Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

What goes up, must come down. “Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be humble with the poor, than to share plunder with the proud” (Prov 16:18-19).

We are familiar with such adages and proverbs that warn against pride and counsel humility. We know the reassurance of the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). The apostles lived with Jesus, watched his every move, witnessed his kindness to the lowly and his mercy to sinners. What then to make of the extraordinary demands on him that we heard last Sunday from two of his closest associates, James and John: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (Mk 10:37)?

In their ambition they dream of high places. Perhaps that is one reason they have stuck with Jesus, latching onto someone they perceive as powerful, resourceful and influential. Isn’t this something anyone seeking success does? Don’t parents want their children to achieve some wealth, honor, material satisfaction and position in life? In Matthew’s account, it is the mother of the same disciples — can we blame her? — who asks Jesus for her sons, “command that …,” and then makes the same demand (cf. Mt 20:20-28). Or was she even put up to ask by the cowardice of men afraid to ask for themselves?

The other 10 apostles in Matthew become indignant about the request, making it clear they neither understand what Jesus is about and that they are locked into the world’s way of advancement: wealth, pleasure, honor and power. Jesus, of course, turns the tables on them: “… whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mk 10:44). He then gives them a reason. He says that if they want his glory they must share his poverty and humiliation: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for man” (Mk 10:45).

But why did this have to be so? The glory of God is not something he claims just as his own and it is manifest in the salvation of all, if we so consent, according to his loving will. Jesus goes so deep into the trenches and ditches where sin — ours and others’ — leads or impels us that nothing deters him from getting close to us. Yes, Jesus had to rise from the dead to lift us up, but he had also to go deep enough into life to meet us where we are.
And so, he counsels his disciples to do the same.

Not all poverty and penury are the result of personal sin. People may be caught in a vicious cycle that they have been born into, thrust therein by circumstance, victims of violence, abuse and neglect. In Mexico City, as I wrote last week, I encountered many who were abandoned by parents as children, forced to escape from violent homes, or born to parents in a dump, literally, whose stench invades their pores, clings to their skin and brands them as outcasts simply by their smell. We may think of the blind and deaf and the lepers whom Jesus encountered throughout his life. They, too, were branded and ostracized.

What moved me and my companions most during our mission was the rich humanity of those we encountered. Adults and children alike were filled with thanks and joy simply for our presence, that we could look one another in the eye, share games and humor and food, celebrate some birthdays that had never been remembered, and — most moving of all — be able to bless and thank them for keeping faith and bearing witness to hope — hope OF the poor — bringing the blessing of Christ on our presence as we ourselves are blessed by theirs, and Christ in them (hopeofthepoor.org).

The way up is down deep, into the rich humanity of the poorest of the poor, as the world sees such things. And it is there that we discover our own deeper humanity that is not measured by the clothes we wear or the comfort of our homes. In much of the world, clean food and water, hot showers and posture friendly bedding are not the norm. As I watched the disorganized dogs (and some more disciplined cliques of cats!) sniffing chaotically around us wherever we wandered — they were mostly looking for food of course — I could more easily imagine such scenes from Jesus’ own surroundings as when the Canaanite woman sparred with him about the scraps the little dogs would snatch from the master’s table. 

Jesus lived close to the elements. He felt life’s extremities, the depths to which humanity descends. His thirst for the souls of sinners, those caught in addictions or left out of the loop (e.g., the woman at the well, the rich young man, the paralytic man stuck and neglected at the brink of healing waters) drew him to people and places we naturally are not attracted to. It is much safer and secure to stay home, but where does the Son of Man lie his head (cf. Mt 8:20)?

During this pandemic, so many health-care workers have given themselves so generously, at great personal risk to themselves and even their families, sometimes without thanks or even adequate remuneration, such as those who drive ambulances voluntarily and many first responders. How many of them know, however, the joy of receiving the smile and appreciation of those whom they serve. I am sure that is not always the case for them. People in pain do not always feel up to expressing thanks — only one of the 10 lepers made whole came back to thank Jesus.

Neither I nor those I was traveling with were inclined to count the number of those we served or those who gave thanks through a word or a smile. Our joy was in being able to affirm each person we encountered for just being there for us to meet, people whom no one cares about, thinks about or prays for. I cannot get so many of their faces off my mind, children and grownups alike. I look forward to making this experience available to others in our Diocese, seminarians and priests especially, or perhaps to parish groups who might wish to enjoy this life-changing encounter with the poorest of the poor.

Lest we forget, however, there are many right in our midst who suffer silently from the effects of abuse and neglect, some presently in circumstances where fear or violent surroundings enslave them. The Lord hears the cry of the poor (cf. Ps 34). May our ears be his ears as we seek the glory of his kingdom not in the high places the world offers, but among the lowliest where he is sure to be found. Like water, God’s mercy flows naturally to the lowest level, seeking hearts most thirsting for his saving love. 

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