I wish I could say that the volunteer’s advice to get another job was an isolated event. Sadly, it is not.
We cling to the notion that we live in a meritocracy, where our peronal merits are justly rewarded by personal wealth. If we work hard and are good people, we will be prosperous. So, when we are presented with people like Mary and her husband, we find ourselves questioning their merits. How have they gotten into a position where they can’t affort food enough for the month? Why are they not able to provide a Christmas for their children equal to that of their neighbors?
We convince oursleves that there must be a reason… and it must be their fault. Somehow they aren’t measuring up to our standards, and that’s why they are in the position they are in.
Mary found herself being interrogated and questioned about her worthiness to receive charity with little or no consideration as to how the process might dehumanize her and decrease her own sense of self-worth.
For Mary, her frustration came from the fact that she considered herself to have followed the rules decency completely. Although her father was an abusive man, she had broken the cycle of poverty and married a gentle man. Although her mother was an alcoholic, Mary never touched a drink with aclohol in it. She didn’t even eat fruit cake!
After high school, Mary was anxious to get away from her troubled parents and start a new life. She had been dating the young man she would marry since junior high school. They could have lived together and delayed starting a family. But she had always been told living together was wrong. So they married rather than “shack up”.
Once married it seemed perfectly natural to start a family. She had been told that selfish people put their own desires first. Good people sought to fulfill God’s command by being “fruitful and multiplying.” The notion of terminating the second and unplanned pregnancy never even crossed Mary’s mind.
Mary and her husband frequently worked on Sundays, but she always made it a point to have her children in Sunday School so that they could learn the same stories of faith she had learned as a child.
But as she sat in her car, weeping after the disastrous interview, Mary began to question why she made the effort. To her knowledge, Jesus had never questioned the integrity and worthiness of the people he gave help to–not the poor in need of justice, not the lepers in need of healing, and not the broken in need of salvation. But it seemed as though Mary’s entire self-worth had been tied to her status as “working poor.” Why would she want to raise her children in an atmosphere that told them to live by the rules, but then degraded them later for doing just that?
Sadly, Mary was caught up in the typical debate that rages on in churches and religous intstitutions all around our country. Are those receiving assistance worthy of receiving it?
There are certain questions pastors hear constantly, such as: How do you screen the people you give food to? How do you prevent people from going to other food pantries? How many of these people are getting help from other churches? What’s the incentive for these people to work if we’re giving them everything? Why don’t these people get jobs? Why don’t they get another job?
I suppose if our interest as a religous organization was in charity alone, those questions would be legitimate. It makes sense that public assistance programs ask those sorts of questions… but when we, as people of faith, ask them, we are asking the wrong questions.
Our purpose is not to simply hand out charity, but to offer a hand of help as we journey together with people in seeking justice. When we offer food to the hungry, our goal is not to simply give them a meal, but to fill their belly today so that we can fight to end hunger together.
That means our job as a church is not be the judge and jury of those receiving help–we are not tasked with sorting out who deserves assistance and who doesn’t. Our task has always been to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to live as he lived. To be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.
Christ reached out and lifted up those who had been trampled on, ignored, and rejected. He helped them get back onto their feet, and he offered them a grace and a life that was far greater than anything they could imagine. Then, with those who were willing to follow, Christ marched with determination straight to Golgotha and straight to the cross to give his life up in the pursuit of justice for us all… and an effort to set us all free from the sins and the evils of this world so that we could live the abundant life he had promised us.
Our job is not to sit in judgement, but to reach out and lift up the cross of those who are struggling and to march with them in the quest for God’s justice.
–Tune in tomorrow to see what God’s example for us is and how God took a simple woman from a place of guilt and shame to glory.
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