Messin’ With Lent

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’—Mt. 19:16-26

At the beginning of Lent, like you, I was invited “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” And so, to show that I penitent and self-denying I gave up chocolate and single malt scotch. I immediately felt holier than my non-observant neighbors who were merrily going along eating their Godiva truffles and sipping distilled 21 year-old barley juice. The problem is, though I might feel holier, I haven’t really denied myself anything. I still have a nice house, a nice car (several really), a middle-class salary (with a generous retirement plan), excellent health care coverage and more food than I can ever possibly eat, in Lent or any other season. And now, along comes Jesus, messin’ with my holy Lent, telling me (in the person of a righteous young man), to give what I have to the poor.

The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Njongonkulo Ndungane know Jesus a lot better than I do, I’m afraid. In his new book, A World With a Human Face, he calls us, the churches of the Global North, rich, powerful and proud, to look again at the world Jesus bought with his blood and see that we can do something to make our faith complete: vow that we will work tirelessly to end poverty wherever it is found. That, he says, goes beyond sharing the money God has sent our way, though that is our starting point. He writes, “Equating development with money, evaluating the human condition only in coin, is a great untruth….Poverty is not just about low incomes, it is about loss of dignity, being treated as nothing, and basic needs not being met.”

We have spent billions of dollars and had program after program and I can assure you that as far as ending poverty goes, they have all been abject failures. Every day in my office, people come in, poor people, sick people, beaten down people, people who long ago gave up any hope that they would have any accumulation of the kind of wealth that I take for granted. They are looking for some food, or some help to pay a heating bill or even a place of shelter on a cold, rainy night. And I try to help them. But they know and I know that I am giving them little more than the scraps from under my table. They come in poor and they leave poor. I can give them some food and little bit of money, but nothing about their condition has changed. The grinding cycle of poverty continues and both they and I lose something in the process: I lose a bit of the hope that I actually can do something about poverty and they lose a bit of the hope that I will.

When Jesus’ disciples watched the rich young man walk away sad, they wondered, “If this guy can’t make it, can anybody?” But Jesus was not discouraged: “With God,” he said, “all things are possible.”

30,000 children will die worldwide today from poverty and disease caused by poverty. That’s 10 September 11th’ s happening everyday and all the victims are children. And instead of declaring war on the conditions that make it so, I shake my head and walk away sad.

Of the approximately 70 million children living in the United States, 17% live in poor families and 38% live in low-income families. With the 2004 federal poverty level for a family of four at $18,850, average families need an income that is twice that amount to meet their most basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, health care, and child care. A majority of all children in these low-income families—14.7 million of them—have at least one parent who works full-time year-round. In addition, half of these households are headed by married parents. And I shake my head walk away sad.

852 million people across the world are hungry, up from 842 million a year ago. And I walk away sad.

In the developing world, more than 1.2 billion people currently live below the international poverty line, earning less than $1 per day. And I walk away sad.

I am sad, because I enjoy my stuff and I don’t want to give it up. I am sad, because if I really want to do something about poverty, I have to work to change the systems that create poverty: addictions, oppression, greed, war. I have to proclaim from this pulpit and in my daily ministry that moral values do indeed matter—and that the single greatest moral issue for the church today is not the abortion rate, as shocking as that is. It is not homosexual marriage, as much an affront to tradition as that may be. The single greatest moral issue for the church today is the fact that we are turning a blind and disbelieving eye to the poor. I have to hold my religious, economic and political leaders accountable for how they treat the poor. I have to hold myself accountable for how I treat the poor.

Like the rich young man, I’d rather talk about how faithful I am, about how good I am at keeping the 10 Commandments. But if I walk away on this, I may as well ignore the 10 Commandments. If I walk away on this, I’m looking at a needle-sized gate into heaven. If I walk away on this, I deny the one who became poor for our sakes. Because I and you can do something about poverty.

Archbishop Ndungane puts it like this: “This is a kairos moment: we are at the doorstep of the next thousand years of human history. The first Christians stood on the threshold of the first millennium in a state of hopelessness after the crucifixion of Christ. But God raised him from the dead: hence our age is one of hope, an age of new beginnings, an age of resurrection faith.”

Like Jesus says, “with God all things are possible.” The question is, do we really believe that?

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