It had been a busy morning.
I had been out of the office far too much in the last few weeks and so it is that I found myself with the phone pressed to my ear making belated birthday calls. For an hour and a half. I was about an hour and fifteen minutes into these calls when our office manager, Judy, apologetically poked her head in the door and said I had a phone call. We both knew what it was about, for the one calling has stopped in countless times before asking for help in paying a bill or filling her dilapidated car’s gas tank. No doubt, Judy saw the weary look on my face. She told me she had already told her I was on the phone (which I was) and that I would be stepping into a meeting shortly (which, in fact, I would be.) I thanked her and went back to calling the people on my list. People who, for the most part, look and sound and act like me. People who, relatively speaking, in the images offered in today’s Gospel, are more rich than poor. People not at all like the woman whose call I would not take that day, who surely is one of the ‘poor’ Jesus speaks of now. One of the poor to whom, apparently, the “Kingdom of God’ belongs.
Two days later, along with several members of my congregation and another sixty plus members of our community, I attended a Food Security Summit. During the morning we heard stories which would make you weep in empathy and hope. Stories of people who had somehow made their way out of poverty in spite of countless barriers placed in their way. Their goal was not to indict those who had not found their way out of the struggle. Rather, it was to remind the rest of us of the very real challenges which stand in the way of so many: challenges related to racial bias and language barriers and repeated childhood trauma and unequal opportunity depending upon what zip code one’s school happens to be in. In the afternoon the group shared in a ‘poverty simulation.’ We were grouped into ‘families’ of four and were assigned varying roles and accompanying challenges and for a couple of hours we had to:
- navigate ways to pay our bills;
- get to the bank during its limited hours where we experienced surcharges being taken off the top because we didn’t have an account;
- stand in line at the doctor’s office only to be given a prescription we had no way of paying for;
- and to be regularly ‘tempted’ by drug dealers and others who were tempting us to grab the opportunity for quick and much-needed money they were offering;
- And on and on…
Pictured here is one of the ‘transportation’ passes each person had to have to go anywhere in the room. Each one cost “$1.” We started out with six passes. Five were needed to send our ‘breadwinner’ to work for a week — and those passes had to be ‘paid’ up front. We had a disability check which needed to be cashed which would use up the other pass. We had no other passes to use to go ‘purchase’ more passes. It was all of ten minutes into the game and we were paralyzed. Indeed, already one of our “family members” was trying to figure out how she could steal a pass when someone was not looking. At this point, I can’t even remember how we got around this barrier.
After an hour of this, I was exhausted. I was reminded that it is incredibly hard work to be ‘poor.’ And this was only a game. And yes, I left with a deeper sense of empathy for the struggle of so many. Too many.
So even with my limited insight, I truly don’t get how Jesus can say that the ‘Kingdom of God’ actually belongs to those who are poor — at least not in this life now. At the same time, I certainly do hear his warning to me and so many who are ‘rich’ that that which I have so taken for granted could and, at least as he puts it now, will be taken away. And no, even though it could certainly be heard that way, this surely is not a call to complacency, to a sense of powerlessness in the face of how things are. In fact, in the verses which follow, we hear Jesus telling us to give even more to those who would take from us — and to give to those who beg from us. And he tells us to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.’ Indeed, could it be that Jesus is urging us to see ‘the poor’ as those who are, in all the ways that matter, really just like us?
My simulation game experience on Friday helped me do this — or at least to not see ‘the poor’ as a mysterious ‘other.’ For it is so that our positions in life could easily be reversed. And yet, my intellectual grasping of this doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t change me, does it? And all of this comes ‘home’ to me now: for if I avoid ‘the poor’ — even in the form of an un-returned phone call in these last days –whatever has changed in me is only on the surface.
And so first thing Monday morning I will be returning that phone call. It’s not much, of course, but it is a start.
And yet with all of this, I still find myself wondering in what way the poor are actually ‘blessed’ in this world now. I just don’t see it, I really don’t. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if in his teaching today, Jesus is just trying to wake us all up. To remind us that we are all in this together. That all people are beloved by God. But that in the end, God’s preference is with and for the poor. Always. A deep realization of that truth must change us all, don’t you think? Indeed, how can it not make us yearn for a different way?
- Yes, I will be returning a phone call on Monday morning to one of ‘the poor’ Jesus references now. And yet, that hardly seems like enough in a world where the poor are systematically kept poor. I wonder how the realization that God’s preference is with and for ‘the poor’ calls us to advocate for larger change: like a living wage, or sentencing reform, or parity in education, or access to fresh fruit and vegetables.
- And yes, I wonder how we move beyond ‘head knowledge’ to hands on work to change things. I wonder how I take the exhaustion I felt after a couple of hours of ‘playing poor’ and use that understanding to live differently outside of a Friday afternoon’s exercise.
- I offer an example above about how Jesus’ teaching comes ‘home’ to me today. How do his words come ‘home’ to you?