Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor! That’s a quote attributed to James Forbes, an interdenominational pastor in New York City, and it wonderfully captures something that the ancient prophets of Israel underlined many centuries ago.
The great prophets of Israel had coined this mantra: The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land. And the quality of justice in the land will always be judged by how “widows, orphans, and strangers” are faring while you are alive. That phrase, “widows, orphans, and strangers”, was code for the three weakest, most-vulnerable, groups in society at the time. For the great prophets of Israel, ultimately we will be judged religiously and morally on the basis of how the poorest of the poor fared while we were alive.
That’s a scary thought which becomes scarier when we see how Jesus strongly endorsed that view. While this needs to be contextualized within Jesus’ message as a whole, we have in Matthew’s Gospel the famous text about the Last Judgment where Jesus tells us that, at the end of day, when we stand before the great King on the day of judgment, we will be asked only one set of questions and they all will have to do with how we treated the poor: Did you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Welcome the stranger? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick? Visit prisoners? I doubt that any of us would have the raw courage to preach this, just as it is written in the gospels, from any pulpit today. And yet Jesus meant it. Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.
Now there’s a whole series of challenges in this.
First: The demand to live lives that reflect justice and real concern for the poor is an integral and non-negotiable part of Christian discipleship. It’s not something that is grounded in some particular ideology which I can buy into or neglect, as long as I am living honestly and prayerfully in my private life. It’s an essential part of the gospel, equal in demand to praying, going to church, and keeping my private moral-life in order. For a Christian, it is not enough just to be pious, good, and church-going. We need too a concrete letter of reference from the poor.
Next: What that mantra of the prophets and Jesus’ teaching on the Last Judgment also teaches is that charity alone is not enough. Charity is a great virtue, integrally part of the greatest virtue of all, love. It may never be downplayed. But charity isn’t necessarily justice. I can be a wonderfully charitable, kind, moral, and generous person in my own life and still be unfairly profiting from an historical, social, political, and economic system that is unduly rewarding me even as it is unfairly burdening and robbing others. The things that I attain honestly through my own hard work and which I am very generous with in terms of sharing with others, can at the same time be the product of a system which is unfair to others. Taking care of “widows, orphans, and strangers” requires not just personal goodness and charity, but requires too that I have the courage to look at how my honest wealth may also be partially the product of a dishonest system. Who loses while I gain?
Finally: The mantra of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus about the Last Judgment should be a challenge to perennially scrutinize myself with the question: Am I actually reaching out to the poor? Do I have real “orphans, widows, and strangers” in my life? Is my commitment to the poor something only in theory, an ideal that I uphold but something that never actually impacts the poor? It is easy to pay lip-service to this ideal and it is even easier to write it into my curriculum vitae so that I look good to others and feel good about myself. However, as Ruth Burrows asks: Does our rhetoric about the poor actually help them or does it just help us feel better about ourselves?
I concede that these are not easy questions and we should be slow to answer them. Sometimes all we can do is admit our helplessness. I was once at a talk given by Gustavo Gutierrez where, after the presentation, a man stood up and, with pained honesty, shared about his own helplessness in reaching out to the poor: What can one person do in the face of all the global issues of injustice that beset us?
Gutierrez acknowledged the complexity of the question and sympathized with the man’s helplessness, but then added: “Minimally, make sure that you always have at least one concrete poor person in your life to who you are specially attending. This will ensure that your commitment will always at least have some concrete flesh!”
A single letter of reference from the poor is better than no letter at all.