By Mark Michael
He was there almost every day, perched on the thin concrete median strip in the middle of Falls Road, right in the heart of Potomac, Maryland, where I serve. His name is John, and his sign says that he has type I diabetes and isn’t able to work. He is tall and gaunt, with the deeply fretted skin of a man who spends life outdoors. Sometimes he winces as he moves, but he carries himself with the swagger of a prophet. He’ll be glad for whatever you have to share.
John is also my brother, a fellow Christian. He takes his religion unfiltered, like his cigarettes. King James Bible, a Damascus Road conversion, and plenty of Holy Ghost power. My youngest son asked him to come with us to church, but John never took us up on the offer.
One would hope he would feel at home. Our church is named for St. Francis, after all, the man who found Jesus disguised as a beggar, and taught his followers to join him in taking up mendicant’s bag.
In one of his rules, Francis said that Jesus, the apostles and the blessed mother all lived on alms (RNB 8). The Bible scholars aren’t so sure, and the claim eventually got trimmed away by the Rule’s later editors. But it would certainly make us all feel a bit less awkward about our Episcopalian church named for St. Francis in one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs if someone like John were sitting on the front row, someone the great saint would have actually understood.
I tell John that I pray for him. He says I’m the one that really needs the prayers. “There’s some great folks. But you’ll have a tough time getting them to listen to a Gospel in a place like this.” I expect his prayers make it easier for me.
We have a small weekly newspaper, The Almanac. Two or three weeks later there was an interview with our representative on the County Council. The reporter asked her about the buzz on the street. Very few complaints, she said. People are very content. The only grumbles she ever hears are about the panhandlers on Falls Road.
About a week after that, I saw John one more time. The boys had missed the bus again and he came up to the car as we waited at the light. A dollar bill exchanged, a word of blessing, a quick assurance that we mattered to each other, that each of us was trying, in his own way to do God’s will.
“And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want … and no man gave unto him” (Luke 15:14, 16). Jesus is rather ambiguous about whether the prodigal son was among “the deserving poor,” but surely this was the clearest sign that he had “journeyed into a far country” — not that the people raised swine, but that their hearts were so clearly closed to God and his laws. So empty of love, so forgetful of social duties — only a people far from God would scorn a beggar.
Fellowship is at the heart of the divine economy, a partnership in well-doing. The Shepherd of Hermas, an ancient text that made it into a few of the first New Testament canons, lays it out quite succinctly: “The poor, by interceding with the Lord for the rich, establish their riches, and again the rich, supplying their needs to the poor, establish their souls. So then both are made partners in the righteous work. He then that doeth these things shall not be abandoned of God, but shall be written in the books of the living (Par. 2:7-8).”
Surely, more can be said. Few Biblical passages have been more scrutinized than “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you (Matt. 5:42). Even St. Augustine cautions, “’To every one that asks,’ says He; not, ‘Everything to him that asks:’ You are to give that which you can honestly and justly give” (On the Sermon on the Mount, I.20.67). And what of justice, of social sin? A desperately poor man, wending his path through the Teslas? Windows and hearts are both shut tight, eyes cast away from such a reminder of the inequality that rules still in the would-be “land of the free.”
And yet, we can be “partners in the righteous work.” We are bidden “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed (I Tim. 6:18-19). There are few practices more native to the life of discipleship than giving, as the philanthropy statisticians can easily attest.
It’s giving season in the church, of course. Every-member canvasses, #Giving Tuesday, and those great stacks of end-of-year fundraising appeals. We’ll be sending one as well, of course. In this issue, we look at the work of giving from a variety of angles, from new technologies for gathering the collection to strategies for “honest and just” investment. We review a book that asks how to be a “shrewd Samaritan” and another that traces the way that oil wealth led to battling visions of Christian philanthropy.
Read and pray about it, but be sure you don’t miss out on a chance to “take hold of the life that is life indeed.” John may not always be standing on the median strip.
Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.