My wife and I slipped away to Chicago for a few days at the end of the recent Spring Break week. We got a good Priceline.com deal on a nice hotel and enjoyed some shopping and fine dinners. The first day or so we were there, it was very windy in the Windy City and the air had a cold bite to it. Nippy weather conditions like that magnify for us the sight of homeless people with coats wrapped tightly around them while sitting on cold concrete desperately begging for the coins or bills of passersby. It seemed like we saw more than usual this trip. And although we usually try to stock up on dollar bills and coins in our pockets to give them something, this trip we just never found ourselves with much change. I know it’s an open question whether it’s a good idea to give people money but we usually do anyway.
On the Friday evening we were there we walked to dinner south of the Chicago River (our hotel was just a few blocks north of the river) and then walked back again after the meal. As we came to the north end of the Michigan Avenue bridge over the river, we spied a homeless man begging for some money. We passed him but then my wife stopped and dug into her purse. The smallest bill she had was a $10 note so she gave it to him. Having just spent far more than that on a nice dinner . . . it didn’t seem right not to give something.
But after giving him the money, he then made a somewhat surprising request. “Would you pray with me?” he pleaded. “Lots of people give me money but nobody ever wants to pray.” So my being a pastor and all, my wife waved me over and essentially told me it was time for me to do my schtick. So I prayed for the poor brother–warnings from the Apostle James ringing in my ears–and asked the Lord’s mercy and protection on him. When I finished, it was his turn to pray, he said. And so as we each held one of his hands, he prayed. At some length. As traffic whizzed by over the bridge behind us–making it difficult to hear him at times–he prayed, giving thanks for us, praying for himself, and reminding Jesus that he had once said that “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
I sensed I knew where I was to locate myself in that schema.
I am convinced he did not mean that as a dig at us. But given his location in the social pecking order, it was clear that this was a verse he meditated on with some regularity. And why not? Jesus was all about reversals of what is expected in life. The people who seemed the most successful by worldly standards rarely if ever impressed Jesus, and he had even less regard for the religious “winners” of the Rich Young Man and Pharisee types. The thing is that those of us who are “first” in any sense of that word–religiously, morally, socio-economically–probably don’t ponder much how we might actually be “last.” Or at the very least we don’t much ponder how relatively unimportant all those outer markers are in terms of our status before God or in terms of anything else that much matters in life.
My guess is, however, that those who are “last” in any sense and/or in the eyes of the world do ponder what it might mean in the long run–if not in the short run–to turn out to be “first” after all. At the very least it’s a source of hope. And we none of us live very well or very long without hope. That, in turn, makes me wonder where those of us closer to the “first” category actually locate the source of whatever hope we possess. Could it be our hopes are built on nothing less than those outward signs of worldly status more than on what Jesus and his righteousness alone can accomplish for us?
In any event, our prayers with this hapless Chicago brother reminded us of some pretty important core truths that tie in with our faith. And whether or not we could all agree about the so-called and controversial “preferential option for the poor” in the Bible, it is a reminder that concerns about these last sisters and brothers ought to come first when we ponder laws and policies and practices we should support. One way or another those of us closer to this world’s firsts tend to get taken care of. The lasts . . . not so much unless we really work at it.
And pray for it.