I find Jesus’ story of Lazarus, the poor man who lived by the rich man’s door, disquieting. People in need surround us. There are so many poor people that doing something effective about their situation is overwhelming and looking away is the most comfortable response.
My attitude towards poor people is issue-laden: what helps them, what hurts; what’s best that they do for themselves; how do they fit into my responsibilities to my own family; is direct aid or systemic change a better avenue to help; what’s prudent to share when I’m uncertain about my own economic future; with so many poor people in the world when can I stop giving? Of course, it’s a safe bet that the rich man in Jesus’ story pondered the same questions?
Still, the inescapable fact is that I have a full closet, well-stocked refrigerator and an adequate bank account while the poor don’t. I simply can’t convince myself that that’s okay.
Everyone who’s raised a family – or been in a family – knows that the member who’s in need gets special attention. The reason isn’t that he or she is more loved. The reason is that for the family to remain a healthy community and thus a solid support for all its members everyone has to advance together as much as possible.
When Jesus referred to God as “Father” it was more than a loving honorific, it was a way of teaching that each of us has a family relationship to everyone else. It wasn’t a threat when Jesus taught us that we forget this family relationship at our peril. It was a warning. The gospel four Sundays ago reminded us of Jesus’ teaching that those putting mother, father, son or daughter ahead of him, i.e., ahead of the needs of God’s Future World, completely missed his message. That brings us back to the poor.
This gospel doesn’t reveal what specific action will bring the poor to their full human potential. It simply says that we have to respond to their – and hence our – seriously dangerous situation. Act to raise up the poor: that’s the point. Our own closets and refrigerators echo the message.