My thoughts (Brent Walsh):
Imagine that you were hungry with no way to buy food, so I invited you over to my house for a meal. I laid out an elaborate dinner and invited you to eat your fill and then to take some home to eat later. This would be very generous of me, to be sure, and I would probably feel pretty good about myself. But imagine that after I laid the food out, I left you there to eat by yourself and went into my office because I am a very busy person. I couldn’t possibly “waste” all that time just sitting around when I have so much work to do and so many deadlines to meet. Time is money, after all, and money doesn’t grow on trees (as you obviously know, considering your impoverished position).
Do you see what I’ve just done there? I’ve given you a hand out (maybe even a hand down), and in the process I have elevated myself above you and have made you feel even worse about the challenges you face in life. This kind of ministry can be called “ministry to the margins.” The key word here is “to,” indicating that I am not really participating in the ministry other than throwing money at it. This is a hands-off approach. I might put some money in the offering plate at church, maybe donate my unwanted clothes to Goodwill, and every now and then hand a few bucks out the window of my car to someone holding a cardboard sign. In some cases, if I have enough money, I might make a considerable donation to a charitable cause or maybe sponsor someone to go on a missions trip. These are all admirable things to do, things that we were taught to do (and I am not suggesting that we stop doing them completely), but they are all considered ministry TO the margins.
So what does it mean to say, “ministry IN the margins”? This means that instead of handing soup to a homeless person and watching her eat by herself, I pour some for both of us and sit down to eat with her. Instead of assuming that I can teach her a thing or two about how to get out of poverty, I open myself up to listening and learning from her. It does not mean that I need to sell all my earthly possessions and live in poverty with her, but rather that I disregard any difference in our financial positions for a little while and have a genuine conversation where we can share our stories and learn from each other. When we’re done eating, we can both get up together to do the dishes and wipe down the counters. More than food in her stomach, she is now being recognized as someone who has something to contribute. She is being treated with respect and dignity, which is what we all want.
In today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be tempted to relate with Lazarus and condemn the rich man for not caring enough about the poor. But if you live in a prosperous nation such as the United States, you are probably living a life of considerable privilege compared to the rest of the world and are thereby more aligned with the rich man. Let us not be so quick to condemn him for something that we may also be doing. Instead, let us imagine how the story might have been different if the rich man would have invited Lazarus up to the table to eat and then talked with him, treating him with dignity and respect. Maybe he would have gotten to know Lazarus and would have experienced personal growth as a result.
Thought for the day: Instead of focusing solely on teaching Lazarus how to get out of poverty, let us consider how we might teach the rich man to engage with the world differently. Let us look in the mirror and invite the rich person looking back to become a minister IN the margins.
Note: If you would like to read more about ministry in the margins, please consider reading the book Standing in the Margins: How your congregation can minister with the poor (and perhaps recover its soul in the process), by Mary Alice Mulligan and Rufus Burrow (Pilgrim Press, 2004).
We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the suggestions on the How to Pray page.