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Being With The Poor: Not a Program: A Riff on Matt 25/Luke 16

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Here’s some thoughts on how the church as community is to practice being with the poor as part of our everyday life.

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The Rich Man and Lazarus

In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31), Jesus describes a scene where the poor man Lazarus, now in heaven by Abraham’s side, is looking over the chasm at the rich man who now stands in the flames of Hades. The rich man begs Abraham to have Lazarus, who once ate the leftovers from the rich man’s table, to come and relieve his suffering.  Please, he says, “… send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” (Luke 16:24 RSV) Leonard Sweet, in his book From Table to Table, notes how the rich man, at the beginning of the parable, is “dressed in purple and fine linen” and “feasted  sumptuously at his table every day” (v 19). According to Sweet, he is the Bill Gates of his day.  He nonetheless allows Lazarus, a homeless person with an advanced case of leprosy (“the dogs came and licked his sores,” v.21) to reside at his highly secured frontgate, to eat of the food leftover from his table. The leper, a pariah of his day, is allowed to sit comfortably at his front door where undoubtedly the movers and the shakers of society made daily passage. In so doing, this extremely rich man was doing more to take care of the poor than most of us are willing to do. Sweet asks “How many of you have homeless people living on your front porch?”  

So what landed the rich man in hell? Leonard Sweet takes note that the poor man’s name is Lazarus, the namesake of Jesus’ best friend whose home was Jesus’ favorite place of earth. For Jesus this story is about kinship. Note the detail Jesus gives in the parable concerning the rich man’s five “brothers.” The rich man is urgently concerned for the damnation of his own five “brothers.” But he wasn’t equally concerned for Lazarus, a man closer than a brother to Jesus. Sweet concludes that the rich man is in hell not because he didn’t take care of the poor. He actually did take care of the poor better than most. In Sweet’s words, the rich man is in hell because he thought he had five brothers, when God had actually given him six. While he helped Lazarus, he failed to see him as his brother. He failed to embrace him as family. As generous as he was, the rich man failed to invite Lazarus to his own dinner table.

Often we seek to make the poor into a program, someone we seek to distribute resources to. We in essence make space for them at our doorstep. Churches dedicate whole ministries to do justice and mercy as programs for the poor. They organize them so people can volunteer for. Such ministries alleviate immediate suffering. However they inevitably keep the poor at a distance, at our doorstep. They keep the poor from being a part of our lives. They prevent us from being present with the poor at our tables. In so doing, justice programs (done singularly) undercut God’s work for justice in the world. They work against the new socio-economic order God is creating in His Kingdom.

Matthew 25- The Least of These My Brothers

Remember the parable of the final judgment found in Matthew 25:31-46, where the Son of Man, having returned to gather His kingdom, goes about separating the sheep from the goats, those who inherit the Kingdom from those who don’t. The sheep are welcomed into the Kingdom based on the fact they are the ones who gave the Son of Man food to eat when he was hungry, a cup of water when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, visited him in prison. The ones who did not do these things were sent into the eternal flames (25:41). The reaction of the righteous ones is to say “huh?” When did we do that? We have no recall? To which the King replies, in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Jesus seems to be making the point that the righteous ones are unaware they were doing anything special when they were with the hurting. It appears that being with the poor was just part of their everyday life. No big deal. And so, with no pretention, no worldly power or mammon, just out of their everyday life, these people gave food to the hungry, a cup of water to the thirsty. They were with them. They were doing things they would do naturally for any friend or relative. They were in essence with kin. This is what it means to become present to the poor in our lives.

The “least of these my brothers” (adelphoi) historically has been a controversial phrase in Matt 25:40. Some have argued (the particularist interpretation) that since Jesus often referred to his disciples as “brothers” he must be referring here in verse 40 to his suffering disciples with this phrase. Jesus intends to say therefore that those in the world who respond to the needs of his sent disciples, the suffering missionaries of the church, shall be found righteous (inheritors of the Kingdom). On the other hand, more recently (at least since Moltmann), there are those interpreters (the non-restrictive interpretation) who see the phrase “least of these my brothers” referring to the poor wherever they be found. In this interpretation, Jesus intends to say that those of his disciples who tend to the poor are the righteous ones. This interpretation is defended based on the argument that Jesus wasn’t consoling threatened Christians with this parable. Rather he was motivating “faithful discipleship marked by mercy and love.” Furthermore His use of the word “least of these” is so different in Matt 25 from other places where he refers to his disciples as “brothers,” that something else must be going on here. “The least of these my brothers” therefore must refer to the poor wherever they be found, and Jesus is encouraging his disciples to recognize the Kingdom where they become present to them in these ways. (For further discussion see Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent p.566-67)

What the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus helps us see however is another option for interpreting the significance of the use of “brothers” here in verse 40. Jesus is emphasizing the relationship of kinship God is calling us into with the poor. “Brothers” is about the family relationship, this space of “withness” with the poor we enter into whereby we become friends. Our relationship with the poor is not to be organized as a program “at our local church.” Instead, out of everyday life, we are to come alongside, be present to the poor. In this relational space something truly amazing happens. Jesus becomes specially present (vs. 40 when you did these things to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me – I was there). Antagonisms become unwound. Resources are shared back and forth. Healing takes place. Relationships are restored. And a new world is born. This is the discipline of “being with the least of these” that is to characterize our everyday life as Christians, as Christ’s church.

The Poor – Not a Program

There will be times of course when the church offers strangers gifts of mercy to contribute to the preservation of souls. Church programs to alleviate pain and suffering and to preserve the person through suffering are important and should not be abolished!. But the church must not be deluded into thinking these programs
 will redeem the world. If the church places its hopes and efforts entirely in these programs, it will will be exhausted from unfulfilled expectations and the eventual dependency this kind of work cultivates over long periods of time. I propose the local church cultivate the practice of being “with” the least of these as part of everyday life as a more central practice to its life with the poor.

The church down through history, has been at its best, and made its biggest impact when it has practiced being with the poor (whoever they are in our context) and resisted turning the poor into a program. To the extent that programs create relational distance between the haves and have-nots, they work against the kingdom. Practicing “being with the least of these” disciplines us into the relational space of faithful presence with the hurting. 

What do you think? Can we do this? can this practice be part of who we are as the church in N America? 

(The above post is an excerpt from my upcoming book with IVP Faithful Presence due in 2016)

 

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