“The poor will be with you always.”
This is the refrain I heard as I was listening to a friend recently. He was concerned about a mutual friend who could not seem to get her life together, and was wondering what his responsibility was in the midst of it . While he spoke, I kept hearing the words of Jesus. “The poor will be with you always.”
What a drag. Because, if you know any poor people, you’ll know that they are annoying. They lie – to you and to themselves. They keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over again. Like buying cigarettes instead of medicine. Or watching season three of The Good Wife instead of getting her taxes done.
Oh wait, that’s me.
I kept hearing Jesus’ words throughout the week. I woke up hearing them. I heard them in Central Square when I walked by yet another junkie waiting for the Salvation Army to open for dinner. I heard them when I got another difficult-to-read evaluation of Zach’s academic progress. And I heard them when someone I care about secretly ate three brownies, even though she’s supposedly on a cleanse.
Oh wait, that’s me again.
In any case, I heard them enough that I started to get nervous. I just knew that God was about to teach me some very important, very spiritual lesson in his attempt to turn me into a wiser, humbler, kinder person. Like I said, what a drag.
And sure enough, the lesson arrived on at our doorstep on Monday. He had just been asked to leave his rehab facility and had nowhere to go. And because we love his daughter, it seemed like we should let him in.
It’s not like we’ve never had homeless people stay with us. A few months back, we met two homeless addicts – in our house. They had come for a little concert we were having in our living room. And when it became clear that they had nowhere to stay until the next night when they could get back into their shelter, we invited them to stay with us. And then I asked them if they wanted to take a shower, which made one of them choke up in gratifude. So I decided not to tell him that I just didn’t want them getting their homeless smell on my sleeping bags.
And then the next day, they left. Which is how I like it. Because, while the poor may always be with us, I’d prefer to keep them at arm’s length. Or, when that’s not possible, to offer up a kind of drive-by love.
But the man on our doorstep was not a stranger. He is someone we love and who, it’s starting to look like, is going to be with us always. We are his go-to people. Which doesn’t mean that we are responsible for his health or healing or even his housing. But it does mean that his annoying poorness and bad decisions are a part of our lives.
Then yesterday I opened up a little e-book with ideas about how to do Lent as a family. And what do you think the first passage was? You got it: Luke 26:6-13.
Jesus was in Bethany. He was in the home of a man named Simon, who had a skin disease. A woman came to Jesus with a special sealed jar of very expensive perfume. She poured the perfume on his head while he was at the table.
When the disciples saw this, they became angry. “Why this waste?” they asked. “The perfume could have been sold at a high price. The money could have been given to poor people.”
Jesus was aware of this. So he said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. You will always have poor people with you. But you will not always have me. She poured the perfume on my body to prepare me to be buried. What I’m about to tell you is true. What she has done will be told anywhere this good news is preached all over the world. It will be told in memory of her.”
As I’ve been praying, and visualizing, and processing with friends, I sense God showing me something about Lent, about approaching the cross, and about who I am. It’s too early to know for sure where it will lead, but I am struck by two things.
To start, this world is a mess. And so am I. And much of that will not be made right in this lifetime. It will be with us always. It’s the stuff Jesus died for, and he wants to be with us in the midst of it. In the midst of the poverty and hunger and pain and longing that are all too often resistant to logic and hard work, Jesus is inviting us to recline with him around the table. It’s an irrational, decadent, searing invitation. Stop your striving, take communion with Jesus, and stay with him through the cross. It’s the invitation of Lent.
Second, I keep wondering about what it would mean to lavish expensive perfume on Jesus during Lent. I keep thinking of his instruction to his followers that what we do for “least of these,” we do for him. We experience his presence in the least and the last. When he tells us, then, that the poor will be with us always, he is telling us that we can be with HIM always by attaching ourselves to the poor. By loving the poor. By lavishing expensive perfume on those who are broken and lost, who know the grave far too well and who long for Easter.
And again, that’s me.
I don’t exactly know what that will look like for us this Lent. But I did buy some very expensive myrh oil today. (Myrh was an ancient burial spice, and one of the gifts the magi brought to Jesus.) The kids and I read the story from Matthew tonight, and made diffusers with the oil,, and anointed each other’s heads with it. And then we prayed for God to be very present with us this Lent, and for him to open our eyes and hearts to the poor.
In spite of the fact that we’re so annoying.