Pyramid of Support
In our passage from Matthew, Jesus is telling us that each and everyone of us has a role to play in the building up of the Kingdom of God, no matter how small that might be. He tells how each one of us in our righteous acts represents Jesus and God, and in fact it is as actually God or Jesus performing that righteous act. In ancient times, an ambassador when he visited a foreign land was considered to be the ruler he represented for that time of representation. This was necessary in an age where there was no long-distant telephone service. Jesus would have had this custom in mind.
God affirms and rejoices in any righteous act, no matter how short or small. Anytime we support someone, or give an offering, or donate our time or money, or vote with God in mind, or even rejoice in a beautiful day, God rejoices and appreciates that we have contributed to the building up of the Kingdom of God.
But if we look a bit closer at the passage, Jesus is also considering what might be called a sacred pyramid of support. He starts with God (i.e., himself), then works through prophets, then a righteous person, then to the “little ones”, by which Jesus probably means his disciples. At each “level” the giver, the one who honestly represents one of these for that moment becomes that one.
So from a disciple who represents a righteous person who represents a prophet who represents God we have a pyramid of support. We would expect that there are more disciples than righteous people, that is, people who have dedicated their lives to compassionate work such as missionaries. We would expect that fewer are prophets. Finally we reach God who is the pinnacle of the pyramid. And from God’s perspective all of these people receive God’s thanks. All were needed to do God’s work. God has chosen not to intervene autonomously into our lives. God relies on us to do what God wants done. This sacred pyramid is God’s instrument to bring about the Kingdom of God.
For example, my wife and daughter support Alex’s Lemonade Stand. The Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation raise money to support research in childhood cancer. From the Foundation’s website we learn that it is named after Alexandra "Alex" Scott. Shortly before her first birthday, Alex was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer. On her first birthday, the doctors informed Alex's parents that if she beat her cancer it was doubtful that she would ever walk again. Just two weeks later, Alex slightly moved her leg at her parents' request to kick.
By her second birthday, Alex was crawling and able to stand up with leg braces. She worked hard to gain strength and to learn how to walk. She appeared to be beating the odds, until the shattering discovery within the next year that her tumors had started growing again. In the year 2000, the day after her fourth birthday, Alex received a stem cell transplant and informed her mother, "when I get out of the hospital I want to have a lemonade stand." She said she wanted to give the money to doctors to allow them to "help other kids, like they helped me." True to her word, she held her first lemonade stand later that year and raised an amazing $2,000 for "her hospital."
While bravely battling her own cancer, Alex continued to hold yearly lemonade stands in her front yard to benefit childhood cancer research. News spread of the remarkable sick child dedicated to helping other sick children. People from all over the world, moved by her story, held their own lemonade stands and donated the proceeds to Alex and her cause.
In August of 2004, Alex passed away at the age of 8, knowing that, with the help of others, she had raised over $1 million to help find a cure for the disease that took her life. Alex's family and supporters around the world are committed to continuing her inspiring legacy through Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.
An Alex Lemonade Stand is indeed a joy to God. Here you have the many thousands of unnamed people who buy some lemonade and give a donation… a necessary base. If people were not willing to drop by and check out what is happening and then out of the goodness of their hearts to give, then there could be no Alex Lemonade Stands. Yet there are many people who will give … sometimes by word of mouth.
And you have the dedicated local folks who take the time to plan where best to offer the lemonade and then to set up and mind the stand. Without that middle tier there would be no opportunity for the thousands to do God’s work. But there are many who do take the time.
And there is the Foundation at the next tier that processes the donations and sees that the money goes to appropriate research. And there are the researchers who discover new cures and the doctors who treat the child-patients. And finally there is God at the very top who provides the spirit for the thousands to give and the hundreds to organize and the foundations to function and the researchers and doctors to apply their expertise.
All of these levels are needed. Everyone is as important as the next. The person on the street who gave ten dollars is just as cherished by God as the researcher in the lab. All are needed. And this is what Jesus was speaking of: We are all needed to do God’s work no matter how humble the part we have may be.
Indeed in many ways the possibility of this support emanates not from the peak but from the bottom. If people simply dismiss this effort as a fad, uninteresting, not appropriate or whatever, it could not happen … even if God wanted it to happen. It is often the unnamed, unrecorded humble efforts of ordinary people that make all the difference. The top of the pyramid may call out for help. But it is the base that allows it to happen.
But there is another side to this. Such pyramids of support do not only occur in charitable circumstances. They occur throughout our society. For example a business is dependent on its customers and a whole pyramid of support. A business not only needs its customers, it needs the retailers in the next tier up. And the retailers need the distributors who provide them with stock. And the distributors need the manufacturers who in turn need the workers in the factories and offices. The manufacturers and workers in turn need the product designers and possibly engineers and researchers. And finally at the top is corporate management … who wouldn’t have jobs if it weren’t for all of these tiers of support.
But was Jesus talking about this sort of pyramid? With Alex’s Lemonade Stand we can see that it embodies a lot of what Jesus taught in doing God’s work: of caring for the least among us. But what about business?
Jesus and God are relevant to every walk of life, be it charitable work or business. Though charitable work can clearly be associated with religious efforts, we would not think the same of other pyramids of support be they business or politics. And we wouldn’t want these to be somehow required to practice some religion. That would be wrong as well as a violation of our traditions.
But we as believers and citizens can expect the application of basic and generally universally accepted mores. We can require that a business always be ethical, i.e. honest and truthful. We can also wish that a business is centered on its customers or clients. We can wish that it is in business not just to make money but to participate in the encouragement and building up of people’s lives. We can expect that a business will be truthful in its advertising and not mislead. We can ask that it treats its workers with respect and humanely. We can expect it to be a positive contributor to our society. All of these moral and ethical standards play out in any pyramid of support. Up and down the pyramid honesty, dignity, and respect must occur for a business or a government to sustain its work in an ethical and moral manner.
There are cases of business very intentionally following a business model focused on people and their community. One is the Alliance to Develop Power in western Massachusetts. ADP started out as a community organizing outfit that addressed issues, many economic, that adversely affected its members, mostly African-American and Hispanic people. But they did it differently than just advocating for a change. They worked to make the change by setting up businesses owned and operated by their members.
For example, when they were advocating for folks in public housing who wanted safer and better maintenance on the houses, they discovered that as a nonprofit they could actually buy the houses. They bought 1200 units that are now run by the tenants themselves.
Later when the tenants discover that contracting out for landscaping was expensive, they started “mowing the lawn” themselves. But they went beyond just mowing the lawn. They founded a member-own landscaping business. In addition they founded a work center for immigrants and a number of food co-ops. All of these business offered gainful employment to members. They now also have a weatherization business. And they have plans to establish an urban farming project.
Each one of these businesses starts and ends with a concern for its community members. They have a customer base and skilled workers now who rely on that community base. The organizers in turn rely on the skilled workers to make these businesses work and on other communities’ ideas to expand their services to the community.
Such community economies as ADP in many ways are a pragmatic response to local people’s needs. But as a result they are answerable to the community members and should they lose the trust of their community members, then the businesses they have founded would fail. So they must remain transparent and honest if indeed the community economy is to be sustained over time.
These expectations of trust, honesty and a concern for employees and clients/customers must also apply to charities like the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. For wherever humans are in charge, we must accept our limitations and that there is always the temptation to take advantage.
In God we can trust but even in the sacred pyramid of building up the Kingdom of God, we all too often hear of someone, a minister, a priest, a lay person who has succumb to temptation and no longer represents the Kingdom.
Business and politics are no less prone, and may be more so. We must be vigilant that our pyramids of support are indeed what God wanted them to be: supportive of people.
So we have come full circle. Jesus taught us that every good work we do is accepted by God and when we do even the smallest good work, whether religious or secular we have contributed to the building up of the Kingdom. But by doing our righteous work, we help God by helping people and the creation … God’s work is the work of care and compassion, dignity and prosperity, freedom and peace. Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation does God’s work of caring for the children through a pyramid of support right up to the mind of God that guides the researcher. And a community economy like the Alliance to Develop Power does God’s work of giving dignity and freedom to people through a pyramid and web of support right up to the heart of God that guides the organizers.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …