The Gift of Poverty

John 12:1-11

 

Scam artists are everywhere. Have you have been victimized by one? While we work hard to earn and save to be able to donate to worthy causes, there are plenty of individuals at every corner who don’t share these lofty principles. Drive through any city. See panhandlers move from car to car or hold a sign at an exit ramp that reads , “Will work for food.” It’s easier to envision the homeless, poor persons huddled beneath bridges and residing in boarded up old buildings than to think of them living in Ellington or East Windsor.  But in there isn’t a city in Connecticut that does not have its particular brand of poverty which is sometimes very well concealed.
poverty
While serving in a former congregation a young woman came to the office asking for help. She looked desperate. She was dressed in dirty, old clothes and had a baby in her arms. She explained that she was a single, teenage mother. She’d run away from home two years before, living with friends or in shelters. Apparently just the night before she arrived at the church, she decided it was time to return home to face her parents–baby and all. She had come to the church hoping we would give her money for a bus ticket home.

People stop at churches all the time. The general rule is never give away money, just services. We give gas and food vouchers and referral telephone referrals.

 

But it was 5:00 on a Friday, and I knew I’d have trouble getting the money. I had a twenty in my pocket. There was no money in the church. I could call the treasurer and get something of our minister’s assistance fund for a bus ticket. Then the baby started crying. I gave her the money I had and wished her well

A week later, I saw her again at the Salvation Army soup kitchen. As I talked with the captain, I asked him whether he knew the girl?”

“Everyone does,” he said. “She has quite a scam going. Every Friday, she has a baby sitting job. She takes the baby and drives through town from church to church, giving ministers and anyone she can get to listen to her a sob story and asks for money. If a anyone hesitates, she pinches the baby to get him to cry!”  I looked at the captain and said, “You know, it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for that!”

What are we supposed to do about poor people?

 

Sometimes we’d like to avoid this subject. It’s easier to believe that poor people are not really poor. That poor people are poor by their own choice by being lazy or living frivolously. That girl with the baby conned me out of twenty bucks! She wasn’t poor. She was just a good actress.

Poverty has many frustrating factors. First is knowing whom to help. Another is learning how to withhold judgment until we know the facts. For example which one of us hasn’t seen someone using food assistance in the market lines and pull out a $400 I-Phone to take a call? Another factor is numbness leading to inaction by the number of poor people that are out there. The media presents a barrage of pleas for donations, for all manner of horrors worldwide with accompanying pictures to motivate our giving.

What are Christians supposed to do about poor people?
“Nothing,” some say. Others say, “there are too many of them to help.” But Jesus said, “the poor will always be with us.”

Jesus was in a private home, at a gathering held in his honor. He had just raised Lazarus from the poverty2dead. What might have been planned as a wake, had become a celebration!  The disciples are there as are Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus. Martha is busy serving everyone, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus.

Perhaps on impulse, we don’t really know, Mary picks up a container of expensive perfumed oil and massages Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair – a gift to relieve his stress a thank you gift.
But this wonderful atmosphere is invaded by the voice of reason. “We could have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!”  That is the voice of Judas.
Forget for a moment who said it. What are Christians supposed to do for poor people?

 

Jesus words, “You will always have the poor among you,” can be misinterpreted. Can’t do a thing about them, so why bother?  But that interpretation is inconsistent with Scripture.

In the (Dt. 15:7-11), God says, “If there is a fellow Israelite in need, do not be selfish and refuse to help him. Instead, be generous and lend him as much as he needs. Do not refuse to lend him something.”

In Psalm 82, we are reminded to “defend the poor and the fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and the needy.”

Proverbs 28 says “Give to the poor and you will never be in need. If you close your eyes to the poor, many people will curse you.”

When we hear Jesus say, “The poor will always be with you,” it is not permission to do nothing.

If we were able to abide by the Old Testament’s teachings, we wouldn’t have any more poor people!
But somewhere between the statements –“there should be no poor among us”

and “there will always be poor among us” lies the truth.

poverty3

Poor people are not a burden, BUT A GIFT. Through them we always have opportunities to give and opportunities to serve God.” This is the key to understanding our Gospel today.

Serve them with joy. Give ungrudgingly and with generosity and pleasure. But isn’t this the way Christians are supposed to behave in any situation?

 

This is what Mary did with the perfume. She serves Jesus with joy. This is what Martha did, serving dinner in honor of Jesus. The only exception in this scene is Judas. There’s no joy here. He’s critical and complaining: a poor example of Christian conduct. Jesus reminds him that we always have the opportunity to serve God by serving the poor.
I was tricked out of $20 by that young lady who brought that baby into the church office. She had a great story, and sized me up as a soft touch even before the baby’s bottom got pinched. I’ve been conned out of more than that over the years.   Maybe you have too. But I also know there are many people who really need help. They really are poor. They really are desperate.

It’s OK for us to enjoy life. Jesus did. He most likely enjoyed that expensive perfume being rubbed on his feet. He enjoyed the party that Martha prepared. But it’s not OK for us to turn our back on those in our community who need our attention. That’s what Jesus said.
Jesus scolded Judas, “Judas, you always have the poor – and so what have you been doing for them lately?”

So what have we done for the poor lately?

poverty4

The Five Corner Food Cupboard, Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen. Rockville Family Shelter. UCC causes. Special collections for community concerns.

Poverty is not always measured in dollars and cents. There are equally important times when give someone whatever their need might be: rides, calls, cards, giving directions and a multitude of acts of kindness.
Jesus Christ, Our Lord was right – we will always have the poor with us. It’s not an excuse, but a challenge. The challenge we accept when we serve God with joy and generosity and be blessed one hundredfold when we do.
So being scammed out of $20 was a blessing. Who could have known whether the woman with the baby was in need or not. She was obviously in need of something. Why else would she jeopardize her babysitting livelihood? How can we know for sure?

 

But I did what my Lord commanded. Yes I learned I was cheated. Maybe I’ll ask better questions next time. But I was blessed for having given. You will be too,

 

May God bless us as we try to live His holy word in our lives. Amen.