September 2007

Lift Up the Poor ©

Sooner or later, progress on the spiritual journey of faith, hope and love leads us to the path of compassion. Along the way, we come to see with the eyes of Jesus those set aside by what the world calls “progress.” Among these are the poor and the marginalized.

We know from reading about Jesus’ life through Gospel accounts that he had a particularly warm regard for the poor. He even called them blessed (Cf. Mt. 5:3; Lk 6: 20)

But God’s tenderness toward the poor was known long before the birth of Christ. For instance, Psalm 113 reminds us, “The Lord raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes.”

Also, the prophet Amos warned those “that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” that “the Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.’”

It is quite normal for people of faith to lift their eyes to see beyond their own self-interest, and to understand that rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged form “one body.” Just as the whole body suffers when any part is injured, we cannot be indifferent toward the plight of the poor. The necessity of acting charitably toward the poor is well illustrated in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Cf. )

Most of us do act charitably — at least now and then. Our hearts are moved to pity when we see a sick child, a grieving mother or read in the newspaper about an innocent refugee or civilian caught in the grinding gears of war. Many of us make regular donations to charitable organizations.

Giving of our time and our wealth now and then is a normal way to respond to our divinely inspired desire to alleviate suffering. But we know that this effort, though laudable, somehow falls short of satisfying the enormous need. Many would argue that we must scale up our efforts. Certainly, there is merit in that argument. But God may have another plan as well.

We get a glimpse of this from a surprising—even shocking—story in Luke’s gospel (16:1-13). In it, Jesus speaks of “a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” He summons the manager him and tells him that he cannot be his manager any longer.

Fearing for his future, the manager says to him, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, one by one, he urges his master’s debtors to reduce the amount that appears on their account. Then, commenting on this evidently dishonest behaviour, the master commends the dishonest manager “because he had acted shrewdly.”

Since when is being shrewd more virtuous than being honest? Does not our entire Christian tradition rest on the proposition that the world’s ways are not God’s ways, and that God “has hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants?” (Cf. Mt. 11:25)

Indeed, Jesus goes on to add, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Then comes the clincher. Jesus proclaims, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Is Jesus serious about using dishonest wealth for good works? This reflection cannot do justice to this question. I prefer to focus on Jesus’ apparent encouragement to be shrewd when facing major challenges.

God’s manifest love of the poor is a call to us who are a position to make a difference — A much bigger difference than we can imagine. Chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel makes it quite clear that Jesus invites all of his followers to take up the mantle of his ministry by bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; letting the oppressed go free. (Is.61:1)

In effect, the good news that is destined to the poor is about their release from the captivity of hunger, illness, loneliness and all the other dehumanizing consequences of deprivation. The good news heralds freedom from fear and despair.

Our discipleship calls us to be instruments of this good news: in effect, to help make it happen.

By any measure, we are not delivering on that promise. Though impressive strides are made and much good news is being announced here and there, the dream of significantly reducing poverty and its terrible consequences appears to remain an illusion.

But to regard this situation as inevitable is to lack vision, to resign ourselves to mediocrity as a community of believers. That fatalism leads us to dismiss as otherworldly the faith of those who Jesus healed.

Clearly, to take compassion to another level extraordinary means are needed. In short, the children of the light must be at least as shrewd in dealing with their own generation as the children of this age. What does this mean? Basically, it means tackling the obstacles wherever they are to be found and breaking them down them systematically and comprehensively. Let no one underestimate the magnitude of the task.

Indeed, Jesus bids us to be shrewd: ‘Behold I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt.10:16). It will take enormous ingenuity to overcome obstacles.

Obstacles are numerous, complex and entrenched. These include the full spectrum of public policy: healthcare, education, housing, industry, trade and more. Radical and sustained conversion is needed on a personal and interpersonal level with regard to intellectual, moral and religious activity.

Little of this will be achieved without considerable commitment, but none of it will be achieve without shrewdness. Behind each obstacle are people with deeply rooted interests and carefully constructed immune systems that instantly thwart the changes that the Good News calls for.

But let no one launch into a campaign of righteous indignation about the world order without first searching our own conscience for ways in which we can better align our lives with Gospel values.

All too often, we prop up our conscience by blaming others for the injustice that keeps poor in chronic and dehumanizing deprivation. It makes us uncomfortable to think that we may be part of the problem. We dismiss quickly anyone who suggests that our relatively affluent lifestyle, which depends on trade barriers, industrial subsidies, preferential defence, foreign affairs and even aid policies, is maintained on the back of the voiceless at home and abroad.

+ + +

Time magazine this year named Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono as Persons of the Year “for being shrewd about doing good, for rewiring politics and re-engineering justice, for making mercy smarter and hope strategic and then daring the rest of us to follow.”

At one level, we could argue that they are not good models of charity because of the enormous wealth and power that they already wield in industry and entertainment. Yet, it must be acknowledged that they demonstrated courage and ingenuity in the face of daunting challenges.

Time magazine goes on to explain that “the challenge of ‘stupid poverty’–the people who die for want of a $2 pill because they live on $1 a day–was enough to draw Gates away from Microsoft years before he intended to shift his focus from making money to giving it away. He and Melinda looked around and recognized a systems failure.

“The Gates commitment acts as a catalyst. They needed the drug companies to come on board, and the major health agencies, the churches, the universities and a whole generation of politicians who were raised to believe that foreign aid was about as politically sexy as postal reform.”

Time adds, “That is where Bono’s campaign comes in. He goes to churches and talks of Christ and the lepers, citing exactly how many passages of Scripture (‘2,103’) deal with taking care of the poor; he sits in a corporate boardroom and talks about the role of aid in reviving the U.S. brand.”

“This is not about pity. It’s more about passion. Pity sees suffering and wants to ease the pain; passion sees injustice and wants to settle the score. Pity implores the powerful to pay attention; passion warns them about what will happen if they don’t. The risk of pity is that it kills with kindness; the promise of passion is that it builds on hope…”

We are people of hope. That’s the Christian’s trademark. It’s the fruit of our faith and the seed of our love. As such, we ought to believe that our effort to lift up the poor is worth-while, and that our God-given mind is meant to help us to be at least as shrewd as the obstacles of this age.

Jesus has handed us the baton to announce good news to the poor and that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.