Coming Up Empty

If she shows up at my office door, I don’t have to look at the calendar to know that we are nearing the end of the month.  She needs money.  I know what she needs it for.  She needs cigarette money.

I have actually given it to her in the past, initially surprised at my own lowered standards.  But she suffers from mental illness, and she can be, well, I’ll just say it.  She is annoying to the townspeople with her loud declarations of people chasing her and children mocking her as they pass by her house.  She is paranoid, literally.  Nobody is doing these things to her.  So I bought her cigarettes to calm her down, as a public service.

The trouble was, she got to thinking I was an easy mark.  She started hitting me up for cigarettes every month, and my secretary too.  We talked about it, and began to feel like chumps.

Don’t get me wrong.  As a pastor I have driven her to the food pantry many times.  We have given her money for groceries—food, not cigarettes.  I have worked with one of her friends to try and get her proper housing.  I have paid her to do yard work so she could retain her dignity.  She has always paid us back, refusing to be a charity case.  But now her benefits are reduced, and she has no choice.  She had to take what I would give her.

But lately, enough was enough.  I found myself getting impatient with her.  She tended to hang around half the morning, eating up my part-time secretary’s precious time.  People were embarrassed when she planted herself in the hallway.  I walked her to the door one day and closed it firmly.  It felt harsh, wrong, the opposite of the compassionate stance I advocate vocally and often from the pulpit.

It is hard to know what to do with people whose hands are empty.  All. The. Time.

A rich man approached Jesus and asked him how to inherit eternal life.  Jesus played along: “You haven’t killed anyone—check.  You have not cheated on your wife—check.  You don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t engage in shady business deals, mm-hmm…you treat your parents like royalty.  You don’t smoke, or chew, or go with girls that do.  Well, that’s a fine record you have there, yesirree.  Have you thought about de-cluttering?  Purge your closets, your storage units, your bank account and have a huge auction so you can give the money to the poor.  Hand over some real cash to UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders and you’ll be in business.  Then you will be ready to follow me.”

Huh.  No can do, Jesus.  Inflated ego, deflated—check.

The rich man would have to give up his righteous reputation.  More than money was at stake here.  Wealth was considered evidence of God’s blessing for doing something right.  If he gave it all up, gave it to the poor, who never earned a penny of it, what would he have left?  Nothing.  Empty hands, and a social standing of zero.

I got to thinking about those empty hands.  There was another man who had empty hands.  He had had the wealth of the aforementioned rich man.  This second man had received his money from his father, whom he had pestered into giving him his inheritance early.  You know the guy, the one known as the Prodigal Son.

Inherited wealth.  People sniff at that kind, watch closely to see if he’ll know what to do with it.

He showed up with empty hands, all right.  But he had done exactly the opposite of the other rich man.  He smoked, he chewed, he went with girls that do, and then some.  And it was gone, all of it.  He had exhausted every other option before he came limping home, humiliated.  “Just let me do a little work around here for some food, Dad.  Let me hang out in the servants’ quarters.  I won’t bother you any more, I promise.”

And his father refused to teach him the lesson he deserved.  He would not, could not, treat his son like anything other than his beloved child.  The empty hands were not shackled, not put to hard labor.  They were adorned by rings and filled with delicious food at his father’s table.

Two men with empty hands: one who thought about it but didn’t, and the other with the dirt under his fingernails his only possession.

One “deserving” but unwilling to release what he had come to regard as precious: his version of goodness, his hard-earned money, his reputation.  And so he went away, still clinging to all of it, no room in his arms for a cross.

The other expected his hands to remain empty, but they were filled.

When my friend appears at my door again with her empty hands, what will I do?  What will I do?

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