The Muffin Man
Jason* is poor in pretty much every sense of the word. He has very little money and what he does have he spends poorly. He is poorly educated and generally incurious about the broader world around him. He is poorly connected socially and spends a lot of time alone. He lacks social graces and is often a poor conversation partner. His health is, well, poor.
I have coffee with Jason occasionally. We rarely talk about anything obviously important or even interesting. The weather. His latest doctor’s appointment. What he’s having for supper later. The weather. I’ve known Jason for over a decade, and I don’t think he’s once asked me anything about what’s going on in my life. Jason is one of those people who finds his way into the orbits of pastors due to a combination of need and loneliness and crises of various sorts.
At our last coffee, the conversation was laboured, as usual. I watched him pull his muffin out of the bag and begin to butter it. Trying to find something—anything!— to talk about, I said, “What kind of muffin do you have there?” He paused, inspected his snack briefly, and said, “Well, I ordered a wild berry explosion, but this looks like a raisin bran muffin.” He shrugged and took a bite. I looked at him, incredulously. “Jason, do you like bran muffins?” “Not really,” he mumbled, chewing slowly. “Do you like raisins?” Being a lifelong raisin hater, I was feeling a little annoyed on his behalf by now. “No, I don’t.” He looked a little nonplussed as he took another bite. I was utterly bewildered by now. “Jason, why don’t you just take it back and tell them to give you what you ordered?!” He looked at me blankly. “I don’t know, this is fine, I guess. I don’t want to be a bother.”
I sat there and pondered this experience, this mini-injustice (raisins?!) that Jason was nonchalantly taking in stride. It occurred to me that people like Jason are probably used to making their way through life just taking whatever they get, never feeling like they deserve much, never being consulted on anything important, regularly being taken advantage of or ignored or casually dismissed in countless little ways every day. Some people stride out into their day and into the world secure in the knowledge that they can more or less take what they want, projecting strength and confidence, even entitlement. Some know their rights and they know how to go about getting what is theirs. Others munch away on the bran muffin that they didn’t order and don’t really like because it’s better than nothing and they don’t really want to trouble anyone.
Jesus talked a lot about the poor and the poor in spirit. He called them “blessed” or “fortunate,” even “happy.” He commends things like humility, meekness, contentment. He speaks to those whose general experience in life is getting the short end of the stick and points to a great reversal coming, where the last shall be first and the first last. “Just the sort of thing to keep people docile and in their place,” the cynic might say, and not without some justification. Nothing like baptizing or lionizing poverty (in all its forms) to entrench existing injustices and inequalities. “The poor you will always have with you”—Jesus’ own words!—can quite easily become a convenient excuse to ignore their plight entirely.
I thought about these things as I sat there with Jason, sipping my latte, and watching him choke down his raisin bran muffin. The poor are so often either dismissed or romanticized. They become a category in our theological paradigms or an inconvenient obligation in our ethical systems. We love that Jesus says all those nice things about them, but they work better as biblical abstractions than flesh and blood human beings who make us squirm and challenge our assumptions, habits, and dispositions. We’re glad that Jesus called them “blessed” because we’re kind of puzzled about to make that blessing a reality. And too often, we’re not that interested in trying.
I cling to the hope of the great reversal that Jesus and the scriptures point to, even though I shudder as to what it might mean for those of us who would have marched up to the front of the line and demanded our wild berry muffin without a second thought. It is indeed good news. I am glad that Jesus calls Jason “blessed,” even if I so often don’t know how to bless him. Jason could do with with a few less raisins and an explosion of fruit.
*Not his real name.