Mar 19, 2009

You will always have the poor

I work with the impoverished every day, with a focus on people who are homeless or street dependent. I promise that I would have never guessed that I could make such a statement 10 years ago. Wow!

The poor were largely invisible to me 10 years ago. I know they were in my community, but I lived in such a way and at such a pace that I never saw them. A short term mission trip to Mexico changed that for me. Upon returning, I found life too fast. I found isolated consumerism an unacceptable substitute for community. And I saw the poor for the first time.

We often hear Matthew 26:11 quoted in relationship to serving the poor. Proponents for social welfare quote this as providing justification that the poor deserve our attention. Opponents of social programs cite this as evidence that there is no solution to poverty. However, I recently heard a preacher put a spin on it that has gotten me to thinking in a different way, a way that rings much truer for me that either of these conclusions.

When we take time to walk with the poor, they and we are both changed. When we stop to find out what someone needs... truly needs... we are able to give them gifts of great meaning. When we begin to minister in this real way, we find that we ourselves are lifted up. By walking together, both the served and the server and healed and made well.

So... here is the clincher. What if when Jesus said, "You will always have the poor" he was not merely making a commentary on social order. What if he was not ranking the importance of worship of God over helping of people. What if he were responding to a deep and true understanding that He was leaving his people and they would need help to find their way. What is he was giving a most precious gift: "You will always have the poor. I give you this precious gift so that, if you will take the time and effort to love them as your neighbor, you will both be restored and healed. I love you this much!"

I think society desperately needs to heal its relationship with the poor. In my town, we seem to be at war with the poor. Drive them out! Give them tickets! Get them out of town! If they can't behave, label them as felons or convicted criminals with morally questionable backgrounds. I have come to believe that we are harming our own society by excluding a part of it. We need the poor, and we need a healthy relationship with them. We cannot ignore, turn away, or prosper by driving them away. We need to include them, love them, and talk with them as equals.

I believe that many of the homeless and poor in our midst will grow up and be people of great strength, drawing upon their backgrounds and experiences and resourcefulness to face, address, and ultimately solve problems that we would otherwise lack the ability and courage to resolve. Many of the mid 20th century leaders rose from the poverty and turmoil of the early 20th century. I can only imagine what is yet to come.