Posted by: Titus Presler | December 13, 2011

Mission and the polemics of poverty and wealth: A reflection on Laodicea

A couple of stray missiological thoughts about today’s Daily Lectionary reading from the Revelation to John, which is the messenger’s word to the church in Laodicea (Rev. 3.14-22):

• Wealth and poverty as metaphors of people’s experience of spiritual states: Many times you’ve probably heard enthused returnees from a short-term mission trip say something like, “Those people we were with are so poor they have hardly anything, but spiritually they’re so rich.  We realize that we with all our possessions are spiritually poor and have so much to learn from them!”

Such statements by people from Ohio or Alabama or Connecticut or Texas or California about the people they’ve visited in Honduras or Haiti or South Africa or India are so common that they’ve become a cliché.  And the Short-Term Mission Movement, as it morphs toward what I hope will be the Mission Pilgrimage Movement, is rightly beginning to scrutinize and interrogate the short-termers’ accounts:

“Yes, but how are you actually incorporating into your life your learning from the spirituality among the poor whom you were with?”

“Yes, but are you romanticizing poverty as spiritual wealth while actually giving up none of your own personal wealth?”

“Yes, and what longterm commitment are you making to those wonderfully spiritual poor people into whose lives you parachuted and just as quickly helicoptered out?”

What struck me today, though, is that this prophecy to the church in Laodicea is the biblical locus classicus of the use of poverty and wealth to image spiritual states as well as actual economic states.  The Laodiceans evidently feel wealthy because economically they are: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”  But the one “like a son of man” retorts that they do not know “that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”  And then he counsels them to buy from him spiritual gold refined by fire.

This may be, in fact, the revelation to which  short-term mission pilgrims from the Global North often testify from their encounters with people in the Two-Thirds World.

• Lukewarmness as a spiritual metaphor and its relation to wealth: Notoriously the wealthy Laodiceans are those who the “one like a son of man” regards as so lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – that “I will spew you out of my mouth.”  My conversation partner in Bible study this morning asked, “Do we know anyone wealthy in our lives to whom we look up spiritually?”  Interesting question.  We honestly – that is to say, not vindictively or enviously – thought about that.  And we couldn’t think of anyone.  Not that there isn’t anyone, but no one came to mind this morning.

The Laodicean dynamic lives on.

[Here’s the text of today’s reading:

Revelation 3.14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. 15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'”]


  1. “He who conquers….” conquering would be what? selling all you have and giving to the poor?

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