A reflecton on poverty and mission, by Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, originally delivered as a keynote address in June 2013 to the Episcopal Church's Asiamerica conference in San Francisco.
It’s funny where you run into Jesus if you’re paying attention. I met him once in the Cincinnati Airport, which when I was Bishop of Lexington, we preferred to call the Northern Kentucky Airport. On this particular day, Jesus was shining shoes, and mine happened to need shining. Isn’t that just like Jesus? On the night before he died, he washed the disciples’ feet.
“You live near here?” he asked.
“Just down the street,” he noted.
“That’s right,” I said. “Have you always lived here?” I asked him this time.
“All my life.”
‘We’ve lived in Lexington five years,” I contributed to the conversation, “and we really like coming to Cincinnati. There’s a lot here and it isn’t so big that it’s unmanageable.”
“Yes, Cincinnati’s a nice town.”
Then, Jesus abruptly changed the subject. I think my attempt at small talk must have been annoying to the Lord, and God knows, a distraction from what I needed to be dealing with. He then continued, “I’m one of eight. My wife is one of 11.” Strangely, I was not disturbed by that bit of information I’d never heard about Jesus before.
“Wow,” I responded, reflecting for a moment on the complications that go with having two children and thinking about how his parents, Mary and Joseph, and his wife’s parents, names unknown, did it.
“Yes, Cincinnati’s got a lot of nice memories, happy times, brothers and sisters, and all of them have children and grandchildren.”
“Y’all get together a lot?” I inquired, my introvert’s mind sort of spinning at the thought of it.
“All the time. All the time. That what it’s all about.” That was good to know, I thought, because I spend a lot of time wondering what’s it all about. He went on. “Anybody who doesn’t get that just doesn’t have their head straight. If you can’t get along with your brothers and sisters, well then, you can’t get along with me. Some tells me they haven’t spoken to their brother in six years or they don’t get along with their sister, I say, ‘Get away from me.’ If you can’t get along with your own brothers and sisters, well then, you can’t get along with me.”
I got down from the chair, paid for the shoe shine, and tipped Jesus $2. That was a lot, I figured, since most people only tip Jesus $1 on Sunday mornings. And I said, “Thank you, Jesus, for speaking to me this morning and reminding me of what I need to know.” I didn’t say that part out loud. I knew Jesus could hear me.
“If you can’t get along with your brothers and sisters, well then, you can’t get along with me.” You can’t get along with me, the shoe shine man, and you can’t get along with me, Jesus, either. I think I remember having heard something like that before.
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brother and sister also” (1 Jn. 4:20-21). It was John who said that, not Jesus, but I think John probably heard it from Jesus, maybe while Jesus was shining his shoes.
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” [Jn. 13:1-17]
We tend to see this passage as extolling the virtues of servanthood. That’s an interesting word, servanthood. It’s not really a word at all. It’s a church word. Sometimes we invent church words to shield ourselves from harsh realities. Jesus wasn’t saying anything about some church-invented abstraction called servanthood. He was saying, be a servant. That’s the stark reality. Actually, of course, it’s starker than that. He was saying be a slave. Servant is another church word, a euphemism. In other words, be poor. Be very poor. The poorest of the poor. It’s even more startling than “be among the poor.” He’s saying to be the poor yourself. He is saying to be a shoe shine man. Perhaps it is my prejudice, but I assume most shoe shine men are not rolling in excess cash. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it did not escape my attention that the shoe shine man at the airport that day, which is to say Jesus, was a black man, and that most of the shoe shine men I’ve encountered in my life were black men, the exception being in New York, where Jesus as I experience him in the shining of shoes tends to be a Hispanic woman. No wonder we created a churchy euphemism to deal with it.
Just one chapter before this event on the night before his own death as the story reaches its climax, just before he entered Jerusalem, Jesus stopped in Bethany at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. As usual, Martha did the serving. Lazarus sat at the table. The new element in the story is this.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” [Jn. 12:3-8]
This is perhaps one of the strangest things Jesus ever said. It is very interesting to me for several reasons. One of them is that this passage about the poor has parallels in two of the synoptic gospels, Matthew and Mark (interestingly, there is no parallel to this saying about the poor in Luke). There aren’t a lot of overlaps between John and the synoptic gospels—only the really, really important things. This is one of them.
What does Jesus mean by this teaching that seems strange to my ears, what appears to be an upholding of religious devotion over devotion to the poor, so counter is it to the way I understand Matthew 25, in which I think Jesus is saying that it is in people who are poor we meet Jesus himself? This saying about always having the poor with you just doesn’t much sound like Jesus to me.
Both Matthew and Mark tell the story a little differently, but they, like John, also place it just before the story of the passion heads toward its climax, even closer to the end of the story than John places it, in fact. Mark tells the story this way.
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” [Mk. 14:3-9]
Judas also fits into the story, just as in Luke. It’s the next verse. “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him.” It is the same in Matthew. Judas comes off badly in all Matthew, Mark, and John, but there is a key difference. In Mark and Matthew it is the reason for the betrayal. Maybe, as John suggests, it has something to do with being thwarted in his embezzlement scheme by this unexpected appropriation of funds to buy oil. Or maybe, as I think Mark and Matthew are trying to tell us, it is something deeper. Could it be that the sacramental teaching going on here is too difficult for all but the most committed, the most faithful? Is it just too upsetting to the way things are? Is it not just Judas who is embezzling from the poor? Could it be the rest of us, too? So what is the sacramental teaching?
Mark and Matthew are perhaps a little easier to read because of their choice of contexts, the home of Simon the leper rather than the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. The context, as Jim Wallis helpfully points out in his book, God’s Politics, is one of extreme marginalization. When Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish,” he was not suggesting we had an excuse to do nothing about the plight of the poor, which is how wealthier Christians, such as us, tend to hear it or have been taught to hear it or maybe have to hear it or we’d run screaming out of the door. He was saying that it went without saying that his followers would always be in proximity to the poor. He was not saying you will always have the poor, so don’t worry about it. He was saying you will always be in proximity to the poor precisely because you are my disciples. Wallis paraphrases Jesus this way: “You know who we spend our time with, who we share meals with, who listens to our message, who we focus our attention on. You’ve been watching me, and you know what my priorities are. You know who comes first in the kingdom of God. So, you will always be near the poor, you’ll always be with them, and you will always have the opportunity to share with them.” I also owe Wallis for the insight that Jesus is referring back to Deuteronomy 15:11 and its necessary implication: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
But back to John. There the relevant context is not that the story takes place in the home of Simon the leper but that it is placed in such close proximity to the washing of feet. The other clue is that it is Judas who objects to what is going on. John adds his own explanation of why—“he said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” Maybe. But I don’t think it’s that simple.
Here is what I think this is all about. Given that Jesus would assume that his disciples, of all people, would always be in proximity to the poor and that it certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus to be saying that the poor are of no concern to us, could it be that what Jesus is trying to say, when you think ahead in the story to the washing of feet, is that he and the poor are one? The point is not the poor as an abstraction. It is the poor as an incarnate reality, and in particular one poor person at a time whether that be the shoe shine man or the single mother feeding her children from food stamps or the hospice patient rescued by the Sisters of Charity from the streets of Calcutta or an Appalachian child in danger of being trapped in an endless cycle of poverty because she cannot read just as her parents and grandparents could not? Could it be that Jesus is saying that the point is not the poor as if the poor were an abstraction and the point is not poverty as if poverty were nothing more than a social issue? Could it be that Jesus was saying, is saying, to stop wasting time on the poor as an unidentified mass of humanity or on poverty as a subject rich white people talk about over cocktails, to stop dealing with poor people, who have a tendency to be anonymous, and start dealing with people who are poor, who do not? Could it be that Jesus was saying, is saying, to start being with the poor, indeed to start being the poor? And I think the reason for that is that it is in poor people that we meet Jesus.
It is like a very wise woman Jim Wallis wrote about named Mary Glover. He describes her as an old Pentecostal woman in his neighborhood, a self-appointed missionary in a poor community, and a regular volunteer at the community food pantry. She herself was poor and needed a bag of groceries from the pantry each week herself. It was Mary’s job to pray on most Saturday mornings before the doors of the pantry were opened. I want to share her prayer with you. “Thank you, Lord, for waking us up this morning! Thank you, Lord, that our walls were not our grave and our bed was not our cooling board! Thank you, Lord!” And she always ended with these words as the doors were about to be opened to a long line of people waiting in the rain, the cold, and the heat for a bag of groceries. “Lord, we know that you’ll be coming through this line today, so Lord, help us to treat you well.” It makes me wonder if this Mary might not turn out to be the previously anonymous woman with the oil, or at least a close relative. There is not an ounce of ministering to in it. (By the way, I am of the opinion that when people start talking about “ministering to,” it is time to head for the hills.) It is all sacrament—an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace to see the Lord as he presents himself to us, in the poor, and offers an invitation not to minister to but live with.
“You always have the poor—as an issue, as an abstraction, as an anonymous intellectual thing, as a problem—with you. But you do not always have me, a person who is poor.” Could it be that Jesus is saying to stop worrying about how to sell the expensive ointment to raise money for the poor and start pouring the ointment on people who are poor? There is nothing about this worth very much, after all, if we do not have Jesus with us. And if you, or the people you serve, think that is somehow antithetical to the poor, that is deeply disturbing and quite a loss and the sacramental equivalent of teaching them that the Eucharist doesn’t really matter.
Here’s the deal. It is 100% sacramental. It is about being with Jesus. Jesus said we would experience that grace in the bread and wine. And he said we would experience it in the poor. And, if so, I suspect the reason for that is not that Jesus doesn’t recognize the importance of dealing with the systems that cause poverty. I suspect the reason is that Jesus knows that there is never going to be an effective dealing with those systems until they are being dealt with by people who have been converted by being with Jesus. Dealing with the poor as an abstraction is a nice, altruistic thing. Solidarity with the poor as if they were Jesus, because they are, is a much more radical thing, a thing that will turn our whole word completely upside down, a thing that, if we take it seriously, might even get us into the kingdom of God.
On the night before he died, Jesus created a sacrament. For the communities that gathered around Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the sacrament is in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup, what we know as the Eucharist. They were not unaware of the importance of meeting Jesus in the poor, but that came for them earlier in the story, and the climax of the story to be remembered in the anamnesis sense in the meal Jesus shared with them.
For the community that gathered around the Gospel of John, the sacrament through which they experienced the real presence was in the washing of feet. Like their brothers and sisters, they were not unaware of the importance of the Eucharistic meal, but that had come earlier in the story for them and the climactic action by which they remembered and entered into the passion of Christ was in becoming as a slave, becoming poor. The two are, of course, related. In fact, they are the same thing, Eucharist and solidarity with the poor.
This is one thing Roman Catholics have all over us. They call the primary sacrament the Mass. Sometimes we do, too, but not that often. I wish we would more.
Roman Catholics name their primary sacrament the Mass, which is derived from the Latin for dismissal. They make a very important point that the focus may be on the Body of Christ broken in the bread and the Blood of Christ poured out in the wine. But the only context in which that makes any sense at all is only in the dismissal, the moment of “Go forth in the name of Christ,” or “Go in peace to love and sere the Lord.” In other words, get out of here and, having been fed with Christ’s broken body and shed blood, go break yourselves and shed a little blood of your own and serve those who are poor, and meet me there among them because that’s where I, Jesus, will be. Or if you dare, become poor and follow me. They, the Eucharist and the sacrament of the poor, are two outward and visible signs of the same inward and spiritual grace, which is Jesus, only Jesus.