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Small Justices

The tour bus to Agra and the Taj Mahal leaves Delhi before dawn. From my window seat I watched the sun rise on a field where was gathered a crowd of several hundred. All were dressed in the same shade of gray, dingy homespun. They were crouched close together on the field, shawls pulled over their heads in the cool morning. It was one of the most alien scenes I’d seen in India, a land of many odd and surprising scenes. Our host told me that it was where the poorest of the poor gathered, where employers would come and select some for a day of hard labor to earn a few rupees.

It is impossible to travel in developing countries — assuming you are at all a sympathetic person — without being overwhelmed by the needs. Everywhere you turn there are people who are living on the edge of survival, through no fault of their own. I remember a man with no legs hand-propelling himself on a skateboard type device, begging while dodging among the traffic in a Vijayawada intersection. A two-room house in South Africa, where the head of the home was a 14 year-old boy whose sister was pregnant by rape. A village in Venezuela built almost entirely of trash.

Seeing these things, the mind tries to protect itself, to dodge the enormous weight such naked need tries to lay on you. It is too much to take in, too hard to imagine that you could ever have an effect. I could liquidate all my assets, distribute it to poor people, and the difference between the number who were poor before I gave my fortune (such as it is) and afterwards would be statistically insignificant. So why even try?

That’s probably why some people think that when Jesus said you’ll always have the poor with you (Matthew 26:11), he was telling us not to concern ourselves, because helping them won’t do any good anyway.

But that exegesis won’t stand, being contradicted by both Jesus’ example and his teachings.

Take Matthew 10:41-42 “Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

Doing good to a righteous man would be a privilege. I wouldn’t hesitate to help out Jan Paulsen if I found him at the side of the road with car trouble. I’d take him home, give him our best bed and the best of everything we have until he could go on his way. All the people who heard how generously I helped Jan would think I’m a great guy. And should I have the acquaintance of a prophet (which I do not at this moment, to the best of my knowledge) I’d do the same.

But the zinger in the passage is that last line. The designation “little ones,” according to most commentaries, doesn’t refer to children, but to any of “the least of these”—or, as we might say colloquially “the little people.” A cup of cold water isn’t much, but it is something.

My takeaway from this is that while we can’t solve the problem once and for all time, we keep at it. We keep trying. We fight the unwinnable battle.

Of course, we should try to give wisely: just throwing some money at someone to salve the conscience isn’t necessarily wise charity. Still, how much of an effect we’ll have upon the world of need isn’t the point. Our reward comes from doing something, even if no one else notices, and even should the life of the helpee revert to its previous state soon afterwards. Life is the chance to do a series of small justices: setting things right for those few with whom I come into contact, even if what I do is just a ripple in the pond.

Here’s a simple, close-to-home example. My wife, a hospice chaplain, visited a home of a poor Hispanic family who were losing a loved one. Carmen speaks fluent Spanish and gets well-acquainted with these families while she ministers to them. One of the daughters was a chambermaid for a low-end roadside hotel—a category of person that we rarely meet in our middle-class church. She told Carmen that she’s paid $3.50 to clean each hotel room—flat rate—no matter how filthy. She wasn’t complaining about that, except when, as often happens, the hotel isn’t filled. Then she’s told not to come in, or gets to clean three or four rooms before being sent home.

Would we, we asked ourselves, scrub bathrooms from top to bottom, hands and faces exposed to strangers’ dirt and germs, vacuuming and wiping and tidying, for $3.50 a room? We’ve stayed in many hotel rooms, sometimes leaving a mess just because we could, and never thought much about those who clean it up. Carmen and I decided that we’d never leave a room without leaving a decent tip for the chambermaid.

This isn’t much — you may already do this — and it surely deserves no praise. Nor does it make much of an impact on the total poverty of the world. That’s why we also give to other, larger mission projects. Yet even those are only small justices, minor ripples in a huge pond. Many of us together can make more ripples, and we keep trying to enlist more in the effort.

Until Jesus returns, though, we’ll not muster enough good to drown out the evil. My individual efforts won’t solve this problem, nor even ameliorate it in any significant way, and all of us together will accomplish only a little more. We’re stuck with the ironic expectation that we do something for those in need — no matter how little permanent good it seems to accomplish, nor how light a track it leaves in a needy world — for our reward and, presumably, theirs.

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