Thursday, October 29, 2009

"He Became Sad"

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
-Luke 18:23
There's a barrel outside the locker room where I work. I pass it at least twice a day as I change in and out of my bike clothes. It doesn't have much explanation, just a sign saying you can donate shoes to The Ethiopia Project by putting them in the barrel.

As I was walking by one day recently, I gave it some thought. Like everyone, I like the idea of helping out those less fortunate than myself. African countries seem to have a particular tug on American heart strings. Yet I knew that it didn't make sense, from a humanitarian perspective, to spend $50-$100 on a pair of shoes just to give them to someone in Ethiopia. The money could provide more help in other ways.

Then I thought about my old worn-out shoes that I haven't thrown away yet. But no one wants shoes like this as a donation. It would be an insult to the dignity of the recipient, right? At this point, I thought about the fact that there must be more people than I could bear to consider around the world whose lives would be improved by even my old, nasty, worn out shoes. This took my mind to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus -- Lazarus, "who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table" (Luke 16:22).

I realized, with something like horror, that I was the rich man. Of course, this idea wasn't new to me. It is fairly standard American progressive rhetoric. We all know it. What caused the horror was that for the first time, I sort of understood why the rich man didn't do something for Lazarus when he was alive. He was too deeply entrenched in his own way of life to see an alternative. Even if he wanted things to be different, he couldn't see how they could be. Would it help for him to be poor too? Of course not.

This inability to see an alternative to a privileged way of life connects the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18.
A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.'"

He replied, "I have kept all these since my youth."

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
This man wants to follow Jesus' teaching. He wants to live the way Jesus is telling people they should live. The trouble is, he can't do it. He can't, and it makes him sad.

I looked up The Ethiopia Project today. It isn't terribly humanitarian. They want to give running shoes to aspiring athletes in Ethiopia to see if they can become elite, world-class runners. They don't want my old, worn-out shoes. I have a pair of running shoes that I don't use that are in pretty good shape. Maybe I'll give them to the project.

I still don't see a way out of being a financially privileged American.

1 comment:

Laura Toepfer said...

A little over a year ago, I spent three months in Uganda. One of the things I learned there is that it was literally IMPOSSIBLE for me to be as poor as many of the people I met there.

For example, I met a young woman of 20 or so. She had five children, the first when she was 13. It was not possible for me to put myself in her shoes. With the best will in the world, I could not make myself like her.

It was a very strange feeling, but also somewhat freeing in a way. I am what I am. I did not choose to be born where I am. All I can do is do the best I can with what I have. No way out of that, so I guess I'll just have to live by grace or some such notion. I still don't know how to solve this conundrum either.

Thanks for this entry. This, I think, will always be a struggle for me. It's always helpful to hear other people working on it.