When the Coronavirus pandemic hit in Chicago, I was disheartened by the ways I saw my neighbors acting. About a week before social distancing was officially enforced here in the Second City, I stood in my local grocery store and watched as multiple people would blindly grab dozens of items off the shelf – pasta, bread, dried beans, toilet paper.
I had taken to heart Mr. Roger’s advice of “looking for the helpers” in a time of crisis. But, as I looked around in my community, I didn’t see helpers outside of the medical field or grocery store clerks. I didn’t see individuals rising to the occasion to help their neighbors; instead, I saw my neighbors get as much as they could for themselves, leaving those who came to the shelves shortly after them high and dry.
Of course, it’s not as if I wasn’t guilty, too. In my own anxiety, I grabbed two bags of beans rather than the one I would have bought otherwise. And in my distress that I saw no helpers, I did forget about those people who were putting their own health on the risk to keep food on the shelves and nurses, doctors, and all the staff who keep hospitals going who were making preparations for my own community in that moment. I forgot about parents suddenly homeschooling their children, and caregivers who stepped up to the plate to care for the vulnerable in the privacy of their own homes.
And yet, even after I remembered the helpers out there, my disappointment remained. Disappointment with the people around me, and disappointment with myself. It seemed as all of us shopping in that store had thrown out our commitments to the common good at the slightest hint of danger.
Not that our fear wasn’t warranted. In the days that would follow that grocery trip, news would break that more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment – a number that doesn’t even include those who cannot file for unemployment because of the overwhelming demand on the government’s systems. Food banks would report the tripling and quadrupling of public demand. And, of course, we as a nation would participate in the grim tallying of Coronavirus-related deaths. Fear was – and is – a reasonable response to the terrifying situation we find ourselves in.
But fear doesn’t revoke the responsibilities we have to one another, even if it might mean it takes more will on our part. Right now, all of us have a moral responsibility to each other – and especially to the most vulnerable in our society. For Christians, this moral responsibility is an integral part of our faith.
In this crisis, we can look towards scripture for guidance – and I believe Matthew has a lot to say to us in this moment.
Matthew’s gospel gives the twenty-first century believer a lot to chew on when it comes to our moral responsibilities in a crisis. After all, this gospel was written for a community that had experienced a lot of crises in their time. They were Jewish followers of Jesus, and refugees from the Jewish War. Before the Jewish War, they lived in or around Galilee; after the War, after witnessing its atrocities and the brutality of the Roman Empire, they found themselves in exile in Antioch. And, once there, they found themselves struggling with a rapidly changing Jesus Movement: no longer were they primarily Jewish believers, but suddenly they were also Gentiles, people from the same culture that had caused them so much grief.
Anxiety, crisis, uncertainty – these were not new to Matthew’s community, and this gospel grapples with this reality of uncertainty and crisis. Given this context, perhaps we would have understood if Matthew hadn’t emphasized moral responsibility and self-giving. We probably would have understood if Matthew grappled with wondering where God was in times of crisis. And yet, Matthew wrote strongly about the need to think not only of one’s own self and one’s own community, but to always reach out a hand to those in the most desperate need. And Matthew emphasized again and again that God is with us in Jesus, the Immanuel.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at some readings from Matthew that I believe are particularly relevant to us today. They all examine issues of scarcity, plenty, and moral action in a fearful time. All these readings invoke questions about what we owe to our neighbors, and which neighbors we are supposed to serve as we follow Jesus.
Just a note: I wrote these posts at the beginning of May, before the killing of George Floyd. These posts deal most with issues of poverty, which are deeply racialized in my context in the US. I don’t explicitly mention anti-black violence and racism in my posts, but I know – and I hope you keep in mind – the ways in which poverty and racism work in tandem to devalue the lives of the poor, and make the conditions of black people’s murder possible.