The Poor and the Barren
Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. . . . (Psalm 113:5-9).
If life doesn’t look like the Bible suggests it should, we can do one of two things. We can condemn the Bible as old-fashioned, archaic, and oppressive. Or, we can ask where we have gone wrong.
In popular caricature, Democrats are concerned with the poor and the vulnerable and the oppressed while Republicans are concerned with the family and traditional marriage and the unborn child. Not only is the dichotomy untrue, it is untenable. Psalm 113, quoted above, describes the Lord as lifting the poor from the ash heap and giving children to the barren woman. Culturally, we have rent apart what belongs together.
The Scriptures are replete with indications of God’s concern for the poor. He commands compassion for the oppressed and promises blessing to those who extend themselves for the vulnerable: “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8). It is by showing compassion and extending ourselves that we find life.
The rationale for God’s concern for the poor is easy to understand. Each human being is made in the image of God and invested with inestimable value. How the poor are treated, therefore, ultimately reveals what we think of God. If we revere Him, we will revere His image—rich or poor, black or white—whether or not we have anything to gain from doing so. Accordingly, not only is God concerned for the poor, He identifies with them, so much so that “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). Jesus takes the same thought and pushes it even further: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). And, rightly, our culture generally lauds those who demonstrate concern for the poor.
Giving the barren woman a home and children, however, is another matter. I can hear the objections—not all women need or want to be mothers, or wives for that matter, and to suggest otherwise is to privilege heteronormativity (yes, that is now a word) and demean women. But the psalm is getting at something written deep into creation, and into the human heart. Just as there is something right about lifting up the poor and needy, so also is it right for a woman to be satisfied in her children. The family has been so denigrated in our culture that to say such is deemed narrow and oppressive, and it has been that way for decades. My mother, who attended college in the ’60s, recalls the not-so-subtle condescension directed to those pursuing a “MRS” degree, as if being “just a mother” would be a waste of an education. (I am reminded of Chesterton’s comment, disguised as a question: “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe?”)
This does not mean motherhood, or fatherhood for that matter, is always joyous, any more than extending oneself for the poor is easy. Raising children is hard. But for all the hardship involved in parenting, there is joy in the midst of it. In fact, children are often the means by which God grants us joy. Children crucify our selfishness, and in so doing open up the path to joy that can never be found when the world is all about me. Abortion culture scoffs at this. It assumes an unplanned pregnancy is an affront to my personal autonomy (which it is) and therefore a problem to be “taken care of” so I can live as I wish. Why else are crisis pregnancy centers maligned as anti-choice, when they exist to let women know about choices that they might not know they have? Apparently, there are some choices that we’d rather not consider.
Concern for the poor and delight in the family are of a piece. Why then do so many celebrate the former and denigrate the latter? Perhaps because we think we can do our duty to the poor at arm’s length, through welfare checks or homeless ministries, while the call to family and the corresponding challenge to autonomy (particularly sexual autonomy) hits closer to home. But God made the world a certain way, and established the path to blessing in both generosity and justice toward the poor and openness to and joy in the family.