“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen…to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” – Isaiah 58:6, 7
The first thing that happens in the book of Nehemiah is that Nehemiah makes an inquiry. He is in captivity in Babylon, many miles removed from the Holy Land. A relative from Jerusalem comes to him, and Nehemiah anxiously questions him about the state of the Israelites left back in the holy city. For Nehemiah, his fellow Jews were not “out of sight, out of mind.” He was eager to inquire concerning their welfare.
In many places in America, the poor can be invisible. Those who are not poor can live their lives quite separately from the destitute simply by avoiding “the wrong side of the tracks.” The lesson from Nehemiah, though, is that we ought to be people who pro-actively inquire about the welfare of those out of our sight, whether they be the residents of the housing project on the other side of our city or the destitute of Latin America or Africa. This is partly what Isaiah 58:7 is getting at, when the Lord commands us “not to turn away from our own flesh and blood.” We are not to hide ourselves from the poor, not to look the other way. We are to see the poor – and that may involve going out of our way to see them.
If we are insulated from the needy, we need to intentionally expose ourselves to the conditions in which they live. Otherwise we run the risk of forgetting the plight of the poor, as they remain “out of sight, out of mind.” And “not turning away” from the poor means not only not averting our eyes when we come upon the homeless. It also means not avoiding educating ourselves about the reality of poverty in our world and in our community.
If we deliberately remain ignorant – if we choose not to “see” the poor because considering them is distressing or painful or overwhelming or guilt-inducing – then we sin against the Lord’s command in Isaiah 58:7. This verse also enjoins us to remember that the poor are our fellow creatures, clothed like us in flesh. We would be disgusted to have to pick through the garbage for food to eat. We would freeze sleeping ill-clothed and homeless on the streets ofWashington,D.C., in the wintertime. We would feel embarrassed to wait in line in public, for a handout of free food. We would be in anguish to watch our child starving to death, having no means to earn bread for her. And if we would feel all these things if we were “in the shoes” of the poor person, then we must understand that he feels them too.
We must not allow ourselves to believe that “they” are somehow fundamentally different from “us,” and that, while we would be pained to live their life, they are “used to it” and so not bothered by it. Admittedly, the poor may be more rugged than us and better at discriminating between wants and needs. But “not turning away from our own flesh and blood” means that we ought never to do anything that dehumanizes the poor. We cannot simultaneously be horrified at the thought of Americans living “like animals” in a garbage dump, but then countenance Guatemalan peasants doing so in Guatemala City because, after all, “they’re not like us.” God, speaking through Isaiah, would have us remember the humanity, the dignity, and the frailty of the poor. It is as though God says to us, “Does not your stomach ache when it is hungry? Do you dare to think that the stomach of the poor man does not ache as well?” Isaiah 58:7 calls us actively to “see” the poor and to put ourselves in their position and feel their suffering.
For Further Thought…
1. Before deciding on a plan of action, Nehemiah asked questions first. Food for the Hungry’s work in a community always starts by asking questions. From what you have learned about the poor, why is it important to ask first?
2. There is no such thing as a stupid question. You don’t know because you don’t ask. Have you taken the opportunity these last few days to ask FH staff and community members questions about their life, their community and their work? What have you learned from asking these questions?
3. Read Matthew 25:31-46. Remember that Jesus commends the sheep for “seeing” him when he was hungry and thirsty. Do you think we’d be more apt to “see” the poor, if we looked for Christ in them? Why?