When I was young—in my twenties I went to Mexico to work ‘in the missions’. I thought I had something that I could give those poor people of my highly educated life to lift them from their poverty. I was serving in a small town in Central Mexico. The sisters I was working for usually got up daily for mass at some o-dark thirty that I had never seen. So I went to the noon mass in the center of town.
As there are in many places in the world there often beggars who gather around the church at mass time hoping to cull some money off the pious. There was one crone who was always there. And being the only blond haired, blue-eyed woman in town she would always engage me. As in small towns, everyone knows your name if you are a stranger. Dona Paulina knew mine.
I tried to ignore her but I knew what she wanted from me. The upraised palm was enough. I was constantly told not to give to the beggars. “You will only encourage them,” the nuns said. I must admit that I had seen few beggars in my time. Growing up after WWII we seldom saw beggars in Fort Worth. Occasionally there would be a disabled vet peddling pencils downtown. And beggars did not illicit feelings of compassion, but anger that someone would stoop to that.
Every day she would hail me as I approached. She would ask me how my day was going, what I was doing, how my classes were going. Being a polite person—or at least was trying to be, I would answer here questions until one day she asked me to help her grandson. He was about 6 and was sick. Would I speak to the doctor on her part? I knew the doctor fairly well. His child was in my class. I did approach the doctor and ask him if it was appropriate to speak to him of Dona Paulina’s grandson. He agreed to see the boy. From that time on, I began to learn more of Dona Paulina and her life. She had a husband and a son who had both become victims of alcoholism. They had died due to their disease and left her without any way of making a living. She lived in a little hut made of sticks and mud in the hills outside of town. There were no social programs in Mexico at the time.
Slowly but surely over the time I was there I began to engage her and share in her life. It was an important experience because I had never seen faith like hers. She depended upon God for everything even the basics like water, food and bed. She saw to it that her grandson got the best food. When I broke my hip and had to leave the small town, Dona Paulina joined the group that was saying good by at the bus station. She pressed 2 small coins worth less than a penny into my hand.
That woman changed my life. No longer am I willing to pass by a beggar without putting a coin in his cup. Nothing can encourage begging but poverty and hunger.
Today’s Gospel speaks of Lazarus who languished outside the door of the rich man. This is an apocryphal story that Jesus tells. Jesus was teaching people the meaning of the parts of the Mosaic Law to the Pharisees, the well-off part of Jerusalem. He was reminding them of their responsibility to the widows and orphans and the poor. Deuteronomy 15:11 commands the people to ‘open wide their hand to the poor.’ And Jesus was teaching that the wealthy had an obligation to the poor.
Part of the duty of the faithful is to make sure that there are no hungry among them both in Jesus’ day and in our own. If there are those who are suffering hunger in our nation it is OUR fault because we are unwilling to see to the programs that feed those who cannot do it for themselves. And what do we do? We allow our government to cut the programs like WIC, food stamps, etc. so that we will not be taxed.
If our programs are not doing the job we need to reform them, not trash them. All some of our programs need is the technological updating that would make them less of a financial burden.
When I was working on this sermon I saw a comment on a colleague’s blog that he wasn’t into 'enforce charity'. But that has been one of the jobs of government since time immemorial. How else are the poor going to survive if we ignore the poor at our gates? How else are we to be a Christian in today's world without a place to practice God's mercy?
In Jesus’ day, the government and the religious establishment were both at the mercy of the Roman overlords. Both the king and the Temple officials were appointed by Rome. Today we are supposed to be a democracy where each and everyone has a voice and a vote. Yet we ignore the needs of the poor.
We are the rich man in the world today. We consume well over half of the world resources in this nation to maintain our comfortable life style. And we have an attitude—“I made it, I can spend it however I want.” But our faith, our humanity, requires that we live cheek by jowl with those who cannot make it, who cannot earn. We have many older folk living on Social Security and cannot even keep up the payments of their homes. We have children whose parents are unable or unwilling to take care of them so that often the grandparents are raising them without the protections that most of us have for our children—insurance, medical care, healthy food, etc.
Now I am even hearing from supposedly Christian preachers that God want us to be wealthy. I wonder how they can read the Bible and say that. But they parse the Bible so that their salaries are never questioned. They say that 'God helps those who help
The purpose of this parable of Jesus is just as valid today as it was in the first century. It is not about money, however. And if Dona Paulina taught me anything, it was that this story about I daresay that if you knew someone was hungry you would take them to dinner or bring food by the house. If you knew someone who needed medical attention most of you would see to it they got to the hospital. But if you know someone who needed a job would you hire them? Some of you would.
I saw an amazing story on line this week that goes with this. A young guy in NY City who has started a computer gaming business that has taken off like gang-busters kept meeting the same beggar as he was getting off the subway each day. He needed code writers badly in his business but couldn’t find the people he wanted. He finally stopped this beggar and told him: “I am going to come back tomorrow and give you $100 dollars or a chance to learn a skill that is marketable.” The next day he returned and made his same offer and the homeless guy took the challenge. Each day the tech guy met the homeless guy for 1 hour and taught him how to write code. He gave him a small computer and the homeless guy showed up each day devouring what he was learning. The guy spent the rest of the day learning to write code. Finally he was skilled enough to hire as one of his code writers for his business.
People are homeless often because of circumstances beyond their control. It is the matter of relationship. It is a matter of getting to know people who are not like us. It is the matter of taking the It is the willingness to even see our complicity in their dilemma because we have ignored them as we passed by. It is important to take the time and effort to find out what they can give, we can find that we can alleviate some of the burden that our society places upon the struggling.
Our technological age is making us blind to the needs of others. We don’t engage one another as people once did in small towns, or rural settings. Our cities are the primary place of our living these days and in the cities we can pass by those sitting in doorways or drive by those encamped under viaducts.
I would guess that few of the people who hear or read my sermon can claim to know a beggar. Most of us, like the rich man in the parable, never bother to notice much less engage. Because Dona Paulina refused to allow me to ignore her, I learned to look past the outward and visible. I came to learn the inward and spiritual grace that her relationship did for me. She gave me far more than I ever gave her.
I would invite you to befriend someone who is homeless, poor, dispossessed. If you need unskilled labor, check out some of the guys panhandling. Be careful, and be wise. But be genuine. It will change your life.