Zachaeus and ridiculous generosity

My trip to Haiti was not the first mission trip I have taken. Some years ago, I made a couple trips to our country’s border with Mexico. While there we stayed in a small farming community just south of that border. We also visited with people who lived in immigrant communities on our side of the border. We toured maquiladoras, American owned factories in Mexico where cheap Mexican labor assembled electronic components for Johnson Controls. We visited with people who work with immigrants and refugees caught in our legal system. We visited detention centers where undocumented youth and families were detained behind locked doors guarded by armed guards and razor wire.

Still, in spite of my prior exposure to extreme poverty, I found the poverty of Haiti overwhelming. Imagining what it is like to wake up every morning in a tent in the midst of tens of thousands of tents leaves me in despair. There seems to be no hope. The desperate poverty of Haiti seems to be the benchmark below which no one could possibly fall.

It would be tempting to say that in comparison, no one in the United States is really poor. Even the poor in this country are rich compared to the people we met in Haiti. I have struggled with what that means. Does it mean there is no one who are hungry and desperate within our own borders? Does it mean I don’t have to worry about “the least of these” next door because they are, after all, richer than the people of Haiti?

Apparently our national debt has suddenly become an emergency. Politicians and the news media are constantly telling us that there is not enough to go around. We are told to be afraid that we will lose our place in line. Someone, usually those with less than we have, will be taking something away from us and will leave us with not enough. We need to cut back, especially on spending that helps others. We are told that we can’t afford to be generous. No one seems to be asking what this means for the common good. The whole discussion seems to be focused on scarcity. Success is depicted as acquiring more than enough. Whatever we manage to ferret away for our own use is ours. We earned it. We worked for it. We deserve it. We can do with it as we please. Everyone should take care of their own and themselves.

How is it possible to reconcile a philosophy which advocates that everyone is responsible only for themselves with the upside down economics taught by Jesus in the New Testament? How do we rationalize our politics of scarcity in light of the story of Zacchaeus, who, because Jesus called him by name, gave half of what he owned to the poor and gave back to those he had cheated four times over? Did he have enough left to live in his accustomed life style? Did he have to sell his house? Did he quit his comfortable job? Did he put his own family at risk financially? Did he store a substantial sum aside for a rainy day? What a foolish thing to do. What ridiculous generosity.

We have been blessed with ample resources to feed and care for all of creation. It is only when we stop caring about the common good that scarcity becomes an issue. When we look out for our neighbor as well as ourselves, as we are instructed to do in the Bible and by just about every other religion in the world, there is enough. It is only when we begin to be afraid that we, ourselves, will not have enough that we hold onto more than we need, leaving less than enough for others.

Even in our abundantly blessed and beautiful state, our leaders act as though there is not enough. We should be rejoicing over the abundance of natural and human resources which have created our bulging counting houses in Bismarck. Instead, our legislators talk as though we created it ourselves and deserve our good fortune. Instead of reacting to our abundant blessings by providing for the common good, it seems we are seeking to find ways to hoard our wealth, to buy political favors, or to give back to those who already have more than they need. Where is our ridiculous generosity?

The question is not if the poor in this country are as poor as the people in Haiti. The answer to poverty here and abroad is letting go of our own fear of scarcity and to develop a political philosophy of caring for others as we care for ourselves. We need to practice ridiculous generosity both personally and collectively.

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