Use your imagination on this one: going out to eat, sitting down, looking at the menu and ordering a delicious meal. Then the food comes and you don’t touch a bite of it; you just pay the bill and leave. That would be really weird. It would be just as weird as having faith in God but not being committed to acts of love and kindness. True faith works itself out in tangible acts of grace and love. Simple acts of mercy and care: giving food to the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; showing hospitality to strangers; giving clothing to the threadbare; taking care of the sick; and, visiting those in prison – nothing flashy. These are the kinds of behind-the-scene actions that Jesus heightened as commendable (Matthew 25:31-46).
Can you think the thought that every person has access to Christ through a needy person? Jesus made it clear that he identifies so closely with the needy that when we seek to meet needs in people, it is as if we are ministering to Jesus himself. He has a special place for the poor, the poor in spirit, and those who help the poor.
We need to remember something important: Jesus was, during his earthly life, all of those six things just mentioned. We cannot disconnect Jesus from the fact that during his ministry he was a homeless Jew who needed food, drink, clothing, and ended up in prison and sentenced to death. I need to not try and fashion Jesus into someone who was just like me, that is, a white middle-class guy. Jesus didn’t have dreams of an upwardly mobile life with plenty of discretionary income so he could do things he wanted and deserved to do. Jesus could have come to this earth born into privilege and focused on spreading his wealth. Instead he was born in poverty, grew up in poverty, and chose poverty his entire earthly life. It certainly is not a sin to be wealthy, but it is not the life that Jesus himself chose. And if we aspire to be more like Jesus, we might want to rethink some of our most cherished values that center in the American dream.
Can you think the thought that we will be judged by whether we received Christ or not, in the way we treat the least persons among us? Here is a radical thought (not to Jesus; just to us): we are to do more than reach out to the poor-we are called to invite them into our lives. We are not to just increase our charitable giving while giving needy people the metaphorical stiff-arm. We are to stretch ourselves more and more when it comes to how we relate and give to the poor. We are to stretch and give of our time and our very selves. We all must even ask the very difficult question: at what point do we consider giving until we become one of the poor? I do not have an answer to that; I just know we need to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, and, so, we must all struggle with what that means in each of our lives. Let’s be honest: all of us, including me, are just downright selfish which is why the Lenten season is so important; we must confess our selfishness because we cannot fix ourselves – we need God to change us.
Can you think the thought that the way we treat other people, either good or bad, affects God deeply? Inviting other people in our lives might seem small, but has a huge effect. It would be good for us to take note of who are the poor and needy among us today. Hopefully, because we know that our lives affect God deeply, Jesus will someday make the following statements to us:
I was a fetus and you brought me to term and gave me birth.
I was an orphan and you adopted me.
I was unemployed and you gave me a job.
I was in sexual slavery and you rescued me.
I was lonely and you befriended me.
I was wrongly accused and you stood up for me.
I was crying and you cried with me.
I was illiterate and you taught me to read.
I was bullied and you defended me.
I was poor and you got to know me as person and not as a project.
I was worthless and you treated me with dignity.
I was lost and you found me.
I do not want us and our churches to miss Jesus because we overlooked those who are poor and needy. We can get so inwardly focused on what we ourselves need and want that we completely lose sight that Jesus is walking right in front of us.
Can you think the thought that what locks most people in poverty today is not laziness but illiteracy? At one time, literacy was defined simply as the ability to read. Today, as information and technology drive American society, that definition has been broadened. The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 defines literacy as “the ability to read, write and speak English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society.” The illiteracy rates continue to rise in part not because more people are unable to read but because the level of skills needed to survive in society continues to rise.
The National Institute for Literacy says that 14% of all Americans are functionally illiterate. The connection is not hard to see: illiteracy makes one unable to get a job because the person cannot even fill out an on-line application, and if they have help and actually get a job they lose it because they don’t have the skills to maintain the job. If basic skills aren’t developed, many people will eventually turn to some kind of crime to get money.
Maybe one person or one church can’t change the world. But each one of us can turn one person around to literacy. And if we have done it for that one person we have done it for Jesus himself.