Finding Calcutta 2 (RJS)

Finding Calcutta 2 (RJS) September 20, 2011

Last Thursday I started a series on Mary Poplin’s thought provoking book Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service. This is not a science and faith book – and it is a welcome respite from some of the more “academic” questions we discuss on this blog.  I have had a number of commenters over the years bemoan the fact that I waste time on questions and the intellectual aspects of faith – rather than emphasizing living the Christian life. I agree with them on one level, but not entirely. Wrestling with the questions is an important part of the Christian life, the fear that answers may not exist or finding that what we thought to be true simply is not can be devastating. For an example of the impact failure to face the questions see the repost from Daniel Kirk last week. It is significant that he, and many who responded in the comment, see the need for this kind of letter.

But it is also true that we should not concentrate on the head knowledge, answer all of the questions, and then move into living the Christian life. Rather we need to be immersed in the Christian life as we wrestle and learn. Apprenticeship, mentorship, action, education, mission – this is all part of discipleship to be pursued simultaneously.

Dr. Poplin, in the context of her experience in Calcutta with the Missionaries of Charity, works through the meaning and focus of the Christian life.  The emphasis is service, but the focus on loving and serving others is to be rooted in the love of God. Two passages of scripture play a significant role in shaping these ideas about service.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 22:36-40)

The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ (Mt 25:40)

What ever is done should be done out of love of God, love for others, and seeing Christ in the eyes and needs of those around.

What does it mean to see Christ in the eyes of others?

Dr. Poplin writes about the change of focus in her life, a change that began when she first became a Christian in 1993 and continued as she contemplated and requested the opportunity to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta as part of her sabbatical in 1996.

One thing that Mother Teresa repeatedly said was that their work was religious work, not social work. I found this statement intriguing and wanted to know what she meant, What could those of us who live and work outside a religious order learn from her religious work?

Therefore I sent a letter to the Mother House in Calcutta in the fall of 1995 asking if I could volunteer during my upcoming spring sabbatical. … The letter from Sister Priscilla, who was in charge of volunteers, answered “Come with a heart to love and hands to serve Jesus in the crippled, the abandoned, the sick and dying in any one of our centres.” (p. 10)

When Dr. Poplin returned home she tried to write of her experience in a way that would resonate with the people of a secular age and a secular university. Yet she found this to be impossible.

I can see now that even the church in which I grew up taught more about being a “good humanist” than about living with and for Christ. … I finally realized: one cannot understand or explain Mother Teresa in secular terms. Indeed that is precisely what she meant when she said “Our work is not social work; it is religious work.” (p. 12)

The Missionaries of Charity see Christ in the eyes of the poor and destitute they are called to serve, they see Christ in the eyes of the volunteers who come alongside to help them, for a few weeks or many months. In addition they see themselves as bringing and being Christ to those they serve.

Mother said in an interview,

If we did not believe that this was the body of Christ, we would never be able to do this work. No amount of money could make us do it. It is He whom we reach in the people who are unwanted, unemployed, uncared for; they seem useless to society, nobody has time for them. It is just you and I who must find them and help them. Often we pass them without seeing them. But they are there for the finding.

I began to think how differently I would work if I truly saw each person I met as a hungry, hurting Christ. What if every time someone came to me with a problem, I responded as though Christ himself had approached me? What if I saw everyone all day long as in need of a touch from God, and what if I were yielded enough that God could actually use me to give his touch. (p. 39-40)

The importance of religion – or more significantly Christian faith – to the work is much more significant than “mere” motivation and strength. Social action without Christ lacks the power to make any impact, prayer without social action is worthless. Faith without works is, James tells us rather forcefully, dead.

We casually sing worship songs – with raised hands, and hardly paying attention to the words.

Christ be the center of our lives
Be the place we fix our eyes
Be the center of our lives

The Christian call is to put Christ at the center of life, the center of the universe, and the Missionaries of Charity see Christ in the eyes and bodies of every person around them. The call is to service.  The call for Christ to be the place we fix our eyes is a call to serve our neighbors.

Do you think that the Missionaries of Charity have the right approach here?

Should we live as though we see service to Christ in every interaction with our fellow man?

Where would this change your approach to life?

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  • I find the approach of the Missionaries of Charity to be extremely challenging… and I do think their theology is right on. I find it challenging to my ego and my desire to “succeed” in ministry (whatever that means– be it numbers or some other tangible way to measure success). To see the face of Christ in the people who irritate me, who interrupt me, who stand me up for events or disappoint me in other ways… it means a whole new level of dying to self. But to learn that kind of love is my desire. It is beautiful.

  • Wonderful post. I find it creates an interesting paradox: through the Spirit we develop the mind of Christ which compels us to be Jesus to others–but also to see Jesus in every opportunity to serve. It forms a never ending circle, does it not?

  • And yes, this brief article is making a profound impact on my attitude.

  • Let me push back against the sacramental view of the poor that Mother Teresa and others have advocated….. I have served the urban poor in the neighborhood that I live in for about 20 years. My current ministry includes wholistically discipling gang-members on the streets of Grand Rapids that are killing each other (by the way, I have been to 2 funerals in the last 10 days of former students of mine that have been killed on the streets of Grand Rapids….one was stabbed in the heart with an ice pick and one was shot in the face) Many of the gang-bangers that we reach out to are low-level drug dealers and thugs that are quite poor. Do they have the mystical Christ living in them because of their destitution? So when some poor low-level dealers in my neighborhood exchange drugs for tricks from crack-addicted single-moms, was that really Jesus? When I saw a homeless man beat another homeless man half do death,…..Was that really Jesus? Did the mysterious “Christ” viciously assault Himself? I have seen some poor people do the most despicable, depraved things to each other. (To be fair, I also have seen the oppressive depravity of privileged wealthy people) Please understand I have seen my share of oppression from the powerful and rich against the poor, so I am not trying stereotype the poor as if everything is their fault.

    The problem with viewing the poor as the mystical Christ is that it often romanticizes the poor as if they have no sin problem. Because of course Jesus was without sin. I think it better that we see the poor as God’s image-Bearers who are cracked eikons because of the fall.

  • rjs


    Some of the effect of this way of thinking is to view others as innocent victims. That, as you describe well, is not always the case. But the attitude is not exactly what you are assuming, at least I don’t think it is.

    Dr. Poplin has a chapter on a couple of volunteers who poison the atmosphere at the children’s home where she was working. The attitude of the Sisters is to see service to the volunteers, to atheists, even in certain circumstances those who are materially well off, because they see service to others as service to Christ.

    I am not sure that the attitude of the Missionaries of Charity is exactly right, but I think that this idea of servanthood is something we should internalize.

  • Paul Johnston

    Joel… and he was bloodied, savagely beaten, dead. Nailed to a cross under the burden of sin. In defiance of Roman authority in defiance of religeous authority, in that moment would he have been recognizable to you as the “Christ”?

    As for the what about sin argument, it is self defeating. Do you mean to suggest, as the logic of your arguement infers that all have sinned therefore Christ is present in no one. Not even you.

    I like the “cracked eikon” analogy but do you really mean to only identify it with the poor?

  • Paul Johnston

    What does it mean to see Christ in the eyes of others?

    Love before self interest. Love before politics. Joy in every human interaction.

  • Paul Johnston

    RJS you say…”Some of the effect of this way of thinking is to view others as innocent victims.”

    I do not think this was ever a consideration to Mother. Again her motives were religeous not socio/political. In her own words…”Intense love does not measure, it just gives.”

    Perhaps some of the nuance of being religeous and not humanistic is revealed in this quote of Mother’s…”Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself. Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”

    The poor seen not as a problem to be solved or worse still, a burden to be abandoned but rather as a gift to be cherished.

  • Jeff L

    Paul @ #8 writes “The poor seen not as a problem to be solved or worse still, a burden to be abandoned but rather as a gift to be cherished.”

    Paul, I don’t think you intend this, but the statement sounds to these ears as if “the poor” have instrumental value only. Indeed, I can imagine someone picking up on the comment and arguing that it’s a good thing that certain folks are poor because the rest of us get so much good out of it.

  • Paul,

    Although I agree that the bloody, scarred, unrecognizable Jesus died on the cross for our sin, He lived a life without sin. Poor people (and rich people) sin. Unregenerate poor do not have a mystical Christ in them. Christ is present in those who have repented and believed in him.

    A better interpretation of the “least of these” may be that Christ identified with the poor, rather than the poor somehow being Jesus in disguise. For instance, in my neighborhood, you mess with a north-north gang-banger, you end up messing with all of North-North. Its about identification, not indwelling. North-North gang-members are not mystically present in one another. Rather they have such a close identification to each other that they defend one another. The poor are so close to the heart of God, that he promises to defend them.

    Also, I have come across an increasing amount of volunteers who are privileged suburban young evangelicals that believe they are somehow mystically serving Jesus when they are serving the poor. Often they come across as naive in their relationship with the poor because they have romanticized the poor (they overlook that the poor actually have a sin nature, because after all, they are serving “Jesus.”) Also, these same people come across without any passion to verbally share the good news of Christ because they assume the poor are Christians because they are somehow “Jesus.” I realize that my experience is only limited to my context…….

  • rjs


    I don’t think I actually got my point across well in the previous comment. I think you are right, that there is a danger for volunteers to romanticize the poor. And this has unfortunate consequences. Being poor doesn’t make one good or righteous.

    The point is simply service, not the deserving nature of those who receive. In fact because it is all “for Christ” the deserving nature of the recipient never comes into the picture, whether the recipient is the poor or for that matter a grumpy volunteer.

    Interesting illustration of identification – I am going to have to think about that one.

  • RJS,

    I am with you about service to all of the poor, not just the “deserving” poor. We all are in need of God’s grace and it is because of God’s grace that serve the the least of these……..

  • Paul Johnston

    Joel, what about the passages preceding “the least of mine…”I was hungry”, “You fed me”…are you really comfortable with the claim that Jesus is not present in the poor, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned?

    No, Jeff L, poverty in all its manifestations is never inherently good. But the goodness and grace made manifest when poverty is addressed and overcome, are as bountiful for the servant as they are for the served.

    As you are helping the poor, the poor are helping you. You are not higher, they are not lower. Our service towards each other leads to grace for all.

  • Paul,

    yes i am very comfortable that Jesus is not somehow mystically present in the least of these (unless they are believers) Most evangelical (in the broadest sense of the word) commentators do not interpret the least of these as the mystical Jesus residing in all of the poor. I’ve studied at least 10 commentaries and often their interpretation is along the lines of this. In fact, many commentators like this one (IVP) believe that the least of these is limited to how we treat poor gospel messengers. I personally believe this is too narrow of a view.

  • rjs


    I know many take the “brothers and sisters” in this passage and then limit this to believers – but I think this is a copout. Not only because of this text, but because of this text in conjunction with others. Texts like the parable of the good Samaritan, with the implications there for who is one’s neighbor (not just believers). And the rich young ruler who was told to sell what he had and give it to the poor. The “give it to the poor” is significant. I think his wealth stood between him and his ability to follow both commandments, especially the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”.

    I don’t think judgment will only reflect our treatment of fellow believers, it will reflect how we treat and value all people everywhere.