Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Soloist

"The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me." Mt. 26:11

In the movie The Soloist, journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) was just looking for a heart-warming public interest story in a homeless street musician Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx). But he was not prepared for what he truly uncovered.

Nathaniel Ayers is a real-life Julliad trained musician who had to drop out due to his schizophrenic condition, eventually winding up on the streets of Los Angeles, homeless and poor with nothing but a two-string violin to keep him company.

Steve Lopez initially takes interest because he feels Ayers' story would sell a lot of copies of his paper (and thereby save him from a possible layoff). Over time, however, he discovers the nightmare of schizophrenia and the reality of the wretched poverty that lies just a block or two away from his workplace, and it becomes his newfound mission to save Nathaniel from both situations (and potentially save all the poor and mentally ill throughout Los Angeles).

It's a noble new vision, but it doesn't last. He soon finds out that, no matter what he does, he cannot "save" Nathaniel from anything, nor can he really put a dent in the fight against poverty. Like so many of us who ask what one person can really do, Lopez wants to give up - on this new idealism and specifically on a seemingly ungrateful Nathaniel Ayers.

I have often felt this way, too. I look at the issues facing us (poverty, disease, prejudice, war, environmental crisis, abortion, terrorism, and so forth) and get frustrated that I am so small while the problems are so big. Sometimes I figure it would just be easier to give up trying.

I don't think that God calls us to solve everything. In the gospels, when Judas confronts Jesus about this, the Lord looks at him and says "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me." (Mt. 26:11). I have always been troubled by that Scripture passage because it seems Jesus has given up on the poor. But when I saw The Soloist, this line finally made some sense to me.

What I think Jesus is telling us (and tell Steve Lopez in this story) is that to truly solve the issue of poverty (or whatever else worries us), we must stop looking at the issue as a problem to be solved - but rather as people to be in relationship with. We are called to be friends with the poor, to look them in the eye as a friend would, and offer them our compassion and company.

Steve Lopez learned that he could not eradicate the problems of Skid Row, but he could be a genuine friend to Nathaniel Ayers.

God calls us to be in relationship with the Christ in one another. I believe that "you will not always have me" was Jesus' way of saying that time may eventually take care of poverty as a whole, but there is still an urgency to meet the poor one on one, because they will not always be there, and we will have lost out on the chance to meet Christ in the face of those people.

In a way, God gives us a challenge: The poor you will have with you always... so what are you going to do about it - and whose friend will you be? Let us pray that we will find the strength to enter into relationship with the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the dying, the mentally ill, and the rejected members of our community and society.

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