. The greatest impact of an illustration is most likely in proportion to the ability of the audience to identify. Empathy is a stronger appeal than sympathy. Reduce cosmic evil to everyday life experience. Take the staggering statistics of the effects of starvation and compare it to the headlines of today’s newscast.

The whole nation was appropriately shocked, outraged, and filled with sorrow at the deaths of 235 persons in a recent plane disaster. Compare that figure to a day’s kill because of indifference to starving children—and that is something we can do something about.

Frederick Buechner recently addressed the challenge we face:

Hunger in the literal sense is unknown to you and me. In a world where thousands starve to death every day, we live surrounded by plenty. We watch with full bellies the TV footage of Third World children with their bellies swollen, their legs and arms like sticks, the eyes vacant in their ancient faces, and may God have mercy on us as a nation, as a civilization, as whatever it means to call us Christendom, if we do not find some way to wipe their hunger from the face of the earth.(7)

Let us join our voices with the prophets and Jesus in crying out against injustice and for the care of persons.

Raymond Bailey, who taught homiletics in Louisville, Kentucky, for 16 years, is now a pastor in Waco, Texas. He says he would sometimes show the last five minutes of the movie Romero to his preaching students and tell them, “This is what happens when you preach the gospel.” This article has been printed in Sacred Seasons, Hunger Emphasis 1998, and also in Developing a Heart for the Hungry: A Hunger Primer for Beginning Churches, a resource packet produced for Seeds of Hope in 2005.

1. See Matthew L Lamb, Solidarity with Victims; New York: Crossroad, 1982.
2. Quoted in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, p. 79.
3. Ibid.
4. Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor; Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984, p. 4.
5. Ibid, p. 50.
6. Alan H. Monroe and Douglas Ehniger, Principles and Types of Speech, 6th edition; Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foreman and Company, 1967, pp. 264-289.
7. Frederick Buechner, “The News of the Day,” The Christian Century, July 17-24, Vol. 113, No. 22, p. 721.