“He had to hit bottom and see that his dad and I were at the bottom with him.” These beautiful words were written by some friends of ours. Their son had gotten into some significant trouble and after a long and life changing battle, he is now on the other side. He had to hit rock bottom and see his mom and dad were there with him; not shouting at him from up above, not turning their backs, but there with him at the bottom. With him. He could not climb out alone.
Jesus came to be with us
In the gospels, two writers tell a story about Jesus. They start the story by saying Jesus was “reclining at the table of Simon the leper.” Wait… what?! The lepers were not supposed to be reclining with anyone. No religious person would ever be caught near a leper, let alone in their house and reclining at their table. In those days if you were reclining at the table over a meal, you were connecting on a deep and intentional level. You were sharing something very sacred. Jesus was close to those that the culture of the day despised, rejected, and cast out. But there He was. With him.
The story continues. A woman took an expensive jar of perfume, broke it open and washed the feet of Jesus with it. The disciples of Jesus were with him and—as was often the case—they were totally confused by what Jesus was doing. When the woman washed his feet with perfume the disciples were outraged. They verbally attacked the woman, “Why would you waste that expensive perfume? You could have sold it and given the money to the poor.” Jesus came to the woman’s defense. He called what she did beautiful, not a waste. In that culture, like many even today, when guests came to your house you gave them the best you had to offer. I heard a sermon recently where the teacher described his relatives in the foot hills who were so poor they had dirt floors and outdoor plumbing, yet when you came to their house they put out a feast fit for a king. This is hospitality, not waste.
Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that he will not always be with them but the poor will be. From the time I was growing up and even still today I have heard people use these words, out of context, to defend a position of not helping the poor because “even Jesus said the poor you will always have with you, so why try to end poverty?” I don’t think Jesus meant that individuals will always be poor so leave them that way, I think he meant there will always be other people who have needs greater than ours.
I think there are two things some people miss about this story. First, when Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you”, he was quoting a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15. In this passage, the faithful are told they should not be hardhearted or tightfisted, but generous, open handed and give freely to those in need. In fact, the full quote from Deuteronomy is, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and sisters who are poor and needy in your land.” There it is. Give, share, bless.
The second thing I think some people miss is the idea of proximity. Jesus said the poor will always be with you. Not out there far away, but with you. People who are at the bottom need to know and experience someone there with them.
Being with those at the bottom
Recently, a boys’ soccer team was rescued after being trapped for two weeks in a cave by rising flood waters. Thoughts, prayers, well wishes, and checks sent from afar were all very important but the rescuers had to go and be with them. Just like the divers and the doctor. They had to go be with them. They were at the bottom and could not get out until someone went down there and began the journey of giving them hope for survival and ultimately saving their lives. They could not shout directions from above or hope they would figure it out. It was all about proximity.
I work every day with those who are at the bottom. The lepers of our day, anchored to the bottom for various reasons such as poverty, injustice, homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. I have learned through our amazing team that the only thing that works is to go be with them. Once they see someone who is actually there with them, the process of movement begins.
This seems like the basics of the story of Jesus coming to Earth. He could have stayed far away but he chose to come be here with us and love us exactly where we are. It is in proximity that hope, healing, love, promise, salvation, and change begin to happen. One step at a time, working together. Proximity.
We build systems, religious and otherwise, that expect people at the bottom to climb to us and be like us. We build churches and say, “well they can come to us,” when Jesus went out. We want people with no ladder to find a way to climb out of the bottom on their own.
My friends told me that it was their son—after he returned home from jail—who told them he had to hit the bottom. He never wants to go through the things he went through again but he would not change it because of what he learned. His mom said he had to hit the bottom and see that she and his dad where there with him and he did not have to go through life alone. Jesus said the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the criminal, the sick, will always be WITH you. Maybe we need to find a ladder, climb down, and then climb up together, with them.
Written by Dennis Van Kampen, CEO, Mel Trotter Ministries