Trapped in Poverty or Riches
The parable of Dives and Lazarus is one that I find decidedly uncomfortable and it’s one we may not even want to hear. It’s the age-old story of the haves and the have not’s where the ones who have are not even aware of those who have so little. Dives is all of us, the man with so much. He dresses magnificently, he feasts sumptuously, yet he is oblivious to the hungry beggar at his gate who sees the food being delivered and would happily settle for the scraps of bread that would normally be thrown to the dogs. At the time knives and forks were unknown and food was eaten by hand. In rich households people cleaned their hands with bread and then threw it to the housedogs. It was these scraps of dog-food that Lazarus would gladly have settled for but didn’t get any.
Last week in Prague it was most disturbing to see hundreds of homeless beggars on the street, many with shoes falling off their feet and looking through refuse bins for left over scraps of the wealthy tourists. The lost look on their faces and the emptiness in their eyes made it obvious that they were the refuse of society that no one cared for and no one wanted. Thinking of the onset of winter I shuddered to think of the suffering and hardship that lay ahead in the coming months for that army of lost souls on park benches in those long cold nights.
Normally I am a good sleeper but that parable has caused me many anxious moments and kept me awake on many occasions. How much do you give in the face of human need, how much can you give? Sometimes it’s difficult to decide who is genuine from who is not, but that is all too often used as an excuse for not giving at all? These were questions I used to live with on a daily basis. One of the biggest drawbacks I found while living in Oylegate beside a main road was the sheer amount of exposure to human misery that came with the job and the number of callers in serious need that came knocking at my door. I didn’t handle the situation very well and ended up suffering from burnout. There’s a point comes where if you don’t look after your own needs you just won’t be able help anyone else in theirs. For everyone who finds themselves in a caring role, that balance is very hard to find and even more difficult to keep.
Writing nearly three thousand years ago the Prophet Amos paints a rather repulsive picture of life then that could just as easily be for the present day. ‘Lying on their ivory beds, sprawling on their divans, stuffing themselves with fancy foods and getting slozelled on wine. So full of self-satisfaction that they have no room or concern for the needy.
What is the opposite of love? You might be inclined to think hate, but if you hate someone at least you acknowledge their existence. Indifference is far worse because then you treat the other as if he or she doesn’t exist. The purple clad rich man in the gospel feasting magnificently had no conscience whatsoever about the starvation on the streets. The Gospel is the story of two worlds light years apart. One is full of his own importance, totally blind to the suffering so close to hand while the dogs in the street show him up. It is they who recognize the suffering of the poor man and lick his sores. The Gospel is really about the gulf, symbolized by the gate, between the uncaring rich and the uncared for poor.
No matter what financial pressures we have or whatever hole we find ourselves in at present, if we have a roof over our heads, food to eat and money in our pockets we are still among the 8% of the world’s richest people.
The challenge for wealthier nations to help developing nations is enormous. To provide finantial aid, to cancel debt, to provide low interest loans. There always seems to be enough money for war and yet so little to alleviate poverty and homelesness. If there was a war tomorrow this country would find billions almost overnight, yet its nothing short of an outrage that so many are sleeping rough with thousands of families living in hotel rooms.
These readings also present a huge challenge for us personally. We have now reached the stage in Ireland where food standards are world class and if we go out to eat we are spoilt for choice between the stuffed mushrooms in garlic cream, the crabs claws with whatever you like or the grilled goats cheese. But for the 900 thousand million in the developing world who are on the edge of malnutrition the choice is much more simple. It is always between life and death. Here in Ireland we are recognized at being good at giving but how much of our giving is to the point where it really hurts. Or is our giving merely token giving to meet the needs of our conscience but not the need of those who are starving.
What does the Bible say in relation to giving? It teaches very clearly that the first tenth of all we earn belongs to the Lord. That’s only the minimum, our love and faith should determine the maximum. Yet it is estimated that less than one tenth of church goers actually give any thing like that to God’s work either to support their local church or for charitable purposes.
When in one Gospel story 5000 people were hungry, the disciples went to Jesus and asked what can we do to feed so many. Jesus said give them something to eat yourselves. When they gave what they could he multiplied it and everyone was satisfied with lots left over. It’s the same message for us today but in a different language. If we want to create prosperity in our lives the way is to practice generosity. When the dogs in the street even know that the beggar is covered with sores, ‘don’t hide behind the gate’.
Intersessions: We pray for the poor who are trapped in their poverty and for the rich who are equally trapped by their greed:
For all those weighed down by economic hardship and financial difficulties. That they may not lose hope but safely navigate through stormy waters.
For all those to whom life has not been kind, who have been born into difficult family circumstances and who suffer the emotional deprivation that is even greater than physical hunger.
For those who feel suicidal in the face of the pressures that they face. That they may have the courage to talk out their problems and find the courage to choose life rather than death.
For ourselves that we may have a greater openness and generosity of heart to all those who are the Lazarus’s of today and play our part in making our world a more equitable place.