“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from everyday Christian life in community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; for in the poor sister or brother, Christ is knocking at the door. We must, therefore, be very careful on this point.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 19 – 20.
How can there be room for useless people in a utilitarian church? How can there be room for the weak and insignificant in a church, which in mirroring society, values significance and strength? How can there be a place for the poor, whether materially or otherwise, in a church that places success and achievement on a pedestal?
When Paul writes, “On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary…” (1 Corinthians 12:22) do we believe him? What would life together look like if the weak and insignificant and poor were given places of honor in our community?
While we may say that we do not exclude people, what do we mean when we say that we are not exclusionary? We may open our physical doors on Sunday mornings – or we may not, for certainly if a stranger to a socioeconomic strata or ethnic or racial group ventures into a congregation it is seldom as if a brother or sister has come home, it is more like an alien has landed and we can’t wait for him to return to his planet. We think, “He would be happier with his own kind,” when we really mean, “We would be happier if he went back to his own kind.” We miss the point that in Christ there is only one “kind” – and that “kind” is Christ.
But then within our own “kinds” or groups there are those whom we allow in our midst on the condition that they say little, behave correctly, and allow the strong and useful and wealthy (whether materially or in other ways) to take and maintain the lead. We can be exclusionary in our fellowship, overlooking those who seemingly have nothing to offer. We worship success and therefore make room for the successful, we are ashamed at failure (as the world regards failure) and therefore are embarrassed by brothers and sisters who are not successes. While we are happy to introduce the useful and accomplished brothers and sisters to others, we would rather not be identified with those whom the world does not value. We would rather be seen in a restaurant with a successful member of the congregation, than with a brother who earns his bread by performing menial tasks and who may also be slow to comprehend certain levels of conversation.
How would we treat Jesus were He to come into our midst? Paul writes (2 Corinthians 8:9), “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He become poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” When we read this we naturally associate the riches of Jesus with heaven, The context of the text is of brothers and sisters caring for each other with material goods, with money – so that no one should lack, so that no one would be hungry; “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack” (2Cor. 8:15). Is Paul making two points in this passage? Is the obvious point that Jesus left His wealth for our sakes? Is the secondary and unspoken point that because Jesus was poor that we will also find Jesus in the poor? Do we hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me”?
This is the Jesus who said of Himself, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” This is the Jesus who received material help from others during His ministry, who was poor – not just in the sense that He left heaven, but in the sense that He lacked economic resources. If we believe what Jesus said, “To the extent you did it to the least of these brothers…you did it to Me” then asking whether we would recognize Jesus in our midst is not a theoretical question, it is eminently practical and it should be challenging and it is one that we face every week…more importantly…it is one that we answer every week – dare we look at our answers?
When Bonhoeffer wrote the above Nazi Germany was purging itself of “useless people”. People who were physically and mentally defective were being killed. While abortion and euthanasia are practiced in the West so that we can eliminate life that does not suit us, society is also possessed of the demon of utilitarianism – if someone is of no use then that person is of no value – is the church any different? If we claim to be different then can we given consistent examples of treating the poor (whether materially or otherwise) the same as we treat the wealthy (materially or otherwise), of treating the influential the same as those with no influence? Do we demonstrate that Christ is our pervading and penetrating influence rather than the standards of the world? Are we as deferential to the poor as to others? (Shouldn’t we be more so!)
As I write this I sense that I have touched something deeper than I realize, I sense that there are treasures deep beneath the surface. I think of Henri Nouwen living within a community of disabled people and of the riches of grace he received in that community. I think of a wealthy brother I knew who shared with me the joy he experienced when having dinner with a struggling family at McDonald’s. This brother recognized that he touched something when he touched the poor and struggling.
When we model the church after the world we cannot have Biblical life together; when we wash the feet of all of the disciples, of all of our brothers and sisters…well…we can only imagine what might happen. But why imagine it? Why not endeavor to live it out in Christ?