I read once that Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, traveled very lightly. She carried her breviary and a can of instant coffee. That’s it. Even though she said on more than one occasion, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” she’s on her way to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, the church in which she found a spiritual home, at times an uneasy home, but a home nevertheless.
She wasn’t an entirely likeable person. She had one daughter, Tamar, and their relationship wasn’t the easiest. Dorothy wasn’t warm and cuddly; she was tough and formidable. She struggled deeply with the inherent brokenness of this world. She extended hospitality and yet she wasn’t a friendly Christian do-gooder. “There are two things you should know about the poor,” she wrote: “they tend to smell, and they are ungrateful.” She knew what it was to call Christ ‘Savior’ and she found him not only her Lord and Master but also her friend. Interestingly, when she went to write her story she titled it, The Long Loneliness.
I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are victims of the long loneliness.
There are some brilliant moments in which I can viscerally feel her holding a candle against the darkness, daring the darkness to try, just try to overcome the light (Jn. 1:5):
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
I treasure these images of Dorothy Day — bold, visionary, faithful, fierce. It’s not easy to love the poor, especially because it feels never-ending. We can’t ‘fix’ them, and the system is so broken that even if we helped them get a job (which most of the poor in our country have, by the way) or help them “get back on their feet” (how many times have we heard that?) we wouldn’t be able to set most up for long-term success. One of the leaders of the food pantry at Ascension, Lexington Park, said: “If you’re going to be in this mission business, you can’t look at the cars they drive, nor the shoes on their feet.” I take his words to mean that you can’t judge those who come into a food pantry looking for food. If they say they’re hungry, feed them. By way of initial responses, compassion and hospitality make for good beginnings.
The gospels tell us that the poor teach us how to seek and serve Christ. On Monday in Holy Week, we remember the sorry in which Mary annoints Jesus’ feet in Bethany. (John 12:1-11) Jesus teaches about the end that is to come, his end. That’s what Holy Week invites us to pay attention to, but what it really asks us is to come to terms with our faith in the here and now.
Even though Jesus is no longer here, physically, he gave a very clear teaching about how we are to shape our lives and ministries. The poor, He said, must be at the center of our common life, the literal heart of any ministry done in His name. But sadly this teaching has been misunderstood. Here, I’m specifically thinking of John 12:8 — what my NRSV translates as, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The shorthand interpretation has sounded something like a treatise on global economics. Poverty will always be around, it goes; there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In fact, Jesus himself said as much. Be nice to poor people, but there’s nothing you can do to change poverty.
Even worse is suggesting that Jesus asked us to make a choice: pay attention to Him, on the one hand, or do the works of the social gospel, on the other.
I’ve come to appreciate another way to read John 12:8. Let’s look at the language more closely.
First, the Greek for “have” (“you always have the poor…” and “you do not always have me…”) is echete, which is used throughout the New Testament to talk about ‘having’ or ‘holding’ something. It can mean holding something in the hand, but it also has a deeper sense of “holding one’s self to a thing,” or “being closely joined to a person or thing.” It’s not just about possession. The word choice implies a relationship.
Second, even though echete appears to be the present indicative form of the verb (“you have“), the construction for the present imperative is exactly the same. It could also be a command, as in: “you should have” or “you must have…” According to this compelling sermon, John 12:8 could mean so much more:
The verb “exete” meaning “you have” used in this passage is in an imperative form and not in the future tense. It is, therefore, a command, not a prediction. I am inclined to interpret this command as Jesus instructing the listeners to hitch themselves – throw their lot in – with the poor. In John 12:8, Jesus says “Here! Have the poor with you! In everything you do, keep in mind the poor!” And then the parallel of “Because you do not have me always” reminds us that the poor are the stand-in group for Jesus. Because Jesus is saying he is not going to be physically present forever, here is a group that is Jesus. To remember Jesus is to remember the poor.
Jesus may be issuing a command: “Keep the poor with you.” Keep the poor with you because you will not always have me. Because you won’t always have me, Jesus says, the very least you must do is keep the poor near you, near your heart, near the life-blood of your ministries every moment of every day.
Third, even the conjunction could change. The NRSV puts a “but” in there — “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This “but” is the Greek de, a common conjunction which can mean “however” or “but,” but can also mean “and” or “moreover.” For instance, it’s “and” throughout Matthew’s genealogy: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah …” (Mt. 1:2) Likewise, de is effectively translated “moreover” in passages like this one between Jesus and John the Baptizer (Mt. 3:14-15):
3:14 – Moreover (de), John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?
3:15 – Moreover (de), Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
A simple re-translation of the conjunction in John 12:8 tends to release the verse from misunderstanding. Try this – “You always have the poor with you, and you do not always have me.” Or: “You always have the poor with you; moreover you do not always have me.” We’re not being asked to make a choice between Christ and serving the poor; in fact, they are one and the same: the One we adore as He is made known in scripture and the breaking of bread, and the ones we hold close when our Lord and Master has ascended at God’s right hand.
Keep the poor with you always. In fact, keep all kinds of poverty with you — in your heart, in the ways you see and experience the world. There is poverty everywhere. We must keep the poor with us always.
Like Dorothy Day in her time we, too, are surrounded by so many levels of poverty. The challenge is to figure out how to relate to poverty, and especially how to relate to those who are poor. Dorothy Day showed us a truly Christ-like way to respond, even though she wasn’t always so sweet and kind. Don’t pretend it’s not there, she taught us. Don’t try to push poverty and the poor away. Recognize brokenness. Recognize those persons who have been broken. Hold poverty and, especially, hold the poor close to your heart, Jesus teaches: Keep the poor with you always, He says, for you do not always have me.
Because it’s entirely possible to go through life giving without loving. But it’s absolutely impossible to love without giving.