Monday, February 27, 2006

The Least of These Brothers

Almost nothing could be further from the truth than the misconception that people who are poor are also suffering and unhappy.

Growing up, I shared a bedroom with four brothers. My four sisters shared another bedroom. We all slept in beds that were built by my dad. Those of us who weren’t assigned hand-me-down clothes to wear, wore cheap mail order clothes, two new shirts and two new pants a year. When we outgrew the clothes we were wearing, the clothes were passed down to a younger brother or sister or turned into rags when the holes become more prominent than the material. Clothes that become rags were still valuable for cleaning around the house. Most of what we owned could be used for more than one purpose.

We ate potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My mom had more recipes for potatoes than Forrest Gumps’ friend Bubba had for shrimp. Our Sunday treat was a roasted hen with dumplings made from white flour and chicken fat. Often while eating a meal, my parents told us the very same stories as every other parent in our neighborhood told their children about walking three miles to school and eating everything on our plate so the children in China wouldn’t starve to death.

Very few of my childhood memories include memories of unhappiness and almost none of my memories include suffering. I probably suffered more in my first week of Marine Corps boot camp than I suffered in my first eighteen years of life. Like everyone else, with or without money, I sometimes wanted things that were not affordable to my family. I learned to accept the fact that the gratification that I desired usually needed to be delayed longer than some of my friends had to wait and sometimes even delayed indefinitely, but I never walked around unhappy because waiting seemed normal. This experience as a child has served me well as an adult.

However, once I started school, I began to get the feeling that those people with money thought they were better and better off than those of us without money. As a child, I wondered if the people with money were right, and for a while I even started to believe that they were superior to me and my family because of their monetary wealth. Then I had one of those light-bulb-turning-on moments.

Around the time I was ten years old, we had a neighbor who couldn’t get his television to work. None of our neighbors could be considered wealthy, but this was a neighbor with one of the better jobs and bigger houses in our neighborhood. The neighbor came and asked my dad if he would take a look at the television and figure out why it didn’t work. My dad took the television apart and discovered that a couple of the vacuum tubes needed to be replaced. After my dad replaced the tubes and put the television back together, my neighbor opened his wallet, pulled out a five dollar bill, which is probably equivalent to eighty dollars today, and started to hand it to my dad.

I almost yelled “alright” out loud. I knew what an extra five dollars would mean to my family. But my dad wouldn’t take the money from my neighbor. He told our neighbor to put the money back in his pocket. My dad said he would not even consider taking money for something he did for a neighbor. Later in the evening, the oldest daughter of the neighbor knocked on our door with the five dollars in her hand. She told my dad that her dad wanted him to take the money. My dad took the five dollars, walked back across the street, and returned the money to our neighbor.

At first, my brothers and sisters and I couldn’t believe what our dad had just done. But the more I thought about what had happened, the more I understood. Better, better off, superior, and inferior didn’t have anything to do with size of a bank account, the number of possessions, or the value of possessions. Better, better off, superior, and inferior however did have everything to do with the size of the character of a person. I went to sleep that night knowing I was one of the wealthiest kids in the whole neighborhood.

When Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”, he isn’t usually talking about people with money sharing their money with people who don’t have money. The “least” Jesus is talking about is the person who has a need that we, as neighbors, can help alleviate. The need is rarely a monetary need. The need is much more often a need to see someone else living a life of Christian values through sacrificial actions. Many of the needy (the least), have very large bank accounts, but are still in severe sprirtual need. I will get to this point in a future post.

My dad wasn’t a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. He had a temper that sometimes went over the top, but he also had a reputation as a truly good man; a reputation that had nothing to do with the lack of money he made, the simple house he owned, or the causes he failed to advocate. When he died of cancer in 1972, he didn’t leave his family with any money because he never earned much money, but he did leave us wealthy.

In my next post, I will adress what happens to the financially poor when they are incorectly treeated as “the least of these brothers of mine”.

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