The Kingdom of Heaven Belongs to Such as These

What do you imagine when you think of heaven? If you’re like most people, you think of a shining city, all decked out in gold and jewels and such. There’s probably some wispy clouds and the throne from Revelation. But let’s be honest – if your heavenly vision is populated, it’s got angels and harps and pretty people with good hair and bright smiles. Odds are, your vision of heaven hasn’t got a single homeless person in sight.

And yet that’s not how Jesus describes it at all.  In Luke he says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Later in the same gospel, he describes the kingdom of God in a parable:

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is filled with the undesirables of the world; the sick, the poor, the crippled, and the lame are among its citizens, are even given pride of place. These are the ones Christ aches for, the ones he came for, the ones he died for. True, he died for you and me as well, but the gospels make it clear that he identifies even more with the oppressed and down-trodden, and that he calls us to stand beside them as well. He became like them, poor and oppressed as well, to demonstrate God’s great love for them.

I’m not a liberation theologian, mostly because as a white, middle-class American it’s difficult and fairly inauthentic for me to try and identify with the poor. But I agree with liberation theology, and believe that for the church to be the entity Christ intended it to be, we must listen to the voices of the poor and oppressed, especially the poor and oppressed within our very church. Their voices cry out from oppression for justice and equality, and Christ’s voice joins theirs, creating a holy shout that we ignore at our own peril.

How often have you ever thought about this? When you sit in church on Sunday, would you be okay if the sanctuary was filled with men and women in ragged clothes who hadn’t showered in several days? Could you call these men and women brother and sister? Could you sit at table with them and share your life? Could you live and work and worship side by side with them? If not, I suggest a radical change in your attitudes, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Today, the college ministry at my church in Birmingham, Brookwood Baptist, spent the morning making peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches that we then distributed at downtown Birmingham’s Linn Park. It’s a beautiful park right across from City Hall, and it’s occupied during the day (and probably at night as well) by myriads of Birmingham’s homeless.

It was at Linn Park that I had this realization. These men and women, as repulsive and destitute as they may seem to society, are loved passionately and fervently by my same God. They are my brothers and sisters, my equals – often my betters in matters of faith and humility. They may smell bad, but they have the same inherent beauty and dignity that Christ has given us all through his death. Indeed, his oppression at the hands of the Roman Empire links him with the oppression the poor and his resurrection demands justice for them. Indeed, they will be given justice in the next life, given pride of place in the coming kingdom.

But this idea, the hope of coming justice, does not excuse us from our duty in the here and now. Writes Baptist theologian Paul S. Fiddes:

“The point is that they [the poor] confront us with the God of the cross; he invites us to move on the path from the silent cross to the eloquent resurrection by liberating them from their poverty. In the parable of the sheep and the goats Christ tells us we can find him among those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned; but the aim of the parable is to encourage those who follow Christ to release the victims from their situation. He is present, pleading for justice from those who can give it.” (Past Event and Present Salvation, 199-200)

We must join together with Christ and demand justice for the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

So if you live in Birmingham, I invite you to go to Linn Park, either with me the next time I go, or with some friends, and share the love of Christ with those that we deem less fortunate. Bring to them the justice they deserve, the justice of freedom and equality. Let us no longer talk of charity, for what we call charity is actually justice, and justice is what we are to spread. Actively seek out Christ in the poor and downtrodden, and work also to bring them justice.

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