By Meredith MacKenzie
Michael has found me again. Michael is a skinny, scrappy, petty craftsman in Monrovia, Liberia where I live right now working for an international aid agency. Because I’ve never given him my address or phone number Michael comes to my neighborhood to look for me, sometimes waiting along my walk to work to ask me for money, because I’ve given him money before.
Today he needs $20 US for back rent.
I am annoyed. The daily appeal for cash isn’t just coming from Michael. I’m asked several times a day. Foreigners working in Liberia’s vast aid infrastructure make hundreds of times more money than the average Liberian. For people like Michael with an eighth-grade education and no marketable skills some well-aimed guilt and a little persistence can turn aid workers from the West into a reliable ATM. I can’t help but think that handing out cash to everyone who asks isn’t my job, isn’t sustainable, and is the worst form of charity, emphasizing the power I have as a person of privilege to give or withhold, utterly lacking in solidarity.
But what I am being asked for isn’t particularly novel or even difficult to provide.
After living in Liberia for a few months, it has become a mundane, quotidian request. By contrast, today’s Gospel story is high drama. Despite knowing his friend Lazarus is ill, Jesus stays where he is for two more days, during which time Lazarus dies. Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, blame him for their brother’s death. Martha hints that she knows Jesus could do something to change it. He insists on seeing the tomb and breaks down in tears. And then Jesus works a huge, public miracle.
In front of everyone he restores life to a man who was dead for four days.
It’s a long reading that shows the power of God to defy the laws of physics and biology, but it’s a short sentence at the end that catches my attention. “Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go.’” After performing this miraculous action that undoes death, Jesus charges others with the job of untying Lazarus from his burial cloths and setting him free to begin living again.
Untie him and let him go.
In my first experience living in a poor community more than a decade ago, I met an order of cloistered nuns. They never left the monastery and from behind those walls they spent every day in prayer. After meeting them, a friend explained to me that the prayer of those women is how the poor get up in the morning. In the face of grinding poverty, the constant prayer in the monastery is what puts, as the first reading from today says, the spirit in them so they may live.
God is doing that hard work of ensuring that hundreds of thousands of Liberians without access to reliable income, healthcare, or food get up and live every day.
It is nothing short of miraculous. All I am being asked to do here is untie and let go.
Michael is tied up in cloths that would bury him. He’s poor and undereducated, he’s got no sense for long term planning, he’s got very few skills, and frankly he’s annoying. I’m not being asked to change that. I’m being asked to untie a knot in those cloths. Friends are suspicious that Michael won’t use money for what he says it’s for. Fortunately for me, Pope Francis weighed in on that recently, saying that it is “always right” to give money to people begging on the street
even if they use it on small luxuries and not essentials.
The cloths that bind people aren’t just in poor places. People are homeless and begging on the street in every country. And just like in the Gospel, I’m most likely to encounter binding cloth close to home. I think of my friends and family who are bound in knots that can be untied by listening, giving some time, and saying encouraging words.
I’m not being called to perform miracles, just to untie and let go.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meredith MacKenzie currently lives and works in Liberia where she works in development, supporting democracy and human rights. She was a volunteer with Rostro de Cristo, an educational service organization in southern Ecuador from 2006 – 2007, and her life has never been the same. She loves Ignatian spirituality, speaking Spanish, playing the ukulele and running.