Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Evicted recently wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine called “Americans want to believe jobs are the solution to poverty. They are not.” He tells the story of Vanessa who valiantly tries to keep her family together as she struggles to navigate the challenges of low wages, inconsistent employment, and caring for herself and her three school-aged children while moving from hotel, to her mother’s home, to the back of her Chrysler because her wages often fail to cover a stable place to live.
Vanessa works as a home health care aide. She likes her job because, she says, “I get to help people.” Her per hour pay fluctuates from $10 an hour for one client, to $14 for another, which isin no way commensurate with the challenge of each patient. After juggling her children, Vanessa is able to work 20 to 30 hours a week, which earns her around $1200 a month. And that is when things go well.
Home health care has emerged as an archetypal job in this new, low-pay service economy.While demand for home health care has surged as the population has aged, wages continue to be low, leaving even full time workers needing to depend on government support for basic items such as food, housing, and health care.
In the United States, we have always told ourselves the story that success in this country is limited only by our ambition and a willingness to work hard. And so to make ourselves feel better about the poor amongst us, we have too often voiced the belief that poor people do not work—or at least do not work hard enough. But this is not true. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2016 34 percent of those living in poverty were children, 11 percent were elderly and 24 percent were working-age adults (18 to 64) in the labor force, either working or seeking work.The truth is that millions of Americans despite the number of hours they work, have little hope of finding security and comfort. Desmond says, “In recent decades, America has witnessed the rise of bad jobs offering low pay, no benefits and little certainty.When it comes to poverty, a willingness to work is not the problem, and work itself is no longer the solution.”
Our scripture reading today from the Gospel according to Mark, is a part of a larger set of passages that focus on Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees and centers on his critique of the Temple culture. Since entering Jerusalem, Jesus has debated the purpose of the Law. Again and again he argues that orthodoxy and piety are not enough. That what is most important is how justice is shown toward one’s neighbor. The point Mark makes is that heaven must come to earth. There is no love of God except in love of neighbor.
Jesus has challenged the scribes for their desire for special privilege and status. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” He rails at these attitudes because they directly conflict with his belief that to follow God one must be “last” and “servant” of others.
These are harsh words, but they get harder. He states that the affluence of the scribes is directly related to their “devouring of widow’s houses.” Because women were not allowed by law to manage their deceased husband’s property, the responsibility was often turned over to scribal authorities who were seen as trustworthy due to their piety—“saying long prayers.” The scribes were then compensated through a percentage of the assets. This practice often resulted in abuse. The essential point being made is that scribal piety has been used as a scam for economic opportunism and exploitation. Rather than protecting widows, Mark charges the scribes have exploited them.
As Jesus sits opposite the treasury, he sees the many wealthy patrons grandly offering their tributes. But it is the widow that causes Jesus to call his disciples and offer her action in putting in “two small copper coins.” The Greek lepta, the smallest coins in use in first-century Palestine, was her contribution. And that Jesus says was “everything she had to live on.”
The Hebrew word for “widow” connotes one who is silent, one who is unable to speak. In a society in which women were not permitted to speak on their own behalf or inherit property directly, widows became the stereotypical symbol of the exploited and the oppressed.
Why does Jesus attend to this woman? Is it her generosity and devotion in giving all she has to the Temple? Generosity and devotion are valued actions in living a life in love with God. But the totality of Jesus’ teachings does not lead me to believe that Jesus would want this woman to starve to death to put her last two leptas into the offering plate.
While I can only imagine Jesus’ tone of voice in speaking about the widow, I believe that Jesus lamented the fact that this woman was living in complete destitution.
I hear Jesus decrying the circumstances that has brought her to such a state and the action she has taken that will certainly lead to her ruin. And here she is, abandoned in God’s house–the house set aside to worship God who is love. With disdain and heartache, Jesus leaves the temple for the final time.
So if we look at Jesus’ notice of the widow as a lament for her state, what does this teach us today? That we should see our neighbors and respond as we can to their needs? That we should stand up for those who are most vulnerable in our world? That we should stand against laws or actions of our community that in any way exploit those who suffer? That we should advocate for policies and vote for politicians that advance God’s intention always and first of all to care for those who are most at risk of harm from injustice?
Absolutely! Yes!! But before we take action, we need to take in the great good news in this Gospel. I think the good news of this scripture comes in what it says about our God, God who we believe is reflected most clearly in the actions of Jesus. Jesus sees this woman and sees the sacrifice she is making. Jesus sees her vulnerability and recognizes her trouble. And Jesus cannot stomach the abuse of any one of God’s beloved children.
Jesus sees the widow and cares about her. Jesus calls her to the attention of his followers. He sees her for who she is—God’s beloved. God’s precious one. The one God intends to have life and to have it abundantly.
We can believe, we can trust, that God sees each of us. God sees and loves us wherever we are. God sees each one of us and cares deeply when our life is bright and hopeful; and in times when the valley of the shadow of death looms on all sides.
God sees each Vanessa in the world. Her daily work to provide for her vulnerable clients. Her fight to afford a place for her children to sleep in safety at night. Her efforts to keep her children in school and food on the table. God sees and stands with those whose hard work is not rewarded with security.
And because the One we follow sees each of God’s beloved children, I believe Jesus invites us to look around and see each other, those in our community and those beyond. And when we truly see our sisters and brothers, I think Jesus intends for us to care for each other—to care for God’s children who cannot find work that pays a living wage and are abandoned to fend for themselves in what is advertised as “a thriving economy”; for God’s children who face daily discrimination because of their race, their religion, their gender identity or sexual orientation; for God’s children migrating from Central America who suffer the anguish of unrelenting violence and will make every sacrifice to live in peace. Jesus invites us to see each other, to do what we can to care, and to advocate for a system that does not abandon any one of us.
It is easy in our world to label and then disregard each other. There is much support for this from the highest levels of our leadership and from some of our citizenry. But this is not the way we follow Jesus.
God who sees our every moment—from our sitting down to our rising up; who discerns our thoughts from afar, who has watched and loved us while we were “being knit together in our mother’s wombs,” cares for every one of us, every step and day of our lives. With God’s help our eyes and hearts can be opened so we can join in the work for a world that calls out the belovedness in each person.
Gregory Boyle, in his book Tattoos on the Heart, says that it is God’s dream when we recognize that there is no daylight between us. There is no “us” and “them”. There is only being with and seeing God’s essence in each person we meet.
He says, “with God we recognize this circle of compassion where no one is left out. In this circle of compassion, we stand with the demonized so the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”We are called to see the widow, to stand with the widow, sharing her dreams, walking together in hope.
God who sees each one of us as beloved, invites us into the circle of compassion without borders or exceptions. God invites us to see each other as God sees us.God’s love invites us to bring more fully into being the kingdom that Jesus lived and proclaimed. God’s love compels and empowers us to do this.
“Americans want to believe that jobs are the solution to poverty. They are not.” By Matthew Desmond, September 11, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/magazine/americans-jobs-poverty-homeless.html