I sat in the drive-through line at my favorite chicken wing restaurant recently and there she was again, a familiar woman going car to car asking for money. I don’t like that. I feel kind of stuck since I’m in my car and she’s standing right there at my window. She’ll even knock on the window if I ignore her. She put her hands together, as if praying, and said politely, “Hey, Preacher, I sure need some help.” Sometimes wearing a clerical collar presents a dilemma.
I have turned that woman down several times, both at that drive-through and at the church office where she has applied for assistance. But there I was holding a wad of cash, going through the change in my car so I could get rid of some that had piled up in my glove box. My heart softened, or my will collapsed, and I let the window down. That’s when she’s got you, when you let the window down. “I sure need a little money, Preacher,” she said. “And I sure need me some work.” “Looks like you’re working right now,” I replied, and smiled a little. “Yes, sir, I sure am. You gonna’ help me out today or tell me No like you usually do?” That was my chance to send her on her way. But there I was with a wad of money and change that I was trying to get rid of. Plus she was smiling back at me, doing her best to persuade me.
I handed her a dollar bill, mainly to get rid of her. A dollar wouldn’t help her much but I sure wouldn’t miss it. I began to think that if she got a dollar from every car in line she might have enough to buy lunch but not much more. For a moment, as I pulled out into traffic, I thought about how it might be to live like that, just trying to get some people to give you a little of their extra money. No longer do I have an idealized view of the poor. They are sinful and selfish, just like rich people. But I sure don’t want to trade places with them. It’s a lot easier to worry about whether I should give someone a dollar than it is to have to go around asking for money. In two blocks, that woman was forgotten. Back to my crowded day of first world problems.
The next morning I read in the daily lectionary from Leviticus. “Yuck, Leviticus,” I thought as I began the reading. And then this caught my attention (Leviticus 19:9): “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest…..Leave them for the poor.”
For a mighty long time now, there has been the problem of the poor not having enough. I’m not sure I buy the argument that if the rich weren’t so rich the poor would have more, but I do know that I have more than I need and many have less than they need. That’s uncomfortable. And it should be. Not knowing the solution is even more uncomfortable.
I could easily make the case that giving a woman a dollar in a drive-through line perpetuates the problem of the poor, taking away their incentive to be productive. I could also make the case that rich people are much more worried about adding to our fortune than we are about helping the needy. We tend to blame the poor for being poor.
If I were poor and didn’t have enough money for lunch or to pay my bills and didn’t have family support, what might I do? I think I might look for gleanings. I would probably panhandle and beg and go car to car asking for a little money. Before I tried to figure out how to solve my larger problem of poverty, I would work on the more immediate problem of getting through the day. I’m not sure that’s what I should do but I think it’s what I would have to do.
Gleanings. An interesting word. When harvesting a crop, there are gleanings, leftovers. Leviticus says we should leave some of them for the poor. Don’t keep every little thing for myself. Share with those who have less. We also glean information or understanding. We ponder things and seek to learn lessons from the events in life. Maybe Leviticus is encouraging us not just to leave some grain or fruit for the poor to pick up off the ground, or give a dollar to someone begging for it, but to ponder what it might be like to be poor.
What got me that day with that woman was her smile. For a moment she became a little more of a friend than an enemy, someone like me rather than someone trying to use me. Maybe remembering that the very poor are loved by God just as much as me is the main thing we are called to do. But, as soon as I see the poor as loved by God, then I am called to do much more. It’s uncomfortable. And it should be.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.