We, far too often, have a very different idea.
Particularly at this time of year, we're more aware of poverty in our communities than at any other time on the calendar. We're bombarded by need, by requests for donations. Red kettles and tiny bells dot our landscapes, along with countless other charities asking us to help make life possible for those who have so little. We cannot escape the stories of those for whom there will be no Christmas this year. So we dig in our wallets and try to make Christmas happen.
We give money, as much money as it takes to appease our guilt. We give of our own financial resources to support those who do not have them, and we think that this is going to solve the problem of poverty. In our minds that think according to the world, money is the solution to poverty. Having more is the answer to having less. Giving something significant this season means putting something under the tree of every home, even if that means we have to provide the tree, too. If a man wakes up on Christmas morning and his child has a new bicycle and his wife has a new purse and there's food on the table, then we have done it. We have made a dent in poverty.
...for maybe a day.
Jesus says that more is not the answer to less. He says that money won't fix poverty. He says that the miracle of the poor on Christmas morning is not that there is a present under the tree; it's that there is a Christmas at all. The poor have to know that there is a bigger story, and that there's room in it for them, too.
You see, poverty is not an affliction of having too little. If it were, it should be simple to fix. There is more than enough in this world for everyone, if only we had the means to appropriately distribute it. But having more does not address poverty. Poverty is a spiritual condition. It's an affliction, primarily, of exclusion.
Poverty is a trouble that keeps a man from being connected to his world. It keeps him from being able to do the things that "normal" people get to do. It keeps him, as we've seen, from being able to go to the Temple and hear the Word. It keeps him from being able to study it like all the other boys. It keeps him from the places and things that are so common to most of us because he can't afford either the time or the money to be there. The poor man looks at this world as a luxury and wonders if he'll ever be able to obtain a place in it. He sees what is happening all around him, but he doesn't feel a part of it.
It's not just that there are no presents under his tree on Christmas morning; it's that he lives in a world where he must look at everyone else's trees. Where he can't escape the spirit of Christmas even when there are no means for it in his own house. It's not just that there is no food on his table; it's that he stands every day running his cash register and watching everyone else fill their tables to overflowing. It's not just that his child doesn't have a bicycle; he has to watch his child watch all the other children ride their bikes around the neighborhood. It's not that his wife does not have a purse; it's that, painfully, she has no need of one because there's nothing to put in it, nothing valuable for her to carry with her, no money for her wallet. Poverty is not just about what a man does not have; it's about what a man lives so close to and yet, so far from. It's about a man who has to watch his world live and wonder when he'll get the chance to be a part of it.
We don't solve that kind of problem with money. We can't.
Money is temporary. We give, and for a day, a man has a place at the table. But what happens tomorrow? What happens when the gift of money runs out and the man is once again alone in his poverty? Have we given him anything at all? Not really. A place at the table is no gift at all when it is only a measure of financial generosity. That a man can, for one day, provide a meal is no answer. You can temporarily raise his status and put him in the story he's watching, but that won't help his poverty.
What he needs is a place at the table. Period. He needs an invitation to a bigger story. He needs the Truth about who he is, and that is so much more than what he has. He needs to understand that there is a place for him in this world, a way for him to be a part of things, a story that cannot be told without him. Just as he is. Imagine the story of Jesus without the narrative of the poor. You can't. It's not possible to tell this story without that one. It's not possible to show the character of Christ without all the other characters He interacts with in the Gospels. You can't talk about what it means to give without talking about the widow who gave all she had - two cents. Two measly little cents. You can't talk about devotion without talking about the woman who poured out upon his feet the one valuable thing in all her possession. One bottle of perfume that was likely worth more than anything else in her house. Or everything else in her house. It was the kind of thing a family would save up for for their daughter, such an important part of the courting and marriage ritual, and she poured it out. You can't talk about leftovers unless you start with a little boy's lunch.
You can't talk about a Savior unless you talk about a stable. You can't talk about the Lord's anointed unless you talk about the offering of birds that accompanied Him on day eight. Birds. Because Joseph and Mary can't afford a "real" sacrifice. You can't talk about a Teacher unless you talk about a man with no place to lay His head.
The story of Christ is the story of the poor man. And when He's dishing out miracles to the blind and the deaf and the lame and the dead, He gives one to the poor, too...and it's not money. Money is not what the poor man needs. It's an invitation to something bigger, a way to be in this world, a line in the story, a place at the table. Christ answers poverty not with charity, but with dignity. To a man who has always been on the outside, He offers a way in. That's the miracle of the poor.
We ought to be mindful of that the next time we drop a few coins in the kettle. What are we really giving the poor man for Christmas? We ought to be giving him Christ.