I was the youngest child of seven. Those of you who have never experienced this terrible disadvantage have no idea what it means. Always last and left behind in anything siblings are doing. Never getting a window seat. Always getting the worst chores, like washing the car wheels. Always the shortest arm getting food at the dinner table. I felt legitimately deprived.
Then I grew up.
And somewhere in there, I began to think about another person who sat around our table when I was a kid. My sister, Marilyn. Marilyn has muscular dystrophy. She sat there in a wheelchair, and her arm never reached for food. If we didn’t give her a fork, she could not eat. If we didn’t dress her, she could not change her clothes. If we didn’t take her outside, she could not see anything of the world but what was right beyond her window.
I had no clue what it was like to be legitimately deprived.
There is a difference between feeling weak and being weak. God knows this, which is why he tells us to care for the weak among us. The historically left behind ones, the socially powerless, the chronic have-nots, and the persistently fearful.
We in our childlike self-centeredness can think of ourselves as have-nots, but it’s a childhood fairy tale. There is an enormous difference at the dinner table, despite our personal perception.
God reminds us of this often.
“Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?
No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength.” (Isaiah 58.6-11)
The Israelites’ welfare depended on how they treated the weak. It’s pretty explicit. In fact, there were only two reasons God ever condemned or exiled His people: idolatry and injustice. In other words, they failed to love the Lord their God and their neighbors. Over and over and over. Rinse repeat. You’d think they would have gotten the message.
You’d think we would.
Maybe the church could reverse its current decline if we looked at Isaiah 58 and obeyed it. A prominent reason many are leaving the church is the sense that the church cares only for itself and its narrow message, never leaving its safe doors. This perception is sometimes true and sometimes not. We need not take up the entire mantle of blame, even while some of it does fit all too well.
It is up to each Christian, however, to make sure people who come in contact with us find that perception shattered.
Jesus said we would be able to do the things he did. But while we concentrate on miracles and signs, let’s consider the things He more often did. Jesus might rather ask, “Do you want to do what I did? Then pay attention. I healed. I counseled. I offered hope. I allowed others to weep. I fed the hungry. I blessed people. I rescued the lost. You were lost.”
It is supposed to be the most joyful tidings of grace and kindness for the weak ever that God made a plan for their care. The plan is us. Do the weak see it as good news?
I do far more for the weak, the poor, and the hopeless in my imagination than I do with my hands and my bank account. I think about it a lot. But it needs to get out of my head and into my actions. It needs to be part of the rhythm of who I am, rather than a portion of my leftover time and money.
It was central to both Jesus’ statement of why he came (Luke 4.16-21) and to his actions while here.
While I sat at the dinner table feeling sorry for myself as a kid, I completely missed the reality of sitting three seats down. I have a privileged place at the table. It’s my job to pass the dishes.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.