Free Lunch

“Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives.” ―Titus 3:14

“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.” —Proverbs 21:13.

As a young teenager growing up in rural Idaho with several siblings and a single mom on welfare, I regularly felt the shame associated with our indigent circumstances. I knew I was different than most of the other kids in school and it was a chronic, festering sore deep in my soul. Most of the time it was a dull ache, but occasionally something would happen to pick the scab off my wound and the stinging pain of my poverty would pour over me.

Free lunch was one of those humiliating trials. To eat hot lunch in the cafeteria at school, your parents had to buy you a lunch ticket. You could either buy single tickets or purchase five days’ worth of lunch vouchers on one large weekly ticket. If you were poor enough, you could apply for and receive free lunch at school.

Unfortunately, we were poor enough.

Initially, free lunch recipients were not issued lunch tickets to hand over to the attendant. If we wanted hot lunch, we had to say “free” to the cafeteria attendant as we passed through the hot lunch line, proclaiming our status as underprivileged kids not just to her, but to all our peers in line with us. No matter how hard I tried to whisper the word “free,” it always felt as if I was shouting “poor!” from a megaphone to the entire world. I preferred to skip lunch than go through that mortifying ordeal.

Somebody must have figured out that needy kids have feelings, too, because they soon came up with a better system for all of us free lunchers.

On Monday mornings, for thirty minutes before the bell rang to start school, you could go to a room on the second floor where an adult sat behind a desk. You told him your name and he checked it off the free lunch participant list in front of him. He then handed you a large weekly lunch ticket. When I left with that golden ticket tucked into my pants pocket, I was transformed from a stand-alone loser to a just-like-everybody-else winner.

It was a great system, provided you got to school before any of your friends and preferably before any of the other free lunch kids. It was important to get in and get out of there fast with your lunch ticket, before someone saw you entering or leaving that classroom. Although there was no sign over the door that read “Free Lunch,” there may as well have been, because everybody knew what business was transacted there. But at least there was the opportunity to avoid the daily shame of the lunch line for those willing to rise early on Monday mornings.

To those who have never stood in the soup line of life, this childhood indignity may seem insignificant, a small price to pay for a warm meal. But I can assure you that almost forty years later, the memory is still vivid amidst those fading in my middle-aged mind. While the wound of poverty has long since healed, I can still see that awkward young woman with sweaty palms and a pounding heart full of shame as she steals quickly into and out of the free lunch room.

This Christmas season, what will you see? In addition to the lights and beautifully wrapped presents, will you see the poor? As you listen to the carolers, will you hear the silent cries of the left out and left behind?

Christian, when you open your hands and hearts to the hungry and the cold in your community this year, will you do so in a way that preserves their dignity? What will you sacrifice to give the needy food, clothing, warm shelter and self-worth? Are you willing to give generously and anonymously? Will you say to yourself, but for the grace of God go I? Will you give these folks the time of day and not just a day’s worth of your wages? By your kindness and compassion, will you point them to the Savior?

May we remember that all who come to Jesus eat free lunch at his table. He has paid the price for our ticket to the heavenly feast by his atoning death on the cross. Because of Christ, there is no shame or condemnation for those who have accepted his invitation to make him their Lord.  We are all the same and rich in Jesus.

As we celebrate the birth of Christ and throughout the coming year, let us remember to give not just to those we love and who love us, but to all those in need.