When I was in Mexico City recently taking the Metro, two young kids came into the metro car – a brother and sister I guessed. They were covered in filth. The brother, who might have been 10 or 12 and only wore a pair of dirty, torn shorts, shook a large canvas bag of broken glass to get our attention. He then laid it out on the floor and proceeded to roll over the broken glass. His back was covered with cuts and scars. Then he stood up and stomped back and forth over the carpet of shards. His little sister, maybe six years old, walked up and down the metro car with her hand outstretched, wondering what we might pay to watch the desecration of their childhoods.
It’s interesting how many pastors or people in ministry that joke about being poor. I regularly hear North American university students joking about being poor. What I think we reveal when we say those things is that we really don’t know any people trapped in poverty. Many of us, myself included, live on islands of affluence in a sea of poverty. For me to connect in any substantial way with that brother and sister in Mexico City, who likely represent ½ of the planet living on $2.50 or less per day, takes enormous effort and is fraught with challenges.
Why is it important to make the effort put ourselves in these places? Let me speak first to those of you who consider yourselves followers of Jesus.
In Luke 10 a respected Christian seminary professor came to Jesus to test him. Back then they were called “experts of the law.” He asked Jesus, “What do I have to do to live forever with God?” Jesus bounced the question back to him and asked, “Well, how do you understand Scripture on this matter?” The professor said, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus said, “Great. Do this and you’ll live forever with God.” But Luke says that the professor wanted to justify himself. I get the impression that he believed he had the loving God part down, but was looking for a loophole in loving his neighbor, so the professor asked, “Yeah, but just who is my neighbor?” So Jesus told him a story.
A man walking through a high-crime neighborhood got mugged and left for dead. A pastor and an InterVarsity staff worker both saw the guy and took the long way around him. Then a Muslim came by and tended to his wounds and took him to a private hospital using his own money to pay for the hospital bill. Then Jesus asked, “which one was a neighbor?” The professor couldn’t even bring himself to say the word, Muslim, so he just said, "I suppose the one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “You’re right. Go be like him.”
The seminary professor had rightly understood that scripture has bound together loving God and loving others. For those of us who are religious we’d like to just have it left at loving God. Better yet, we’d like to have it as simple as signing a doctrinal statement or checking a box of belief. I'm not sure loving God can be invisible, or only expressed in Bible reading, prayer and worship. But it's certain that loving neighbor is external and messy. But this professor knew the truth about what the Bible teaches. You cannot love God without loving your neighbor also. I think like me this professor would prefer loving neighbor to be some mystical empathy, or compassion, or sending a check, or uttering some pious blessing. But Jesus disturbs us with a call to radical, costly, untidy compassion. We cannot love God without getting dangerously mixed up with people in dire straits.
Now let me address those of you who don’t consider yourselves Christians. Firstly, I appreciate you reading about poverty from a Christian perspective. It shows you’re open to learning from people like me who have real issues. Jesus attracts lots of messed up people. He said he came seek and save messed up people. That’s why I follow him and why the church is full of morally deficient people like me.
I’d like to encourage you in your pursuit of loving those who are caught in poverty’s jaws. The Samaritan in Jesus’ story whom Jesus used as an example of the Biblical mandate of loving neighbor was theologically errant. Jesus tells a Samaritan in John 4, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know.” Samaritans had some things wrong theologically, yet Jesus held up someone who was wrong in his theology but was right in his practice as an example of what it looks like to love neighbor. Even if you don’t yet buy the theology of Christianity – that Jesus is the way to peace with God, that he was crucified, died, buried and was raised to life for the forgiveness of our sins – I hope that you will still consider following him and learning from him. Maybe you will serve as an example of what it means to love our neighbor, especially to those of us who are attempting to do the impossible: To disconnect loving God from loving people who are in desperate situations and need help.
What sort of re-imagination of my impotent vision of love for God and neighbor might be required in order for me to get involved with those on the margins like the boy who rolls on glass and his sister?