God in the Soup Kitchen

Based on both common perception and the media and cultural narrative, one might think that attitude to the poor is one of the chief markers highlighting the divide between left and right, non-religious and religious. Actually, what we find is that the opposite is true; no other issue reveals our solidarity and affinity with one another than our attitude to the poor.

Let me explain.

The left-wing, the liberal elite and the humanist activists are generally known for their support of the rights and conditions of the poor, whereas the right-wing, the conservative establishment and the religious fundamentalists are known more for their lack of concern and even judgemental attitude towards the poor. So far, so superficial...

Take any individual from any of these groups, however, - take yourself even - and picture the following situation and you will find that the response is indicative of far greater convergence of attitude than the above picture might suggest:

Imagine you have been invited to a soup kitchen and you, being the concerned citizen / activist that you are, readily accept the invitation and turn up prepared to help out in any way you can. There is no question, then, of any insincerity here; you go to help out of a genuine sense of solidarity with your fellow human beings who happen to find themselves in a worse position than you currently are.

Now, just imagine you have arrived at the soup kitchen, ready to help, only to find that you are being directed to the queue together with 'the poor'.

You inform the people helping out that you don't need food; you have actually come to help, there must have been some kind of misunderstanding. They take one look at you and don't seem to believe you and keep on directing you towards the queue.

You begin to get worried and start to look around for your friend who invited you. You finally find him eating together with some of the poor people and ask him what the dickens is going on. He seems genuinely surprised since he too had invited you for the purpose of 'receiving' charity, not doling it out.

You now begin to get angry. The initial surprise has passed but you are now in a state of shock. You are also indignant. Why? Well, the reason you are indignant is because you are being treated like a poor person… and you cannot handle it. You find it humiliating, demeaning and patronising that no one seems to realise or take your word for it that you are actually fairly well-to-do, have no need of their charity and have actually come to help.

And this is hopefully the point where the you 'reading' this story finally understands how the you 'in' the story (ie. you yourself) 'really' views the poor.

You see, as long as you are the one 'giving out' the charity, you are a firm believer in it. You campaign for more of it, you join movements and organisations that support the rights of the poor and you incorporate this positive action into your ideology and argue the case at every opportunity.

Yet when you are treated like a poor person yourself - when it comes to 'receiving' charity - you suddenly don't believe in it anymore. You aren't prepared to accept it even as a misunderstanding!

The supercilious you pontificating in the soup kitchen has given the game away; you are no less disdainful and dismissive of the poor than the right wing bigot who openly dismisses them as a lost cause and a drain on society.

Deep down, we are all dismissive of the poor for the very simple reason that we are too proud to accept our own poverty when it is presented to us.

And this is exactly what happens when someone - anyone - encounters the gospel.

You see, the gospel comes to tell us that, regardless of who we are, what we have done and what we believe, we all exist in a state of absolute spiritual poverty. And whether we are a religious person, counting our good works and faithful religious observance as our riches or a secular person, counting our freedom, education and good works as our riches, the news that we are improverished and in need of charity bites, and it bites hard.

Since we all like to cling to the idea that we are in some way spiritually/morally rich (or at least middle class), the most normal reaction to hearing the gospel and getting to the heart of it is indignation, even anger.

A true encounter with Jesus Christ is always a traumatic experience, precisely because it resembles that experience in the soup kitchen, where we are invited to participate in the work of a great philanthropist who is helping people, only to find out that 'we' are the ones requiring help.

The helpers in the soup kitchen were directing you to the queue for the poor because all they could see in front of them was someone wearing filthy rags or - perhaps more fittingly - someone completely naked. The gospel proclamation in this sense is like the child in the crowd shouting out to the pompous king who has been sold lies all his life that what he presumes to be a wardrobe of finery and riches is actually a bare-faced lie.

Moreover, the fact that you found your friend - Jesus - eating together with the poor is a detail that completely passed you by. You see, it is only when you identify with the poor that you finally 'get' Jesus. It is not enough to help them, you must also see your affinity with them… or else maintain your affinity with your left/right/secular/religious tribe and remain far away from this unique soup kitchen (the gospel) that somehow reveals the shadows of your soul without crushing you (indeed, it does the opposite).

In the current climate, the soup kitchen motif is not just a clever metaphor, it is a present reality and the difference between dignity and destitution for many of my fellow Athenians. Yet let us not miss the deeper lesson that this extremely difficult economic reality is teaching us about our hearts; whatever the economic situation, spiritually you will always remain a beggar in rags, requiring charity but rejecting it out of shame and pride… until you accept the charity of Jesus, the king of all soup kitchens, who came to identify with and dine together with the poor. Only once you have accepted this charity will you be vested with the dignity and the enjoyment of one of the 'workers' in the soup kitchen.

God himself wants to meet you in a soup kitchen; but do not look for him amongst the hipster/activist helpers - he is there amongst the poor, inviting you to eat the bread he provides before you roll up your sleeves to offer your help…