This past Sunday we proclaimed the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We could analyze the parable in a very academic way, or we can let it be a new invitation to reflect on one of Jesus’ favorite topics, the poor. I believe preaching about poverty is difficult, for many reasons, but today I am thinking of two. First, we may tune out because we have heard Jesus telling us to help the poor so often, and we may think we already “know” about that. Second, because it is just difficult to help the poor. Whether we are talking about poverty in a given city, or poverty at the global level, it is difficult to find solutions.
I have my own parable, a man whose name is Terry who comes often on Sunday and stays at the door of the church. I give him food and money, and I invite him to come and celebrate Mass with us, but he won’t. Helping him would take more than the food or the cash I give him—but that’s all he wants, and that’s all I think I can really offer. What I do with him is charity—which alleviates and it is helpful, but limited. My point is that it is difficult to help the poor.
But the parable invites us to reflect about our relationship to the poor and to poverty. It is an important reflection because, in Jesus’ opinion, our salvation is at stake. The very wealthy man goes to hell because he did not do anything for Lazarus—not just because he was wealthy. He has removed any shred of dignity from Lazarus’ humanity. For instance, he never addresses Lazarus directly, Lazarus is not good enough for him. Even after death, while experiencing torment, he asks Abraham to tell Lazarus what to do. Between the rich man and the poor man, there is a chasm, Jesus says, an abyss, a hole. One that we need to climb out of. Where are we in climbing out of this hole?
Some are just like the man in the parable—at the very bottom. They just ignore the poor. They do not care. They may think it is not their responsibility, and many may even blame the poor for their fate. The parable gives Lazarus a name, but it does not tell us why he is poor, or whether he “deserved” being poor or not, that is hardly the point. I want to think that most people who come to Mass at our parishes do not feel this way.
Others, and I believe this is where many people I know fall—including myself—are concerned about the poor and poverty, but we do not know exactly what to do about it. We can individually help a little, as I try to do with Terry. Some will calm their consciences with a bit of help, but that assistance helps the giver more than the one who receives it, who will continue being poor. It applies to institutions also. Many Catholic parishes do a lot of very worthy charitable work—a praiseworthy work that, like my donations to Terry, do not even begin to address poverty, they just alleviate it. Do not get me wrong, this is a lot better than nothing. But it does not take us out of the hole. Perhaps we can start by giving more, helping more…knowing that it may never be enough. I believe Jesus is inviting us, as always, to go further.
I want to propose that we could do more to get out of the hole. I believe Jesus invites us to take a step forward, beyond good intentions and concern that does not translate in effective action. Like the administrator of last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus encourages us to be shrewd about poverty. I think about my parish: we are not that large, but we have lots of talented professionals, people with tremendous abilities. For the faith community I shepherd, this gospel is an invitation to reflect creatively on what we want to do for the poor. Thinking and praying together, we can come up with a new, creative, original ministry that would really address the roots of poverty in our city.
As Sacred Heart is approaching its 100th Anniversary celebration, I believe our future as an effective, gospel-like community of faith may depend on this. I believe we need this creative, original ministry, something we can do well. To this purpose, we will organize a series of listening sessions to discern together what that ministry should be. It may take work, and resources, but as a pastor, I would rather fundraise money for this than for a roof. We need a bridge more than we need a cover.