A couple of weeks ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through status updates on Facebook until this image arrested me. It’s a picture of Noe, one of our Youthfront Mexico staff members and four women who are a part of our business development program. They’ve all received microloans through our ministry in order to start small businesses in Croc and they’ve all been quite successful in them. And here they were, four women from a poor, redneck ranchito dining at an upscale, all-you-can-eat steak buffet in metropolitan Monterrey. The caption to the photo said it all, “Now they’re empresarias–businesswomen.” I loved it. The rags-to-riches element in any kind of story still tugs at me. And what made it even better was that it wasn’t a picture of these four, now-successful women being treated to dinner by an American organization celebrating their heroic intervention. No, they picked the restaurant and they picked up the tab for the young, program director of that American-sponsored initiative.
I wondered what being enamored by this picture said about me, about what I value, and about the story we live in. What does it say about me, about us, that while they play several roles as wives, mothers, even grandmothers, that we only take notice and they’re really only taken seriously asbusinesswomen? A businesswoman–a title of importance, a person who is to be taken seriously in a culture where commerce is king. It only makes sense then that a ministry working among people who are marginalized in such a world would work to give dignity to those who have been left out. We’d work to give them the tools, the capital, and the positioning to be people who demand to be taken seriously in this context. And it makes sense then that these poor women–who’d always been the ones bussing Caesar’s tables, washing his dishes, and cooking his food–that at least for one meal, they would sit in Caesar’s throne. They would eat his food and they would have their photo posted on such a powerful, public platform that the privileged people around the world could pause and take notice.
We have a desperate need to be taken seriously, to feel important, to feel powerful. I believe that it is one of the most serious issues facing our urban neighborhoods. In wealthier neighborhoods, the desire to feel important is no less present, its just that in under-resourced, urban neighborhoods, the expressions of that desire are often more pronounced (and sometimes more outlandish). I see it expressed in a couple of teenagers, former refugees, who above all else want to live in California and be actors–ultimately to be famous. I see it in Antonio, who wants to go into the military so he can carry a gun and kill people. I saw it in the guy who walked down the middle of 35th street two weeks ago, rapping to heavy-laden, anti-institutional lyrics while Don Gomez and I looked at each other across the street in wonder. I saw it through Victor’s invitation for me to accompany him to his company Christmas party, when I had dozens of other things to do, but his best friend, Don Gomez had none. I was Victor’s trophy whitey. Hitching his wagon to a white dude like me has seemingly more cache at a meat wholesale company’s Christmas party than that of another Mexican immigrant.
James and John tried to use Jesus as their trophy. They weren’t stupid. They knew they were of humble means and they saw Jesus was going places. For the two boys of old man Zebedee, Jesus was a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor. In Mark 10, we see them trying to secure a pair of executive positions for themselves on whatever it was Jesus was up to. But Jesus and the Kingdom he embodied didn’t have space for the rags-to-riches stories that are so deeply entrenched in our American myth. Where James and John saw an opportunity to be on top, Jesus saw the coercive power structure of the haves and the have nots that was already alive and well in Caesar’s kingdom. Jesus didn’t come to take twelve, poor, marginalized, undocumented immigrants from the hood in order to put them on top like hundreds of revolutionaries before and after him had attempted to do. Instead, Jesus tells James and John that if they want the all-you-can-eat steak buffet, they’ve got to be the busboy. They’ve got to be the wait staff, the line cook.
Good, secular understandings of poverty alleviation include some kinds of measures for creating pathways for the poor to become full participants in our society, determining their own future. But it’s always a one-way street. We talk a lot about not giving hand outs, but rather hand ups. We’ll pull you up to where the rest of us are at–at least where those of us who are people of importance, people that deserve to be taken seriously. But the scandal of the incarnation is the denial of those privileges. By taking on human flesh, Jesus unravels our notions of importance. You want to be somebody? Become the least. Jesus is teaching his disciples that the way of the kingdom isn’t about hand outs or hand ups, but about being offered a hand down. It’s a way off of your pedestal. And it’s not just to put you at the bottom to stay there, but its a way of putting to an end to all of our ways of privileging some at the expense of others.
It’s interesting what gospel stories we celebrate. We celebrate Jesus’ call to the Samaritan woman. A hand up. We celebrate Jesus’ call to the woman caught in adultery. A hand up. But we’re not sure what to do with Jesus’ call to the rich man to sell everything he has. A hand down. It’s not that Jesus wants any of us to be poor or that he hates riches and steak buffets or that he’s got some kind of hidden, socialist agenda. Instead, Jesus gives us a different kind of image, a different kind of buffet. He gives us a table, wine, and bread. And at this table, we all have a place. We’re all honored. We’re all important. And there is always more than enough. This is the ministry of reconciliation.