There was a bloke, years ago, who wandered the streets of Parramatta and lived in the parks and under bridges, anywhere he could find for the night. His name was Richard – he was known as Dickie. Dickie was small with unkempt hair and beard and clothes that were grubby. He was one of the men who suffered alcoholism and could often be seen in Prince Alfred Park near the band stand holding a flagon. If you approached and looked at him then you may incur a drunken, slurred string of abuse, suggesting you might not stare and should move along (well that was the gist). Dickie could also be quieter, and the more vulnerable side was manifest to the few he let in along the way, people he learned to trust and who looked beyond his dirty exterior, searing, cursing and abuse. When he was sober there was a vulnerability about him, a humanity that touched us and invited us to look beyond the exterior to the humility and sadness of his situation.
For many, though, seeing or hearing Dickie as he sat in the park cursing in a loud voice or meandering down the footpaths, filled them with disgust. They felt a repugnancy at his appearance and presence in the city. Homeless alcoholics didn’t belong here. Surely there was a place somewhere else, hidden and discrete where they could be locked away, unseen and unheard. When we opened a soup kitchen in Parramatta, some corporates felt it was a wonderful and necessary idea but ought not be in the city but somewhere more discrete to keep ‘those people’ away.
I remember a whole range of wonderful personalities in Parramatta when I worked there, delightful people with eccentricity and vulnerability. There were people wo lived with mental illness, people who were fearful and confused in stressful places and with lots of people around. They were people who were creative and intelligent but who lived with the effects of chronic mental illness. Sometimes all was well, and they functioned well and other times there were voices or depression or confusion and the deep struggles of those who live with mental illness. For some this had impact on their social interactions and others were simply unable to engage people and left them alone and misunderstood, sometimes feared and excluded. There were people who were homeless, people who had had very significant careers but for various reasons their lives had collapsed, and they were helpless and lived on the streets. Often, they turned to alcohol or drugs to cover the loneliness, pain and shame they felt. There were many other people who existed in isolated lives at home, hidden from a world who seemed to not care.
These and other people struggled through various forms of impoverishment and alienation. Broader society felt confronted when they appeared in public or became obvious in some way. The presence of people who were homeless challenged us. In a society that is quite wealthy and believes itself compassionate and caring, homeless people confront us with an alternate truth. We want to blame them. People who are hidden due to their illness, their situation, their fear or poverty remain invisible and we feel safe and comfortable. Their very presence challenges the truth we believe about ourselves and we have varied responses as we encounter these people. For some there is empathy and the response is compassionate. Others want them removed from streets and locked away, giving various reasons for this incarceration – their safety, the safety of society, protecting our children (from what?) and so on. Privileged society doesn’t like to see impoverishment or evidence of injustice because it challenges the myth of egalitarianism, compassion and so on. Dickie was a penetrating face and voice that created discomfort and confusion. He was in your face and his presence would not allow us to forget that life has deeply rough edges and the cards may not fall well for everyone. He challenges the misconception that all is well, and all will be well. He could be any of us, as could the woman living with mental illness who walked with her trolley through the streets abusing anyone who got in her way or she caught staring at her. She talked to herself and freaked more than a few people out. She was, of course quite harmless and lived with fear, isolation and comfort.
This week we encounter Jesus teaching in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12:38-44). He notices the well-to-do and important people who wander through with robes and pride, taking the best positions and seeking glory and respect from others. They are wealthy, powerful, important and believe that all is good in the world because all is good in their world. Anyone who struggles must look deep into their own hearts and lives because it must their own doing that they are not ‘blessed by God’. Jesus notices and comments that these people don’t get it. They are living off the pain of others because their very wealth is derived from the impoverishment of the poor. The Temple was intended to provide a redirection of resources from the wealthy who could be generous back to those who had deep need. It didn’t happen. The wealthy and powerful abused the poor and drove them into deeper poverty.
As he watched a poor widow walked past the Temple treasury where people were encouraged to place offerings in support of the Temple and to help the poor. The wealthy made great shows of placing larger amounts into the treasury – usually relatively small amounts from their vast accumulated wealth. They gave out of their excess. As Jesus and his disciples watched, the invisible widow wandered past and dropped in two copper coins – all she had. Jesus commented in what seems like barely controlled rage at the injustice! This woman had nothing, but out of a faithful, misplaced sense of duty (generous beyond belief!), gave up the very little she had to live on – this is what the Temple and the religious society had come to. The poor were abused and used, and the wealthy became richer. This was not God’s way.
The very presence of this invisible woman confronted the system and the injustice that exists. Dickie’s presence confronted a society who don’t like homelessness or poverty and don’t want to believe it is real or that we are all responsible. We shift the fault and blame or try to hide the reality. We don’t like the stories of domestic violence and the struggles of vulnerable people who suffer. Nor do we like the confronting reality of Indigenous impoverishment and struggle or the lack of compassion and human rights accorded to desperate and vulnerable people in detention centres. We don’t like the challenge of shrinking polar ice caps or bleaching coral in our own Great Barrier Reef. We don’t like being confronted by those things that point to our society and world as being less perfect and ‘good’ than we want to perceive.
As Mark wrote his Gospel, the Temple was destroyed, and the system had wrought it’s own end. Jesus’ words of compassion and inclusive love challenge us to see the vulnerable people before us and to reach out in love and grace, an inclusive community of hope!!