I overheard the following speculation about the fast-approaching winter weather between two of my colleagues at the office: “One nice thing about winter in Chicago…there aren’t as many homeless around begging for money.” His conversation partner nodded in agreement. They proceeded to discuss how it was hard to walk down the sidewalk at times without being accosted by beggars. The usual “they are just going to buy drugs and alcohol” meme was repeated. These gentlemen parted company as I made my way to the coffee machine. I found myself suddenly conscience about the spare change I was using to get that cup of coffee. I muttered something to the effect that the homeless weren’t migratory birds. That elicited some harsh looks and one colleague said “You know what I mean… the homeless are a pain.”
I was stunned. Yes. I know exactly what he meant. We’ve become so very self-sufficient that we view poverty as a burden upon the wealthy. How’s that for turning economics and logic on its head? It isn’t the poor who are burdened by their poverty: it is the wealthy who are inconvenienced, temporarily made to feel guilty, and are forced into being arbiters of stewardship and grace. The poor just have to be poor. (Read that as lacking agency, autonomy, etc.). It is their ontology.
I said it before but it bears repeating here: When Jesus said in Matt. 26:11 that “the poor will always be among us”, it was not to let us off the hook and give us permission to ignore them because it’s a problem which just won’t go away. It was an instruction that we always have to consider the poor: plan to tend to them, make charity and generosity part of our daily lives.
In this particular season, remembering the words “the poor will always be among us” is to remember that their lack of visibility isn’t an indicator that poverty is being eradicated: to the contrary, the poor are dying to find shelter–quite literally.
To my grousing, nibbling colleagues who are making upwards of $100K, I ask you to learn to unburden yourselves of poverty, and instead embrace the burden of wealth (which is properly yours anyway). Lay aside your claims to self-sufficiency and learn to recognize that the position you are in was not self-made. Be grateful for those who gave you a break: for parents who provided a home, guidance, an education; for health–both mental and physical; for employers who took a risk in hiring you for that first job; for congregations who provide you a spiritual home. Remember that you didn’t earn everything you have. Grace was afforded you when you least deserved it. Be an extension of that grace to others.