[NOTE TO READER: The Latin word dives, in the seventh paragraph, is pronounced “DYE-veez.”]
“I always thank the person for asking, even when I don’t have anything to give at the time.” These are the words of Archbishop James Salisbury of the African Orthodox Church in America, about being asked for money by people on the street.
If you look up Archbishop James up on their church’s website, you’ll see that he has the look of a beneficent and cheerful grandfather. You can imagine his kind, dark eyes looking deep into the soul of a poor person and thanking that person for having the courage to ask for something.
Now, you may be saying to yourselves, how could an archbishop not have money in his pocket to share? To be honest, don’t we all have times when we don’t have a cent on us, usually because we’ve forgotten to go to the ATM or in this difficult economy there are days when we, who may be far from homeless, stayed away from the ATM until we were sure there was something there that month?
It might be nice to do what James does when we are asked for some spare change on the street instead of assuming the person is too lazy to work.
Another thing that would be thoughtful when we interact with people in need, is to ask their name and have a conversation with them. If you read “Down and Out in Providence” by Bishop Geralyn Wolf of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, you would read her journal written during the time that she lived among the homeless for her sabbatical. She talks about how important it is to be acknowledged by name – how desperately alone and invisible the homeless feel when no one speaks their names. Read her book. It’s life changing.
Each of our passages today reminds us that those in need are our responsibility. God expects us to care for the poor. It’s all through the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Every prophet, from the Old Testament to the Liberationists and beyond reminds the people that the poor are our neighbors and that none of them should ever have to beg for the crumbs that fall from our tables.
Isn’t that image from the gospel heart rending? We can’t imagine that a rich man would be so callous as to ignore poor Lazarus who lay by the gate of his house. He was so poor and so sick that we’re told dogs would come and lick his sores. If you Google “Lazarus and the Rich Man” or “Lazarus and Dives” – dives is Latin for “rich man” – you will find many images in art portraying this scene. In most, the dogs look like friendly sorts, just lolling around calmly with their tongues hanging out. It probably wasn’t like that at all. Dogs will fight over the taste of blood. Lazarus had a horrid and probably frightening existence, and still, the rich man ignored him.
Jesus tells this story to point out that some of the Pharisees were ignoring the needs of their own people just like the rich man – and we may be surprised at the reluctance of those religious leaders to understand Jesus’ concern.
But why might we be surprised? Again, we need to see what this is teaching us.
In Jesus’ day, the assumption was that a man like Lazarus was that way because of his or his parents’ sin. In our day, isn’t the assumption often that a person in Lazarus’ condition, the homeless, the poor, the down and out, are that way because of their “sin” of laziness or poor judgment or that they’re scamming us?
We often hear people say that they don’t give a street person any money because he or she will spend it on alcohol – end of story.
Yes, sometimes they do, but many times they don’t.
When we assume why a person is in need, are we any better than the rich man or the Pharisees? This is when it’s helpful to engage a person in conversation. Like most human beings, the person in need often yearns for someone to listen, to show even a few short moments of care. If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or soup kitchen, you know that’s the truth.
However, in considering the image of rich versus poor, there’s another issue to think about today. Our own economy places many of us in very difficult circumstances. Sometimes those who may look quite comfortable are hiding the fear of losing everything if the next paycheck doesn’t come. God doesn’t expect us to put ourselves or our families in danger because we give others our last bit of money.
There are many ways to share – we all know this. Acknowledging the humanity of another is one way; listening, volunteering – these are all ways of being human.
First Timothy gives us another. The author reminds us about the danger of excesses. Our culture also encourages us to amass much more than we need, doesn’t it? If we’re honest, we might have more to share if we were more content with having enough.
“But 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.”
Now, those are scary words. Strong verbs, “trapped” and “plunged,” warn us that greed can lead to our destruction.
Isn’t it annoying, though, when we see some extremely rich and assumedly happy people splashed over magazine covers and news articles?
Ah, but there’s a catch. We assume, we don’t really know. We don’t know what’s really going on inside them; we can’t. So it’s better if we turn our faces toward those who need what we can share – our thoughtfulness, our care, and sometimes our material goods.
All people should be content as Timothy says – content with having enough.