Last Saturday at Vestry University, I learned from The Rev. Canon Timothy Dombek, keynote speaker at our Vestry University, that people in the United States spend more money on trash bags than people in 90 countries spend on everything. That suggests Americans have an awful lot of stuff to throw away. That also suggests that people in 90 countries (and I presume they are from the 90 poorest countries) don’t have the financial resources to buy much of anything. This is a stark, if not tragic, picture of the growing economic chasm between those who are rich and those who are poor.
The statistics are chilling, and getting worse. 16% of Americans live in poverty. Billions of people in the world live on less than $2 a day. 42% of Newark kids live in poverty.
There is a temptation (and self righteousness) to think that knowing the numbers somehow makes the situation better. It won’t. I confess to a desire to soften the picture – and for a time in my life, I thought that Jesus’ claim, “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11), does that. It doesn’t. Jesus is telling his disciples – and through them Jesus is telling us, that people who are economically poor are a part of the world’s landscape – they are our brothers and sisters. And instead of trying to Photoshop them out of the picture (which seems to be de rigeur for politicians these days), we had better try and do something about it.
So what do we do? Jesus is pretty clear about this. Give. He commends the widow for giving all that she had. (Luke 21:4) He admonishes the rich young man to sell all that he owns and give it away. (Mark 10:21) One might think he is setting forth an economic policy that will cure poverty. He isn’t. Jesus is proposing a spiritual discipline – a discipline of giving at a frequency and amount that will demonstrate to us that the accumulation of stuff which eventually fills our trash bags doesn’t provide us with security or spiritual satisfaction. There is a tipping point here: when we give sacrificially – beyond what initially feels comfortable; we are then better able to see that much of our stuff serves as insulation – from the reality of poverty and inequality. And insulation from the true – and abiding riches. Jesus wants us to strip ourselves of that insulation so we not only see the growing divide – but are more emboldened to do something about it.
The discipline of giving – and by giving I mean sacrificial giving rather than token giving; is a spiritual exercise that leads us to true freedom. Jesus knew that. And he knew that the more we give away, the more free we are able to live – and the more inclined we are to work for the freedom of others.
May it be so.