Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Poverty and Spiritual Poverty:
Seeing thru the Visible World

Father John J. Lombardi

An image burnished itself into my mind, from a retreat in the southern province of Goa, India, fifteen years ago-it's still there, within. I saw a woman there, dressed in a sari, with a small hammer, stooping on the ground, banging away at stones, while a baby perilously clung to her back. To pound away at a ten-foot high pile of rocks, with a minuscule hammer, to reduce it to rubble. The heat was stifling as I rode by-and the mere thought of this small lady with child, cracking away at a ton of earth, for a whole day-perhaps for weeks, mesmerized me…Poverty and suffering…"Blessed are you who are poor, the Kingdom shall be yours" (Lk. 6:20).

From time to time I also think of the children in Ghandi-Ji leprosarium outside Calcutta. We met fifty of them there. They were poor- some without teeth, others without hands or feet, some with beleaguered and badgered bodies, but their smiles were broad, and gleeful--full of joy. They all came up and embraced us before we had any time to say or think otherwise…So much joy and yet so much suffering. St Paul says Jesus came to identify with poverty: "Yet for your sakes He became poor" (II Cor 8:9)-to make us rich.

In this Sundays' Gospel, The Lord tells the parable of "The Rich Man and Lazarus" (Lk. 16: 19ff). It is a story of poverty, suffering and warnings about how we treat wealth in our world-and the poor.Do you think of this enough? Poverty, suffering-they go together. But Jesus gives us an alternative: poverty, suffering and joy. If we relinquish our own selfishness, our own possessions, our own plans, we can bring joy to Jesus as He walks thru this world in His disguises. We can satiate His thirst, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta said so frequently; and Jesus reminded us. "I was…a stranger, and you welcomed Me" (Mt. 25:35).

Jesus says in the Gospel: "The poor you will always have with you" (Mt.26:11). Why did He say that? Perhaps to stress that the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the resulting condition of sin implies irreversible errors-such a s poverty. This saying perhaps also implies that Jesus is a teacher in the poor. When we look thru them-we are seeing, in a way Jesus; "When you did it to least of My brethren you did it to Me" (Mt. 25:45). Seeing thru the poor we see the invisible world-Jesus Himself. Do you have that talent, that spiritual gift, that sacred desire?

This Gospel reminds me of Port au Prince, where thousands of people-and too many children among them-- live in squalid abysmal conditions, called Cite Soleil, an infamous ram shackling slum. My pilgrimage group took a tour of this Caribbean, urban human kind of hellishness. Garbage and refuse floated just outside little shanties of homes. The housing was bare--literally without furniture or food-there was no overstuffing of material possessions here. Children had huge bulging stomachs. The sidewalks were veritable sewer holes filled with filth. And yet the bright sun shone down to the homes and, once again, though, it all, smiles abounded. As I thought about the morbid conditions little children ran and played and adults gathered and were grateful for our visit. Poverty and joy. These days, when passing thru a supermarket, I can become overwhelmed by the shelves bulging with food-galore (in both volume and variety), while the contrasting bareness of Cite Soleiel comes to mind, along with Jesus' saying: "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor…" (Lk. 14:13). The poor can be-should be-- elicitors of charity and saving grace.

While visiting a nursing home recently with a family I learned another lesson. The family and I were going to see their grand mom. I was a little reticent with all the children's energy and, oppositely, the fragileness of the elderly. When we entered the nursing home a couple of the older kids told the youngest boys-"C'mon, let's go in…They love children." So all the kids went. We went upstairs and the littlest, most active one (kinda' like a professional wrestler in kid's body), was instantly taken up by a elderly lady in a wheelchair. She said, innocently, to this little boy: "You look like my grandson. Can I hug you?" The boy-usually energetically evading captors and adults, melted, walked up to her and received the embrace-and a kiss. A mini-miracle; an epiphany of God's grace. Phenomenal...Later his mom wanted him to say goodbye to his great grand mom. This was probably challenging for this little guy-looking up, at a lady who was hardly awake, slumped over, barely communicating or moving. The little boy walked right up, and laid his head in her lap, looked up with polar-bear-like blue eyes, and kissed her. She was previously barely looking at anything, anyone, when, suddenly just after this, she awakened and looked at him: connection, silent communication, communion of spirits. Here was a poor, elderly person, and this little guy "awoke her"…We all have gifts-and this little boy was the gift of the family to the grandmom. They gave it, the human gift, the boy, to her. It was like a Little Boy Jesus meeting a Poor Jesus in disguise. He says: "I was sick and you visited Me" (Mt. 25: 36). Jesus is awaiting us in the world.

This Sunday's Parable has many themes and implications…

Avariciousness: this means the inordinate love of wealth. It is called a capital sin, or doorway to other sins. In today-speak, avariciousness means constant consumption. You know-consuming more cosmetics, more food, more thrills, more riches, more wrongful, unnecessary relationships, etc. The rich man in the parable became too consumed by his own consumption to care for Lazarus. Thus he sinned twice: once by hoarding goods and luxuries, and then by neglecting the poor. Are you?

Wealth: is not a sin in itself, although, let's face it; it often can lead to sin. Point: are you using your money and wealth to help others, or are you hoarding, worshipping it? Mammon is a god in the Bible-indicating a tantalizing, intoxicating elicitor of human lust: "Desire for money is the root to all evil" (I Tim 6: 10). Are you using your money to help others?

Judgment/justice: We will all be judged when we die (called the Particular Judgment) whether we were faithful to God-or to the Devil or World. At this point (death) God's justice will take effect; although He is ever-merciful, he is also just and orderly. Notice in the parable that the places of the characters are reversed: Lazarus is shown mercy in Heaven when no one on earth ever showed him any; and the rich man is in Hell after he lived a splendid life on Earth. The beggar becomes the rich man and the rich man becomes a beggar…Sometimes God allows evils to exist in the world (such as Lazarus' poverty) and does not actively reverse them; but He always addresses them thru His Justice-if not in this world then in the next. Are you ready for His Just Judgment? Are you ready for the afterlife?

Heaven: is Celestial Paradise-While Eden (which means "delight") was lost, forfeited by our First Parents,, Heaven can be gained. Heaven is unending Bliss. Many are trying to find this today on Earth, thru drugs, relationships and materialism. Won't happen-it's all passing (see "all is vapor-vanitas"-worthless and passing, when compared to God, in Eccl. 1:4).

Hell: the parable suggests an unbridgeable gap between Heaven and Hell. People sometimes may want to "bridge" this gap-thru false beliefs such as: people can be saved in Hell; Hell doesn't exist; or it doesn't last that long (forever), etc. Hell is forever. For people who refused God in serious and grave ways and never repented, apparently do not want God forever in Heaven. God allows them this compete, eternal separation from Him and His Mercy. Notice; one of the worst sins, which merits Hell, is against the poor: not helping them, and hoarding wealth against them.

Neglect: Okay, so you don't have any direct, planned hatred for poor persons, or of hoarding wealth, but perhaps you embrace a slow, steady accumulation of unchecked wealth and neglect of poor over time. Does this describe you? Perhaps you are not consciously sinning but aren't you indirectly neglecting the poor, and accumulating unnecessary wealth?

Fr Tony Kadavil gives some helpful observations in his homily outline: "The Fathers of the Church find three culpable omissions in the rich man in the parable. a) He neglected the poor Lazar by not helping him to treat his illness or to give him a small house to live in. b) He ignored the scrolls of Sacred Scriptures kept on his table reminding him of Yahweh's commandment given in the book of Leviticus (15: 7-11) " Don't deny help to the poor. Be liberal in helping the widows and the homeless." c) He led a life of luxury and self indulgence totally ignoring the poor people around him, with Cain's attitude: "Am I the guardian of my brother?"

Hey, spiritual friend: We can be intimidated when listening to the Lord and sense we are only following "rules" and "laws" and forget-it's about a relationship. Jesus calls us to spiritual poverty, to de-possessing, because He wants us to be free to with Him in right relationship (unburdened, more focused) and in right relationship with His people, esp. the poor (detached so we can help them). We usually think of rules, frugality, and spiritual poverty as negatives-burdens to our freedom, suppressing us. But, now, think of them as like a fence that protects you from a dangerous cliff-edge or from some raging bulls. At first you may want to destroy the fence (counsels and rules) to peer over the edge or play with some dangerous thrills (materialism). But then you (gradually) learn the fence is there to protect you from harm-separation from health and salvation. At first, the yoking of Jesus seems encroaching; but later we may be enlightened to realize His Way truly frees.

Response…Gifts for others: I asked Dr Mike Hargadon, a dentist-friend, recently, spontaneously: "Hey Mike-would you like to go to India this Winter?" He thought a few moments, and then said "Yes!" And added: "I could go there and fix teeth." Use your talents as gifts for God and others…

Seeing Truly: Cultivate awakenment-see Eph. 1:16-about opening your "spiritual eyes". Like the little boy and grandom in the story above, let the divisions desist. May the derisive duality of "giver" and "receiver" desist. St Paul counsels spiritual equality in giving and receiving and passing on: "Your surplus should supply their needs so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality" (II Cor 9:14). May the duality of "me" and "you" melt as we remember we are one in the Mystical Body of Christ (see I Cor. 13:25). And may the division between God and man dissipate by realizing we are called to remain in Him (Jn. 15: 5). We daily enforce dividing dualities but the Divine Trinity wants us to be in unity with Them. Melt the boundaries and free your soul to realize that when you give and give up you (your soul) will gain and, we will truly awaken to the Mystical Communion and be one with Jesus and say, with St Augustine: "It will be one Christ loving Himself".

Meditate: Upon Lazarus story (Lk. 16). Also upon-"and their extreme poverty overflowed into a wealth of giving" (II Cor 8:2). Huh?!

Where is the Lazarus around you?

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi