THE BLOG
12/20/2013 10:08 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

Jesus at the Food Bank

Even for people who aren't religious, now is the season of Altruism. We toss extra coins and bills in bright red Salvation Army pots. We respond to one or two extra appeals from the Union Gospel Mission or World Vision or Doctors Without Borders. We realize how fortunate we are to buy iphones or t-shirts or necklaces when others are out on the street, frigid.

But altruism goes beyond impersonal giving -- or at least it should. Altruism is a two way street. The homeless, the impoverished, of course, can't toss coins our way, but they can teach us a thing or two.

About Jesus, for instance. In a season when we sentimentalize him, when we imagine Jesus as a baby in a manger, we have lots to learn from people on the streets, from those who don't have a place to stay -- like, well, the baby Jesus and his parents in a barn.

I learned this a few months ago. I was puzzled, asking, "Who doesn't want mac and cheese?" I was ready to quip, "It's just plain un-American!" But Lucy said first, "People without a stove."

Ah.

I've had occasion lately to stock the food bank at church, back in the pantry, filling paper bags with, to be exact, one box of cereal (chocolate Frosted Flakes last week), two cans of veggies, two cans of fruit, two cans of tuna, two cans of soup, one can of ravioli and chili, each, two boxes of macaroni and cheese, one jar of peanut butter, two packages of saltine crackers, two Ramen soups. 2013-12-18-christmasmacandcheese.jpgI carry the bags out to a long table, where people come in, sign their names, and take one.

Typically, Lucy carries cans and boxes back in -- items our guests don't want. Canned peas I can understand. Who wants canned peas? Green beans, too. But mac and cheese? Who doesn't want mac and cheese?

Now I know.

A few weeks back I worked in the food pantry during a community meal, when all sorts of people, mostly Seattle's poor and homeless, join us. I hit a lull in my packing, so I wandered into the dining area and saw two guys at the rear table horse trading. Their bags were empty, items spread out across the table. What surprised me was that one pile turned out to be their give-back pile. Good stuff, too. Canned goods, like ravioli and chili. I asked them why.

Too heavy to carry around.

Ah.

Who'd have thought it? Here I am, a middle-aged professor of Bible, and I'm being taught about Jesus by a couple of homeless men who are figuring out what to take from the food bank. They don't quote Bible verses. They don't discuss theology. They don't debate doctrine (thank God). They figure out what they can carry with them that night -- just that night -- and, in so doing, teach me about Jesus.

People in the grip of poverty can pray -- and grasp -- the Lord's prayer, especially the line, "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11), in a way I can't, even though I've studied it in Greek and said it thousands of times in church. Jesus tells us to pray for daily bread. When was the last time you or I had to pray for daily bread? Not a shiny bicycle for Christmas or a base hit or the right boyfriend or a B on an exam.

Jesus -- these men, too -- takes us back to basics, somewhere I'm not willing to go. So I don't understand this prayer. Not really.

Jesus spoke in dollars and cents. I know this, and I struggle with it, especially at this time of year. His very first sermon begins, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). The last line of the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan ends with the Samaritan telling an innkeeper, "Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend" (Luke 10:35).

Dollars and cents. How do we make sense of dollars and cents? Well, I've only just started to learn from men and women whose lives mirror Jesus' in ways I can't fathom. The teacher, I guess you'd say, has become the student far away from the controlled climate of the collegiate classroom.