One of the Least

It was nearing the end of the month, the time when the shopkeepers who had a “Buy, Sell, Trade” sign in their windows thought seriously about covering up the “Buy” part of the message.  After years of being in business, you begin to understand the ebb and flow of sales and acquisitions.  With the beginning of the new month, government checks securely deposited in the bank, the folks who depend on the generosity of their fellow citizens for their sustenance are free with cash.  Purchases are made, promised paybacks are taken care of and for a few weeks they will have tools and furniture and musical instruments.  For a few weeks.

As the month runs out, so, often, does the money.  Reacquiring their treasures costs more than actually buying them once and keeping them, but the cycle has been set into motion and will never stop.  They are trapped.  I’m not sure how the economical “safety net” worked in our Savior’s day, but even then, He spoke of the poor who are always with us.  The store proprietor in our tale understands that, even wondering sometimes if some of those “always with us” poor are assigned to one particular individual who will be their benefactor for years at a time.

The man who stood before him the other day was one such person.  Thirty-five years ago, they had begun their relationship with the same type of transaction as was being suggested now.  “I know it’s a little ratty, but if you’ll give me forty dollars for it, I’ll come and buy it back next month if it’s still here.”  The item in question is not merely in ratty condition; it is trashed.  Good for nothing except salvage, there is no investment value in it at all.  “Sorry,” comes the answer.  “There are already too many of those waiting to be parted out in the back room.”  The man looked at him with surprise.  A refusal?  This one was always a “soft touch”, not difficult like the pawnbrokers.  The store owner shook his head again and turned away.

Ten minutes later, the man was back.  Something in his manner was different.  “I really have to have some gas for my car.  I know you don’t want this thing, but is it worth fifteen dollars to you?  I don’t know what else to do.”  The businessman realized that this wasn’t a business proposition, it was a broken man needing help.  With a wink, he said, “Why don’t you keep it and I’ll just get you a little cash.  Between friends, right?”  It was a cinch that the item would be in the pawn shop by the end of the day anyway, but it didn’t matter.  With the plea from the man, the proprietor had also heard other words of the Savior, as He had said, “As much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” and he realized that the opportunity had almost passed him by.

A friend of mine posted a picture online the other day that grabbed my attention and my heart.  The “shoes” on the feet of the man (or woman) in the photo were actually empty plastic bottles, flattened and laced with a twisted leather strap to make them into a thong of sorts.  The hopelessness of the person’s poverty needed no face.  Ten weathered and beaten toes, sitting on top of two pieces of “trash” said more than any words, any sad, empty eyes in a face could convey.  I was struck by the responses of others to the photo.  Most reacted with horror and compassion.  The one that impacted me the most though, was a man who angrily demanded to know what the shoe companies of the world were doing to take care of the problem, assuming that they had millions of dollars of ill-gotten profits at their disposal and asserting that it was their mess to clean up.  I am more saddened by his response than I am by the photo.

It is the response of many in our society…the “not my fault” argument.  His words said, “I feel bad for this person, but it is someone else’s responsibility to help–someone with a lot more money–someone who owes more to the poor than I.”  Where his argument falls down is that the latter part belies the former.  If it is not his responsibility, he doesn’t really feel bad for the person.  If we will not act to obey our consciences, they are of little use to us.  In a culture where the expectation is that an institution will shoulder the burden that should rightfully be our own, true charity is not present.  The “you” that the Teacher laid the burden on is not some nameless corporation, nor even a government bureaucracy, but the onus is laid squarely on the person being addressed.  I. Am. Responsible.

Once again, the preacher inside is begging to stand at the pulpit and pound it a bit, but he’s had enough time to get his message across.  The application will have to come in the hearts and minds of the readers.  Can I leave that task with you? 

We’ll all hope that at the end of next month, that shop keeper is better prepared and a little more aware of what is expected of him.  Perhaps, we’ll all be a little more ready to do our part. 

We won’t be doing it just for the one to whom we hand the cup of cool water.

“Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest for your souls.”
(Matthew 11:28)

“The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service.”
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow~American poet and essayist~1807-1882)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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