The Poor You Will Always Have With You [Matthew 26:11]

 

It wasn’t a very good lunch. The sweet, hard-working cook at our Sahara encampment had boxed it up for us to eat when we stopped for a break on the road through the High Atlas Mountains, but it didn’t represent his finest work. Inside each plastic bag was a slab of generic yellow cheese, 4 or 5 spicy green olives, an overcooked hardboiled egg (yes, you can overcook a hardboiled egg), two slices of pink mystery meat—the oddest and most forbidding cold-cuts I have ever seen— and one really beat up apple.

I ate mostly bread that afternoon. So did everyone else in the group. There was a lot of food left over.

By this point in our trip we’d been well schooled to throw nothing away. It was the custom to give leftovers to the poor, and we’d been doing that routinely in every city and town. We’d leave a restaurant or café with our remaining bread or meat or fruit wrapped up in napkins and hand it to the first person on the street who approached us begging. There were many such people, and no one ever refused our grease-stained packages.

But now we were deep in the High Atlas. We had gone for miles, hours, without seeing a soul. Most of us were so concentrated on the hairpin turns of the switchbacks we would probably not have noticed such a soul anyway, even if she had materialized atop the sheer cliffs or risen from the dry canyon floor below.

Our leftover lunches would be pretty disgusting by the time we reached a town. Not fit even for the poor, one person said. I recalled some of the beggars we’d seen, and doubted they would find even rancid food unfit. Nonetheless, the point was well taken—this stuff would probably go to waste on this part of the trip.

Someone else quipped that when Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” he had not been on a bus in the middle of nowhere. General merriment ensued. I bit my tongue. The group had proven itself fairly impervious to nuance and complexity thus far, and there was not much hope things would change now.

A half hour later, when we had turned our minds to other things, our driver suddenly slowed the bus and pulled over. We didn’t know why. We looked out the windows, but saw only the same brown cliffs and hardscrabble valleys we’d been viewing for hours. But the driver waited. After about two minutes he said, “The lunches, the lunches.”

Our guide started collecting all the leftovers into one large bag. The driver opened the door and let him off. He ran down the road back in the direction we’d just come, jumped the low guardrail (which guarded nothing, really, just marked the edge of the narrow road) and started up a path into the hills; when out of nowhere—really, out of nowhere—a shepherd appeared. He strode nimbly down the hill and raised his arm in greeting, the only human being we’d seen for what seemed like a hundred miles.

There was an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks. When the food was proffered, the shepherd placed his right hand over his heart and patted it twice. The he took the bag, turned on his heel, and melted back into the rock, like a genie sucked back into his lantern. Our guide ran back to the bus and climbed on. The driver pulled back onto the road and smartly negotiated the next hairpin.

And I didn’t start breathing again until we came to the next pit stop, thirty kilometers down that winding road.

 

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