Breaking The Cycle

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Exodus 6:2-13; 7:1-6, Revelation 15:1-8, Matthew 18:1-14


The “cycle of poverty” describes how the experience of poverty, usually over several generations, alters people’s perceptions and behaviors such that they can not find a way to escape it. Culture, education, and economics can also work against people caught in the cycle. Some exceptional people manage to break out, but more often people need the grace of intervention. Intervention vs. charity is sometimes described as “a hand up instead of a handout.” It’s a catchy saying, but implies people are more in control of their circumstances than they actually are.

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. Some insist we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and failing to do so illustrates a lack of will and/or character. However, the Book of Exodus seems to sympathize with the damage inflicted by such a cycle.

When God sent Moses to tell the captive people of Israel they would soon be set free, “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” Was God’s next step to lecture the Israelites on their character and willpower? No. It was to send Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, where they could makes foundational changes on a systemic level.

“But those were slaves, not the poor,” we might argue.

The distinction between slavery and poverty is not as sharp as we might like it to be. The hard truth is, the wealthy have greater freedoms – including the freedom to make good economic decisions, hire good legal representation, etc. – than the poor have. We can stereotype welfare queens and panhandlers, but does anyone believe they weren’t also once children with dreams to be doctors or artists or astronauts? Dreams don’t die, they are suffocated by injustice.

Jesus declared “Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks” placed before children. He was speaking of spiritual stumbling blocks, but poverty and its associated injustices affect both the physical and spiritual well-being of children. He told the story of a shepherd seeking one lost sheep out of a hundred; how would he feel about the one billion left behind to poverty (fifteen million of them in the United States)?  What we do about poverty and how we think about the poor matters to God.

None of us can solve poverty, but we can change how we understand it and how we approach it. We are all accountable for our choices, but we are all also accountable for helping make sure those choices are available to everyone.

Comfort: Needing help does not make you weak or sinful.

Challenge: When you are tempted to blame people for their circumstances, remember some of the bad decisions you’ve struggled to overcome.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to be generous and wise, to meet needs that will change people’s lives. Amen.

Discussion: When have you asked for help? If you’ve needed help but not asked for it, how did you feel about getting it – or not getting it?

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