God in the margins

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew includes Jesus telling the crowds, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mt. 11:11-12). Jesus in his ministry often speaks of those who are least in the Kingdom: he ministers to woman, to lepers, to the beggars; he ministers to those who are despised in his own society, people such as tax collectors and Roman soldiers; he ministers to outsiders such as Samaritans. But this is not a call that only belonged to Jesus, but one that belongs to all Christians. The Gospel reading clues us into why this might be the case: those who are least in the Kingdom are also those who are the greatest.

How are we to understand this paradox? Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will tell his followers that those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, visited those in prison, and went to the margins of society did such actions for Jesus himself. Jesus here is not speaking of an “as if”; Jesus does not mean, if we clothe and shelter those who lack it, then it will be like a debt repaid, as if we had done it for Jesus. This is no mere “as if.” Rather, Jesus is telling his followers, among the least in the kingdom, there I am, and there is the “I Am.”

This is the great attraction, the almost irresistible, call of being with the poor and with the marginalized. Yet often in our society, we ignore the poor, despise those who are imprison, and fail to feed the hungry, choosing to invent theories instead for why they somehow “deserve” their hunger. Why?

I’m convinced that it’s at least in part because when we encounter those who are poor, marginalized, hungry, and imprisoned, we also come face to face with the poverty, hunger, and “imprisoned” parts of ourselves. I once heard a psychologist say that while we think about “borderline personality” as a personality disorder, every person has “borderline” areas in his or her character, places that can unravel and unwind us with the right circumstances. Yet it’s much easier to look for fault and blame in others than to recognize and to embrace that this poverty of human nature is universal, to oneself no less than to any other whom I meet.

Isaiah’s words, however, also tell us that this is not the end of the story. It’s not only that in seeing others’ weakness, I can accept my own—though this is not a bad lesson to learn! There is still more. Isaiah tells those who are willing to listen, “Fear not!” God comes to those marginalized communities, and those marginalized places within us:

“The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain,
their tongues are parched with thirst.
I, the LORD, will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
I will open up rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the broad valleys;
I will turn the desert into a marshland,
and the dry ground into springs of water.
I will plant in the desert the cedar,
acacia, myrtle, and olive;
I will set in the wasteland the cypress,
together with the plane tree and the pine” (Isaiah 41:17-19)

Where we are thirsty or in need, God sends the water of his very Being, and in that watering of our parched earth, God helps us to flourish.

As I enter into middle age I’m less convinced by the model that God acts to heal all our suffering, the way that Jesus healed the blind so that they could see, and then move on. Sometimes, clearly, this is true. But there is another way in which God is present, deeper than God-as-healer, and that is the God who embraces us in our wholeness, what is good in us and also what is needy and “impoverished.” Indeed, God is probably more found in those marginal spaces than anywhere else in us. It’s when we know God’s embraces of those parts of ourselves that might seem incapable of being embraced that we also can extend the same to others.

Then we find that not only does God water our own land and help the cedar in us to grow, but also that we are in a diverse forest of many kinds of trees: the myrtle, the olive, the pine.