The Undeserving Poor
We Christians have a wonderful message to proclaim: We are saved, not by our own merit, but rather by the unmerited grace of God. We are saved by grace. We are saved, not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is. It is a good line, isn’t it? But do we believe it? Do we live it?
(At this point, we are already dealing with two church jargon words, ‘save’ and ‘grace’. My guess is that the average reader is familiar with these words, but might have a hard time pinning down a definition. For clarification, you may want to click on these links to read about “grace” and “salvation” in “Words of the Word” elsewhere on this website.)
Being human, living up to God’s grace is not easy. For example, most people, in or out of the church, want to do something about poverty. Indeed, Australians can be impressively generous when disasters hit, but only to the ‘deserving’ poor. We cite instances of fraud, and give anecdotal evidence of people who play the system, in order to justify supporting funding cuts in welfare and social services. In our haste to prevent undeserving people getting something for nothing, we would starve all of the poor.
What a contrast this attitude is to God’s grace! In Christian circles we talk about unmerited grace; i.e., how we are saved by grace, and not by our own goodness. This means that what God does for us in Jesus is done, not because of who we are or whether or not we deserve it, but because of who God is, and despite who we are. This same grace is noticeably lacking when we talk of giving only to the deserving poor.
John tells the story about a pool by the sheepgate in Jerusalem. All the sick were brought there, and among them, a man who has been lying there for 38 years. Jesus comes along and says, “You want to be healed?” A strange, ironic question. You might hear the man reply, “Well, it has crossed my mind in the last 38 years!”
Jesus tells the man to take up his his bed, and go home. By the extravagant grace of God, this poor man’s life is redeemed, turned around, set right. Here is a dramatic demonstration of the grace of God.
Then, no sooner is the man healed, than he gets arrested for carrying his bed on the Sabbath! What is this story getting at?
It might be a story of judgment upon the religion of that day. Why aren’t the religious leaders celebrating with the healed man? Well, healing is fine, as long as it is done properly, through the officially credentialed, proper channels. Perhaps the religious leaders felt guilt or resentment (and deservedly so). This poor man had lain there for nearly four decades of misery. Why had their religion been unable to help him?
It seems the official religion had very little to offer for these people and their needs. The temple was inaccessible to the handicapped. In countless ways, the official religion excluded them; therefore, they went to the pool at Bethesda!
Do you know anyone who has forsaken the church and gone to ‘The Pool’? In our middle class churches, we tend to think of ‘them’ (the poor) and ‘us’, and though we like to think we do our best for them, we thank God we are not them. As long as we think of the poor as ‘them’, you will not find the poor at this church, because they will feel like outsiders. When the officially sanctioned, respectable channels of grace remove themselves from the pain of real people, those people take their needs elsewhere, outside the official channels.
Well, what is happening at ‘The Pool’? As the story goes, when the water gets stirred up people who are in the pool sometimes get healed. Of course, in the clamour of hurting people trying to get to the pool, the ones who get there first are most probably the least in need of its healing! The ones who get into the pool first are are suffering, sure, but only moderately.
But what of those who are so needy, so crippled, so impotent, that they can’t even move to the pool? What of the really deserving?
Outside the sacred confines of the temple, not part of the official religion, down by ‘The Pool’ with the huddled masses, is where Jesus is busy. And the official believers, those of us at home in the temple, are uneasy about it.
On its way to a word of grace, today’s gospel story speaks a word of judgment to a church that is always offering healing to those who don’t really need it. And there is even more judgment to be wrung out of this story.
A cursory look at this story may leave one with the impression that it is a wonderful story of a man’s faith. Some will jump to the conclusion that’s why Jesus healed him; he had so much faith.” In fact, there is no faith in this story, except for perhaps a bit of wishful thinking about the magical properties of the The Pool.
Note what happens after the man is healed. He walks away and people ask him, “Who healed you?” The man says he doesn’t know. Then when the authorities demand to know who broke the law by healing on the Sabbath, then the man says, “It was that guy, Jesus, who healed me!”
You’d think the poor, once-crippled man would be grateful! You’d think he’d do anything to protect, believe in and uphold the one who had healed him. No, he goes and squeals on Jesus, getting him into trouble. The man had no faith, no gratitude, no humility. By our standards he was hardly deserving of Jesus’ attention.
It is easy to find similar modern examples of those whom may be deemed undeserving. I have met many in my 40 years of ministry. For example, I had a lady come to my door at the Dromana manse in the late 1980s, kids in tow, and apparently grief-stricken. It seems her uncle, with whom she had a close relationship, had died in Geelong, the funeral was the next day, and she needed public transport fares for her and her family to attend. Of course, I attended to her need, giving her my own money.
I moved to Belmont in 1993, and soon after I arrived, there was a knock on the door. It was the same woman and her children, now a few years older, but she clearly didn’t recognise me, because she gave me exactly the same story, except that her uncle was being buried in Sorrento instead of Geelong.
Over the years, I have discovered one of the valuable roles played by the local ministers’ associations is as bearers of the the body of knowledge accrued by the clergy about the individuals who habitually play on the churches for handouts.
One such story comes from a minister who had just moved into a new parish. I forget now, where the story came from, so I can’t give credit where credit is due, but no doubt there are many such.
The phone rang on Saturday evening. The new minister answered and the voice of a woman said, “May I speak to Rev. Polk?”
“I’m sorry he is not here. He has moved.”
“Moved? Where? He was so-o-o helpful to me when I needed him. What will I do?” she said in a distressed voice.
The minister asked if he could help. “Well, I don’t know; Mr. Polk was so helpful,” the lady replied.
By this time the new minister was begging to help her.
“I’m sitting here in the dark.” she said as she began to cry. “They have turned off my electricity. I have young children. We have nothing to eat. I just don’t know what we will do.”
The minister offered to take her some food. “Oh, could you? That would be wonderful. We also need some money, if you have any to spare.”
The minister had about $30 on him, so he got her address and took her the food and the money, and offered to check with her on Monday to see if she had any further needs.
On Monday morning he met with the local ministers’ association and related his Saturday evening call. The Catholic priest, who had lived in the town for a few years, said, “That would be Mrs. Hinkes.” (The name has been changed to protect privacy. If there is a real Mrs. Hinkes out there, she is not associated at all with this story.)
“You know this woman?” asked the minister.
“Sure, every clergyperson in town knows her. George gave her $50 one time. Susan, didn’t you give her a week at a motel?”
“No,” said Susan, “we gave her a couple of bicycles.”
The new minister was shocked, enraged. “Then you mean she wasn’t really needy?”
“Well, she’s needy alright,” replied the priest. “But she’s a real pro. She works the system for a living. And she’s good at it. She knew you were new in town, and that you would give her anything to get her off the phone on a Saturday evening. She really is amazing; knows just how to get to you. All that about Rev. Polk being so helpful; yep, she’s a real pro, I’ll give her that.”
When the minister received another call from Mrs. Hinkes a couple weeks later, he told her off, well and truly, and let her know he was on to her. She was unrepentant. Indignant, she called him names and said he was a disgrace to the ministry and should be ashamed of himself.
The last he heard of Mrs. Hinkes, she was on her way to a free week at an alcohol treatment centre, courtesy of the Pentecostals. While there, in her spare time between therapy sessions, she managed to get a used car out of the Anglicans.
I relate this story to give you the opportunity to note your reaction to it, because your reaction is telling. It demonstrates if, and how much, it affects your desire to help the poor, including poor Mrs. Hinkes. Does it make you think twice of giving to local welfare charities, knowing that some, perhaps much of what you give, will end up in the hands of a Mrs. Hinkes?
Or perhaps you were inclined to vote for politicians who promised to “stop the boats” by incarcerating the boat people indefinitely in offshore concentration camps, not because you don’t believe the boat people aren’t genuine refugees who are suffering badly, but because they didn’t go through the proper government channels (clogged with ‘red tape’, as they are). Hence, they do not ‘deserve’ your compassion and help.
I wonder if today’s gospel story isn’t a parable about the modern church – about us – which cares more for respectable, accredited, proper channels than it does for the needs of the hurting world who gather at ‘The Pool’. And in those moments when we rouse ourselves into action, we keep hoping that we are ministering to the ‘deserving poor,’ the ‘truly needy.’ But we never really know, because we haven’t made the effort to really get to know those whom we are trying to help.
Sometimes, though, we just get those who are in pain, without having them certified as truly needy or deserving. Sometimes the pain is their own fault, due to bad choices they have made. Sometimes not. But that is not the point. The point is Jesus is Lord. He is not going to be jerked around, even in regard to people’s need. He is free to shed his grace even on the undeserving, and we, his followers, are the ones charged to distribute it.
This church belongs to God. Any good that we do, anything we accomplish and what all of this eventually means is up to God, not to us. It’s all grace. We’re not saved by our planning, not by our efforts, not by our work. We are saved by grace. Grace. It’s all, in the end, about grace. If we really believe that we are the beneficiaries of God’s free, unmerited grace, then who are we to determine anyone else’s worthiness.