Blessed are the poor – so much we have to learn

Epiphany 4 – 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God on whom, if we dare, we can totally rely. Amen.

Some years ago, I acquired a book titled Poor in Spirit – Modern Parables of the Reign of God. Compiled by Charles Lepetit[1], it consists of a number of stories written by people living and working alongside the poor who inhabit the slums in many parts of the world. Lepetit is a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus. He says of himself: “I have lived in slums, I have known hunger, I have been in jail (oh not for long). I am an invalid. So I am at home with my brothers and sisters the poor.” The book is a compilation of true stories – stories that have been shared with him by those who are also poor, but who in his words, “share one poverty in common: that of the heart. They do not know the treasure they bear.”

Many of the story-tellers are members of religious orders. Some tell their own stories and others stories of the people whose lives have touched their own. The authors are identified only by their Christian name and by the country from which they write. So Catherine writes from Black Africa, Martin from Northern Europe, Roger from Central America, Olive from South of the Sahara, Larry from India and Nancy from North America. I wish I could share the whole book with you, the stories are powerful and confronting and challenge Western values and our dependence on material possessions.

One of my favorite stories is written by Lisa. It concerns a man who has been cruelly affected by leprosy. Most of his feet and all ten fingers were gone. Even his face was affected, but as Lisa tells it, when he smiled his whole face was transformed. Life was so hard that he had at one time tried to drown himself, “but even the sea didn’t want me,” he says. The leper made a living selling charcoal wearing his stumps raw from filling his customers’ baskets. Somehow, despite his extreme poverty, he maintains his dignity and his home as described by Liza is an oasis in the midst of a busy and noisy city. He has friend, who also has leprosy who cuts grass for sheep and sells it at the market. The two friends share what they have earned each day. One day his friend returned home with “three beautiful coins” that he had found on the pavement – an unexpected windfall in their barren lives. What to do with them? After some thought our friend says: “It is true that you need socks. But this money, we have haven’t earned it. God has given it to us. Why don’t we go to the cinema? One needs a change of scene sometimes.” “So we went to the cinema, and we had a very nice time.”

What touches me in this story is that these two had not allowed themselves to be so overwhelmed and ground down by their poverty that they could see that God might want them to have some joy and pleasure in their lives. Given the choice between the practical (socks) and the impractical (cinema) they had chosen something that would bring some happiness into their bleak and mundane existence.

A second story and one that never fails to move me is told by Dan from North Africa. Dan is stuck in a small town that he’d never seen before. He had spent a whole day trying to get a visa and faced the prospect of doing the same the following day! He says somewhat sarcastically that a “spiritual” reaction drove him to drown his frustration in a café. He was neither an Arab nor a local so needless to say he was the focus of a certain amount of interest. Dan found a seat opposite someone who didn’t look any happier than he was. No sooner had he sat down when his anger spilled out and he shared the story of his day. Ahmed (for that was the name of his companion) returned the favour. Ahmed had no work and was delaying going to home to tell his wife. They shared a few drinks when Ahmed asked Dan where he was spending the night. “Haven’t a clue”, Dan replied. “Then come to my place!”

Ahmed took Dan to a neighbouring suburb. There on top of a pile of rubbish was a little shack. This was Ahmed’s home. Inside the rickety door was a single room – not a stick of furniture graced it. Fourteen pairs of eyes greeted Dan – Ahmed’s wife, his parents-in-law and eleven children! They sat on the floor and after a while Ahmed’s wife produced a “mountain of rice on a copper plate – almost certainly their only valuable possession”. After a quick meal, and numerous cups of tea they stretched out on the floor and slept. In the morning Dan left to try again to get a visa, promising to stop by before he left. Another day wasted! Dan decided to take the bus and take his chances on getting a visa later.

True to his promise he makes a quick visit to see the family before he goes. As he leaves, a parcel is pressed into his hands. It happens so quickly and he is in so much of a hurry that he doesn’t even think about it until he is safely on the bus and here I have to use Dan’s own words: “Ah, yes. The parcel. I opened it discreetly, as my neighbours were looking at me. Actually my mind was still mostly on my visa. Suddenly my eyes filled with tears. I was going to cry, for a good half hour, completely overwhelmed by what I found in the parcel. I didn’t care now what the other passengers might think.

There in my lap was the copper plate from which we’d eaten the rice. And a little rubber camel .. the kid’s only toy.”

Blessed are the poor – who teach us to find joy in life and who, without a thought for themselves will give everything they have.

 

[1] Lepetit, Charles. Poor in Spirit: Modern Parables of the Reign of God. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1989.

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