(This is another in the ongoing series of “Noon Wine” reflections in scriptures related to poverty and the poor.)
SCRIPTURE: Romans 12: 9-20
KEY VERSES: (16) “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” (My italics for emphasis.)
So we Christians are to associate with the lowly?
St. Paul instructs to do just that–to drop any conceits and haughtiness we harbor and get down and dirty with the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, the “lowly.”
That’s a humbling spiritual practice, but humility is always the point when it comes to the theologies of poverty and in reaching out to the poor and powerless. It seems that Paul, who once noted that Jesus humbled himself all the way to death the cross (Philippians 2: 8), was always and forever mindful that Jesus himself had said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23: 12).
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But who might be the “lowly” that Paul urges us to hang out with?
Are they the unwashed masses who band together on the downtown streets waiting for soup kitchens to open? Or might they be the undocumented immigrants who risk life and limb to get to America to scrub our toilets and mop our floors and tend our gardens and pave our highways in blazing heat?
Would “the lowly” be the con artist and “low-life” who, in his or her despair, ended up in prison for dealing crack cocaine on the streets?
Is the lowly one the able-bodied poor person who, in his yielding to despair after a lifetime of being whipped down, literally or figuratively, is too lazy to work?
Is it the unskilled, “working poor” woman who–like a neighbor I had at a Dallas apartment–worked three jobs that netted her a total income under $20,000 year to support herself and two children?
She lost two of the jobs, by the way, when the transmission on her car broke and there was no money for repairs.
I wonder if perhaps the “lowly” one that the Apostle Paul–not to mention Jesus–would have me “associate” with is the one that I, with all my natural human prejudice, “look down on,” based on my life experience with people I don’t understand and perhaps don’t care to understand.
It does seem to me, in all honesty, that we all have some kind of superiority complex–that we all look down on somebody. Maybe that’s why humility is one of those threads that we see running through the Bible from start to finish. God in God’s power is constantly humbling somebody who is puffed up with pride and power and prejudice.
Paul himself, who was seemingly obsessed with instructing early Christians to humble themselves, had been humbled in a big way, after all, on that road to Damascus.
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Who, really, is “too lowly” for a Christian to associate with and witness to in the unbiased love and grace of Christ? For sure, the early generations of Christians for the better part of 300 years astounded people by associating with anyone and everyone, regardless of class or social status, gender, race or ethnicity, education or anything else.
They understood that Jesus himself had broken down all those barriers, and therefore believed that no one was “too lowly” to be included in the circle of God’s love and grace, mercy and forgiveness.
Is anyone “too lowly” for Christians to associate with–anyone too lacking in importance or social status, anyone too poor or, for that matter, too haughty and rich–for an invitation to the Association of Christian Hospitality?
We’re always looking to the Bible for answers to everything, as if God were the Answer Man who dropped the Book of Answers from the sky one day.
But the Bible always answers back with more challenging questions than pat answers, questions that challenge us to grow and break out of our comfort zones.
Who indeed is too lowly for us to talk with, to listen to and hear, to be seen with, to “associate” with, to witness to by simply caring enough to be there in love and grace, compassion and mercy?
*(The photos are from Getty Images photographer John Moore, who has spent years covering stories about immigration between Mexico and the United States. For more pictures and more on his enterprising photojournalism click here.)