The Box by the Door

From Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth…”

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Tim Merrill
Camden, NJ

Chauncy and Jewel were joyously poor, with just enough to enjoy discounted books, matinee movies, and occasional grilled cheese sandwiches at the little spot on Main Street. Earlier in their romance, they strolled on South Street, where street performers and vendors, selling exotic folk-wear, mixed with hippies, punk rockers, experimental theaters, and vintage record shops.

Though much more gospel than punk rock, Chauncy and Jewel loved the energy and lack of pretense in this avant-garde section of the city — that is until the tourists came. Soon the street vendors were swept out by policies that favored retail chains, and the performers, hippies, and punk rockers were crowded out by suburban junkies eager to overdose on urban culture. The place wasn’t cool anymore, so Chauncy and Jewel retreated to the less faddish thoroughfare of Main Street.

Once, as Jewel and Chauncy set out for a Main Street grilled cheese sandwich, familiar notes filled their ears. The music led them to Diane, an old friend from the South Street days. Blind and joyous, she had been a regular at 4th & South for years, playing her flute, until she too was crowded out and swept away. Excited by familiar voices from friends who had always dropped money into her collection box, Diane shared with them her joys and pains, and how she craved a cup of coffee on that chilly afternoon.

So, Jewel and Chauncy made their way to a nearby Starbucks, only to discover their ignorance of words like Venti, Grande, and Macchiato. Chauncy explained that he simply needed a big cup of coffee for the woman playing the flute outside. Unexpected joy broke out in the shoppe at the news that someone cared enough to buy Diane a $3.00 cup of coffee, and with absolute glee, the manager announced the coffee was on the house.

Disoriented by the disproportional levels of coffee shoppe joy, the couple made their way back to Diane, handed her the steaming black warmth, and watched her launch into raucous delight. “I can’t believe you actually did this for me! This is the nicest thing ever! How could you be so kind?” She went on and on as Main Street’s eating, shopping, and strolling pedestrians stopped. Their faces smiled and their hearts melted in an instant of healing, all over a $3.00 cup of coffee. Embarrassed over all the fuss, Jewel and Chauncy exchanged final hugs with an overjoyed Diane and then quickly faded from Main Street, carrying some healing with them.

This world’s devotion to middle class affluence is predicated on the sacraments of global gentrification’s hard sweeping brooms, capitalism’s consumerist temples, and a careless society’s superhighways that bypass the poor, the blind, and those crowded out by “progress.” Yet, at an entrance to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Israel’s most sacred site, there sits a box bearing the Hebrew label “Tzedakah” (Righteousness). The box is intended for pilgrims, tourists, and the faithful to deposit funds for the poor before proceeding with religious devotion. In today’s text, Jesus surmises his teaching on salt and light, the law, and keeping commandments, with the affirmation that our righteousness — our Tzedakah, must not ignore this box in the course of daily pilgrimages and acts of devotion.

Like in our times, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees referenced by Jesus must have fallen into traps of busyness, religious devotion, and progress that caused them and us to sidestep the box with hardly a notice. Still Jesus promises new life for those doing righteousness differently, those armed with humility and consciousness in the course of navigating through the hard-sweeping brooms, the temples, and the superhighways, longing for the kind of healing that can break out with the random kindness of a warm cup of coffee.