Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
-Matthew 25:34-36, 40 (NIV)
You know what I mean. You feel it when you walk past someone begging on a corner, or drive past someone holding a sign at an intersection, or maybe when you hear about another government program funded by you and me that will benefit the poor.
One of our presidential candidates recently gave voice to that frustration a little more publicly than a presidential candidate maybe should have, in fact; though I imagine for everyone who voiced outrage, there were plenty of voters who nodded their heads and lined up behind him when they heard him write off 47% of Americans as “victims” who are dependent on the government.
It’s easy to get frustrated with the poor. Their lives can be messy, disordered, chaotic. Long-term poverty can create a victim or entitlement mentality, making it that much more difficult for them to escape their circumstances. Sometimes folks who struggle with poverty day in and day out wind up pretty cynical and kind of unpleasant to be around. Sometimes they have substance-abuse issues and physical and emotional disorders. Sometimes some of them lie to get what they need.
Then again, as I look back over that list, I have to acknowledge that all of it can be true about wealthy people, too. And middle-class people. So maybe the frustration we sometimes feel for the poor has more to do with the fact that they have no way to insulate themselves from life’s difficulties. They’re all exposed nerves and raw skin, and can’t feign whatever we call “respectability”. Or maybe it’s just that they have little interest in a pretend respectability that doesn’t put food in their bellies and a roof over their heads.
This Thursday, Kate wrote to me. “I’m writing this with just a bag of rice, a jar of peanut butter and a few eggs to get me through the rest of the week,” she said. Kate won’t starve this week, but she certainly won’t eat a well-balanced diet, will she? Her situation points out exactly what the poor lack, and exactly what I have. It’s not about money, or skills, or whatever. It’s about options. I have them, but a lot of people in my city - and yours - don’t.
They don’t have options when it’s time to cook dinner. They don’t have options when their kids are sick. They don’t have options when they’re out of money for transportation, or when a prescription needs to be filled, or when they send their kids off to school in gang-infested neighborhoods with a hug and a prayer - not a prayer like mine, that the child will do well on a test, but that he’ll come back home that afternoon alive.
Whatever frustrations I might feel about the poor, whatever their cause, I have options. They don’t.
Kate, by the way, is Kate Maehr. She’s the executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The GCFD is the food bank for Cook County, where by some estimates 1 in 5 people live with some degree of poverty. More than 82,000 are exactly in the situation Kate’s in this week. For her, though, it’s by choice - she’s choosing to eat for the week on $35, which is the amount those 82,000 people receive through the SNAP program (formerly known as Food Stamps).
Half of those 82,000 are children.
“I’m seeing first-hand just how hard it is for people in our community who are on SNAP, and how important the program is,” Kate wrote yesterday. “It’s very often the only thing standing between a family and hunger.”
I don’t know Kate well. Don’t know anything about her faith, or her reasons (beyond her job title) for being concerned about hunger. But by sharing her experience, Kate is humanizing the problem of poverty. She takes us beyond our frustration with a system that sometimes seems to reward best those who figure out how to game it, our frustration with people who take advantage of that system at the expense of other people who work hard to make it work. She reminds us that “the poor” includes parents trying to provide for their children. It includes some of the people I’ve met making my embarrassingly meager contribution working in our church’s food pantry: people who aren’t trying to game the system or get something for nothing, who aren’t at fault for their circumstances any more than I can take credit for mine, but who are just trying to live life and give their kids a chance and hope for something better tomorrow.
By choosing to live in the circumstances of the poor, even for just a week, Kate reminds us that there’s another way to respond to the problem of poverty - not with frustration, but with identification. It’s the way of Jesus, who didn’t shun the poor or turn away from them, but in fact chose to identify with them. He was poor, dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers for food and shelter, and even buried in a borrowed tomb. He challenged prevailing notions of success - notions that are still with us - by calling the poor “blessed.” He spoke of God’s kingdom that would one day break into the world and turn our value system upside-down, and he announced that in himself that “breaking - in” had commenced. And then he challenged the people who would follow him and wear his name and look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom to go around and make sure that the poor were, indeed, “blessed.”
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” That’s what we must remember: the poor, with whom we can often feel such frustration, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. If it comes down to a choice between those who are comfortable and well-off and those who are poor, Jesus identifies with the poor. He feels for them, cares for them, and expects his followers to share his concern. And, in fact, you can’t be his follower if you don’t.
That’s not a political statement. It’s a theological one. It isn’t a plank in a party platform - it’s part of the fabric of the gospel. It’s not about the preservation of government programs, but about followers of Jesus like you and me replacing our frustration with identification, and then loving and helping those who Jesus identifies so closely with that ministry to them is ministry to him.
And it’s hard to feel frustrated with him, isn’t it?