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Posted by on Nov 19, 2011

“The Poor You Always Have With You …” – So We Don’t Have to Do Anything About Poverty?

As the fallout from the Great Recession drags on, with high unemployment, a depressed housing market, high numbers of foreclosures, greater demand for food stamps and Medicaid, and the other woes we’ve seen in the United States over the past few years, the debate over what, if anything, we as a society can or should do to alleviate poverty has moved from theoretical discussions in ethics or political science classes to  the front lines of policy-making in our governmental institutions, as well as to our streets and family gatherings. In a recent Doonesbury cartoon (October 30, 2011), reporter Roland Hedley begins his report on poverty in America saying: “Jesus said, ‘The poor you will have always.” He goes on to speak of the American poor as “pampered”  because they are not as poor as people in Third World countries such as Bangladesh. He specifically mentions that many of our poor have dishwashers and cable TV. They are overweight, so he assumes they have plenty to eat, and he notes that medical care is available through the emergency room, so no one starves or bleeds to death here – both statements patently untrue.

If this were just a comic strip character speaking, I might not bother to address the issues raised. However, this character’s statements parallel those of other real-world individuals, including Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation who noted that, based on federal surveys, most poor Americans have air conditioning, microwaves, TVs, adequate housing, nutritious food and about half even have personal computers. His point is that based on new ways of measuring poverty, “The overwhelming majority of poor people, not all, live in conditions that the average American wouldn’t recognize as poverty.” (The San Jose Mercury News, Oct 4, 2011, pA6). Both statements left me wondering if the speaker were advocating some sort of means test by which landlords would have to remove air conditioning and dishwashers from apartments rented to low income persons?!!!

But then I get serious again. All too often, that quotation from Jesus is used as a means to defuse efforts to draw attention to the reality of poverty and its impact on people all over the world. Poverty does not have to be life threatening to do great harm both to individuals and to nations. There are very real economic reasons why we should not join a race to the bottom in terms of how many people are left to live in dire poverty. However, since the door to consideration of religious implications of poverty gets opened through this commonly misquoted, misapplied and misunderstood quotation from St. John’s Gospel (Jn 12:8), the religious implications have become fair game and I will address them here.

As I am not a theologian and do not speak or read the Koine Greek in which the gospels are written, I asked a theologian friend, Dr. Megan McKenna, to explain the quotation and how it has been understood by the Christian community from its earliest years. Her response was longer than I want to quote here, but I’ll summarize it.

Jesus’ actual statement was, “The poor you always have with you, but me you will not always have.” It was made in response to a complaint by Judas Iscariot that an expensive ointment used by Jesus’ friend Mary to anoint his feet should have been sold rather than wasted on his feet because the proceeds could have been given to the poor. John notes in an aside that Judas was not particularly concerned about the poor, but rather used to help himself to the common purse.

According to Megan, Jesus’ statement was taken by the early church to mean “that whatever you want to do for me, you can do for the poor – and I will take it as done to me… a version of Matt 25: Whatever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters I take it that you did to me, and whatever you ignored or refused to do to the least of my brothers and sisters I take it you ignored me and refused to do it for me.”

She notes: “In the early church there was a saying: ‘See how those Christians love one another [the part they like to quote, the second part of the sentence being] there are no poor among them.’” Christians lived in common and shared what they had because they recognized Christ’s body as being no longer in the tomb but rather having become the Christian community. “What makes one a decent human being and the basis of Christianity is justice – and people deserve justice in all the basic necessities of life – food, water, clothing, shelter, education, health care, dignity, a job, freedom from harm and violence, etc. The rights of justice are listed in the first part of Pacem in Terris – and poverty is an insult to the God of Life who proclaimed that he had come that all might have life, ever more abundantly (here and now).”

Megan’s final point is that “love your neighbor as yourself” is not just a Christian concept. It comes from Jewish theology. “In the Old Testament if you were wealthy and didn’t share, you were considered violent and not a practicing or good Jew. Their understanding is that you are only worth what you give away and share with the poor, no matter what you actually have.”

I find it intriguing that those who are seemingly so concerned about the United States being a Christian nation, who would happily re-criminalize abortion and possibly outlaw birth control, who will spend hours debating and passing legislation re-affirming that the motto of the United States, printed on our money, is “In God We Trust,” would so cavalierly, almost in their next breath, speak of cutting unemployment, food stamps, and health care benefits for the millions of children, their unemployed or underemployed parents, senior citizens, and disabled Americans in order to balance the budget, rather than considering ways to increase revenues.

We as a nation have to decide which way we’ll go. We’ve got to come to an agreement on our social compact and how to fund the infrastructure and human capital development that will be necessary to keep this country and its ideals of freedom and justice for all in a position to lead by example as other peoples in the world reach for the prosperity and freedoms we enjoy. We’re all in this together. We’ve got to make hard choices and sacrifices. But the folks with the fewest resources, even if they have more than those in Third World countries, cannot bear the brunt of the sacrifice or we will all ultimately pay the price. And while that  may have nothing to do with religious beliefs or imperatives, for people of faith, Followers of the Way, Christians, those imperatives speak loudly and clearly and are ignored at our peril!

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Posted by on Nov 27, 2010

In the Beginning – A Gift for the New Year from Deep Space Astronomy

Once again we are at a beginning time. The First Sunday of Advent begins the liturgical year. It is New Year’s Day in our Catholic community.

The readings in Advent begin by speaking of things to come – specifically the coming of the Lord of Hosts, the coming of the Son of Man. We are reminded to be ready, to move away from acts of evil and put on the armour of light, to walk in the light of the Lord. It’s a time of anticipation as well as a time to take stock of our lives and change the things that keep us from being ready for the Lord’s coming into our lives.

This year our Gospel readings will be primarily from the Gospel of St. Matthew, Cycle A. The readings we’ll hear will be those from a community that saw Jesus as the Mercy of God and the church as the kingdom of God coming into being here and now, in this life we share on Earth. For those who’d like to know more about the Gospel of St. Matthew, I recommend Megan McKenna’s, Matthew: The Book of Mercy. She has also written a set of commentaries on the Sunday and daily readings from all three Cycles of liturgical readings used in Roman Catholic liturgies —  Tasting the Word of God, Vol. 1 (Sunday) and Vol 2 (Daily).

As we begin this new year, with all the uncertainty, challenges, joys and blessings it will bring, I’d like to share a gift from the Lord with you. These pictures were taken with the Hubble telescope of places in the universe where normally nothing can be seen. May they be a reminder that although we may not be able to see what God has in mind for us, or all the beauty that surrounds us, or all the wonders that flow through God’s creation (including each of us), there are marvelous surprises waiting for us to be ready and able to perceive them.

Hubble Telescope Ultra Deep Field

Happy New Year!

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Posted by on Jan 15, 2009

“God speaks in everything … God speaks very, very, very slowly …” Nana

“God speaks in everything … God speaks very, very, very slowly …” Nana

Megan McKenna's Nana

Megan McKenna's Nana

Megan McKenna is a theologian and storyteller who travels the world spreading the good news about God’s love and challenge to us to live out that love. Often her stories are from other cultures or religious traditions and help clarify the lessons of our own Christian faith tradition.

In Playing Poker with Nana, Megan reaches into her own life to share with us the wisdom of her grandmother, her Nana. I received a copy of the book from Megan as an Epiphany gift, and I am savoring it. Part of me wants to race from chapter to chapter (each 2-3 pages long) and devour it in a sitting. The older, and I hope wiser, part of me advises reading it one chapter, one story at a time and pondering the advice and insights her Nana shared with Megan. So most days I read just one at bedtime and let it simmer in my heart and the back of my mind through the next day.

Yesterday I read Chapter 10, “History.” Megan had quoted Martin Buber to her Nana one day in conversation. “God is always speaking, but never repeats himself, like sunrises and sunsets.” Her Nana reflected on the quote and then responded with her own thought, “It’s true. God speaks in everything, people, relationships, even all that dies, but sometimes, I’ve learned, God speaks very, very, very slowly …”

Before she finishes speaking, Nana has explained in beautiful depth her thoughts on the matter, on the very slow way God has of speaking to us most of the time.

The chapter is only three paragraphs long, but it stuck with me all day today. At Mass, the Psalm response was, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” It really struck me that Nana’s words went right along with the admonition of the psalmist. Sometimes we hear God’s voice in bursts of insight or in the wonder of a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset. But more often we hear God’s voice in the quiet reflective times, when we seek to understand what has been happening in our lives and those of people around us. Nana advises Megan and all of us that sometimes we just have to stake our lives on the hope that, hard as life is, it’s already been redeemed, so we just have to “believe and hang in there.”

As I was walking home past a calm, nearly waveless ocean on a beautiful sunny day, I found words for what I was feeling in my heart and trying to formulate in my mind. Often we as Americans have a sense that only the “hard-nosed” businessperson can be a success. Only the practical, matter-of-fact person will accomplish his or her goals. Only those who set goals and focus single-mindedly on reaching them will find security. Being “soft-hearted” is not a quality that we value very much. It tends to get lumped in with being “simple-minded” or a “bleeding heart liberal” in the minds of many. Yet that is exactly what it seems God is calling us to be. The opposite of a hard heart is a soft one. One that knows that God speaks very, very, very slowly and we might not see the whole picture just now, or be hearing the whole story.

Thank you, Megan, for sharing your Nana’s wisdom with us. May her words help us to keep hanging on, listening for God’s voice, with soft hearts ready to love and be loved.

(Playing Poker with Nana is distributed in the US by Dufour Editions. I highly recommend it.)

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Posted by on Oct 28, 2008

“God speaks in everything … God speaks very, very, very slowly …” Nana

Trusted Authority – Megan McKenna – On Voting


Theologian/Storyteller, Megan McKenna

Theologian/Storyteller, Megan McKenna

Today – one week before voting day for President of the United States – I’d like to offer a note I received in June from theologian, storyteller Megan McKenna. A friend had asked what her “rules” for choosing a candidate for political office would be. This was her response.

Dear folks,

Here is something I wrote in response to a question. It’s a place to start. Enjoy and feel free to comment and send me any of your thoughts. I’m sure I’ll be using it more and more as time goes on. Blessings, Shalom, Megan

Here are my rules (so to speak) for voting … rough form. They are more developed when I speak them.

I. Vote for the person you think will do the least amount of harm (war, nuclear weapons, new weapons, death penalty, economics, housing, health insurance, etc.).

2. Vote for the person you think will allow you and others with you to do the most amount of good (correcting and undoing the gutting of the Constitution, rights, freedoms in the US, etc. from the last 8 years), as well as work for legistation against the death penalty, for housing, decent wages, immigration (welcoming the stranger since we were all in that group once unless we are native Americans), universal health care, dialogue with other nations (trying to pull our international reputation out of where it is today because of Iraq/Afghanistan/torture, aggression, pre-emptive strikes, alliance with Israel, refusal to dialog with Iran/Sudan/Cuba/Palestine, etc.).

3. Remember – none of them [candidates and political parties] is interested in the kingdom of justice for all and peace (the peace of Christ – nonviolent resistance to evil) and life ever more abundantly for all.

4. Do not vote one issue … no matter what it is. There are 6.8 billion people in the world, nearly 2/3 of them living at subsistence level, in need of clean water, basic food, shelter, medicine, education, dignity, freedom from violence, the freedom to migrate and a hope for their children. There is also the destruction of the earth and the greed of the few/major nations like us and the G8 over-using natural resources and thinking only in terms of profit, nationalism/and a war that in the last 8 years has, on an average wasted over $800 billion a year on wanton destruction of Iraq (a country the size of New Jersey) and Afghanistan (already in the 11 century when we started bombing). Yet we do nothing in regards to Burma (Myanmar) the Sudan, Zimbabawe or any other country that is beset by dictators/military regimes, etc.

5. VOTE… If you don’t, then you are even more responsible for what happens. Not to choose is to choose – we are all accountable for what happens in this country.

6. Vote for the person who will think long term – Supreme Court justices, economics, and especially in regards to other countries, internationally. We have little or no respect around the world – because of torture, lies, Guantanamo, immigration practices, arrogance towards others, rendition of citizens, the ignoring of our own Constitution and laws and our inordinate living (consumption of oil, resources, food, etc.). At home – the housing, mortgage crisis – people need their homes back, they need universal medical insurance and education that is not tiered according to race/economics.

7. Pray, read the scriptures. Who would Jesus, in the power of the Spirit who calls God Our Father (all of us the beloved children of God, blessed and loved, no exceptions), vote for? And get involved with others. Make your choice. Look at and know what needs to be confronted and dealt with – the Middle East question of Jerusalem/Israel/Palestine, 2 states, the wall; the ongoing wars and how to get troops out and how to dialog so that war is not considered an option ever – no matter what. And look for integrity, honesty, truthfulness.

That’s it … in a nutshell. Each “rule” or thing to remember could be elaborated on with the principles of justice, social teaching and the gospel.



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