Noticing the Poor All Around Us
I remember a story that Mother Teresa once told about a very poor family with six children who had nothing to eat. In fact, this family hadn’t eaten for several days. So Mother Teresa went to visit their home, and brought a big sack of rice. As soon as she gave the sack of rice to the poor family, however, the mother divided half of the rice and went out the door. She was gone for 10 minutes, and then returned empty-handed. Mother Teresa was perplexed to see the woman leave right away, and asked her, “Where did you go?” The poor mother simply responded, “They are hungry also. Our neighbors haven’t eaten in days and they need food just as much as we do.”
Mother Teresa would comment on this incident, saying, “The greatness of this poor woman was not only that she shared the little food that we gave her, but that she NOTICED her neighbor in need and wanted to help!”
How many of us notice those in need around us? How many of us truly see the poor as people with names and families, people with their own unique stories and struggles? How many of us look at the illegal immigrant, or the person struggling with addiction, or someone who has gotten into trouble with the law as someone created in the divine image of God? The poor are not only the material poor, but those who feel the poverty of being unloved, unwanted, uncared for. And there are many in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our schools, and even in our own families. Do we notice them? And do we try to reach out to them?
Today’s Gospel story about the Rich Man and Lazarus reminds us of this sin of consciously ignoring, or maybe unconsciously not noticing the poor and needy people who pass through our lives every day. We hear about a rich man who has many possessions, including a beautiful house and fine clothes. Every day he ate plenty, and filled his life with luxuries, comforts and pleasures. Whenever he walked out of his house, however, he passed by a poor man named Lazarus. This poor man had nothing. He was a beggar, with torn clothing, little to eat, and sores covering his body. Lazarus sat outside, begging and hoping in the mercy of God, and the mercy of the people who passed by. Day after day, the rich man looked past Lazarus, without ever helping him, possibly without even noticing him!
Jesus concludes the story by saying that Lazarus went to paradise, while the rich man went to hell.
What can we learn from Lazarus, as well as from the rich man?
The poor man Lazarus did NOT go to heaven simply because he was poor? Of course not. Some poor people may be saints, but other poor people can be criminals. Lazarus’ virtue was not that he was poor, but that in his poverty he maintained his faith, in his suffering he did blame others, in his desperate situation, he did not condemn those better off than himself. Instead, in his poverty and need, he didn’t fall into despair but placed all his hope in God. This is what Jesus implied in the Beatitudes when he taught, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Affliction and struggle can lead a person to possibly draw closer to God or to turn farther away from God; to place one’s hope in God and bless His name, or to curse the Almighty. In this story, the poor man’s name reveals his attitude - “Lazarus” means “God is my helper.” Jesus gave the poor man a name to show what his spirit was. Lazarus did not turn away and curse God for his difficult situation. Instead, he placed his trust in God, hoping that something better would come.
Think about it. Do we imitate Lazarus when we face unexpected challenges and difficulties, when we suffer and are in need? Do we choose to see “God is my helper?”
As for the rich man, he did not go to hell because he was wealthy. Riches are no more a sin than poverty is a virtue. The danger of wealth is that it can create temptations in our journey toward God. Riches may tempt to pull us away from our dependence on God, and they can harden our hearts against the needs of others. We may believe that we have earned our own wealth by our own abilities, forgetting that every good gift – including our talents, our abilities, our brains, our health, and our opportunities – come from God. We also can fool ourselves into thinking that happiness and security comes from wealth.
St. Paul warns: “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith.” (1 Tim 6:9,10)
“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainties of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim 6:17-19)
Riches are a dangerous temptation, but in and of themselves, wealth did not send the rich man to hell. He sinned because he DID NOT SEE or CHOSE TO IGNORE the poor man right outside his door. Every day he walked out of his house, and either consciously or unconsciously passed by the poor man without even noticing him. In other words, his sin was not something that he did, but something that he did not do.
How often do we fall into this same temptation? We don’t notice those in need all around us. We may be quick to judge the poor as lazy people who don’t want to work, yet, can we say we really know their situation? Have we sincerely befriended the poor and know their story?
Of course, when we talk about poverty, don’t limit that to only those who may have material needs. The greatest poverty in America may be the poverty of loneliness, the poverty of feeling unloved, the poverty of feeling unwanted. God surely calls us to generously give our money to help those less fortunate, but more so he commands us to give of ourselves – to give our time and our attention, to give our love to those around us.
Can we see those in need all around us? Will we notice them in our daily lives? And how can we concretely respond in Christian love to the desperate people in our neighborhoods, the lonely people at work, those who do not have shelter and food in the streets of our cities, and those who feel unloved even within their own families?
Today Christ warns us by condemning the rich man for not noticing Lazarus right outside his doorstep. Let us take note! Remember how Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.” May we all leave this church today opening up our eyes, looking around and noticing those in need all around us, and then showing love and kindness to the “hidden Christ” who is in each and every needy person we may encounter.
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