In this weekly column, local pastors have been asked to write about how the church should address poverty in our community and worldwide. You can learn more about poverty in Hall County at gainesvilletimes.com/poverty.
“They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; he is calling you.’ Then Jesus said to him ‘What do you want me to do for you?’”
I have appreciated all the pastoral responses to the editor’s question to us about a biblical response to cultural poverty. Since my own conversion as a child, I have struggled to know how to respond to this same situation.
My younger brother took on an orphan through the Christian Children’s Fund when we were in elementary school. Each month he faithfully sent in a money order that he was assured made it possible for “his” orphan to be “fed, clothed and educated.” I always admired his early commitment to working in order to make charitable giving possible.
One of my favorite memories of time with my father as a young child was the smell of apples and tinned meat as we prepared and delivered Christmas baskets of food to each of the employees at his factory.
I was much older before I realized that this practice embedded in my mind that “employees” always needed extra food and “employers” had a duty to provide it, at least once a year.
Both of these examples are childhood memories that hardly capture the full scope of either ministry. But each made its mark on my heart.
It was with some shock, therefore, that I listened to Robert Lupton, author of “Toxic Charity,” talk about the need to collaborate with the poor, creating partnerships that nourish personal as well as physical health.
That’s when I noticed this particular passage from Mark’s Gospel when Jesus asked the blind man what he wanted.
Seriously, he had to ask? Isn’t it obvious what the man wants and needs? He’s blind!
Thinking on Jesus’ recognition of Bartemaeus’ autonomy in the light of the two illustrative events from my childhood has created an emotional and theological tension for me around my response to poverty as a cultural reality and to the poor as part of my own home community. I can see how the two examples from my childhood created in me two unchallenged predicates that have since guided my thinking.
The first, in the case of my brother and his $12 a month to “clothe, feed and educate” a child, suggested a very unrealistic notion about what it actually costs to reverse a condition like systemic poverty.
And in the case of my father and his holiday food baskets for his employees, I never questioned why he didn’t pay them enough to buy their own food at the holidays and could not imagine that, if they were hungry, getting a basket of canned meat and apples once a year would make any real difference.
So I believe Jesus (and others, like Mr. Lupton) was more on the right track than I presently am. He engaged in a conversation about what Bartemaeus wanted and then worked with him from there.
Of course, in the end, Jesus restored his sight. But in the way he did it, it seems to me that he also restored some of his integrity.
My response to the condition of poverty and to the poor in my community needs to be realistic and respectful. That level of response cannot help but alter my own perspective from paternalism to partnership. And, when God’s grace operates in that context, hopefully each of us can move closer to our right size.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park is the associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. She can be reached at email@example.com.