Every time I hear the story of the rich man Dives and the beggar Lazarus, I feel uncomfortable. Not only do I feel guilty for knowing I hold back from doing much more than lip service for the poor and needy, and not just for the destitute I encounter on the streets at Harvard Square, but I am reminded of all those out there I never see, some in our own backyard and others in the famine areas of the world whose plight I try not to think about. I read the alarming reports in the newspapers of how more and more of the middle class in this country is slipping into poverty, of how hard it is for many in the United States to attain a living wage and how frightening it is to live without health insurance so that one major illness is often devastating to a family, frequently resulting in the loss of home and the separation of parents and children. And these tragedies have become common occurrences in the richest nation in the world, a land where the wealthy get richer, the poor get poorer and the traditional middle class is buckling and fracturing under the stresses of higher taxation brought on by the obscene costs of a war that should never have happened, war costs that effectively preclude the improvement of the conditions of the poor in this country. As Barbara Ehrenreich reveals in her expose of the hardships of Americans fighting for economic survival, Nickled and Dimed to Death, even by working two jobs the poor (whom some politicians have described as the deserving poor) are unable to provide food, shelter and security for their families. But what can any of us do about it that will make a difference?
In this generation we have witnessed the exodus of manufacturing companies from the United States to countries where laborers are plentiful, wages are low and there are few laws to protect the working force from the most egregious abuses. Often in these geographic shifts experienced American laborers have been forced to train their foreign replacements, and then are left without hope of further employment for themselves. In recent years both the Republicans and the Democrats appear to have lost any compassion for the poor in this country. Instead the concern of many politicians has been to “clean up” the welfare rolls and to force heads of households, often single parents, to leave their children unprotected in order to take minimum wage jobs that cannot support their families. With U.S. manufacturers relocating industry in other countries, there are now not enough jobs in this country for those who need them. The desperation to survive has caused increased crime. Currently more tax money is spent for prison construction and prison security than public education, and we are now witnessing the development of a permanent underclass, increasingly illiterate, without adequate health care, jobs or hope. As a nation we have become a target for terrorism because of our arrogance, indifference and wealth. But the faceless forces we should be fearing are less those from other countries than the growing numbers our lawmakers have abandoned in this country.
One terrible aspect of the perilous condition of the poor is that all our civil institutions seem to have done nothing to try to alleviate it. Even the churches have been largely silent at a time when Christianity has become a major part of the cant of politicians. They make much of being “born again” and insisting their lives are guided always by the paramount question, “What would Jesus do?” But whenever they ask they make sure they get the answer they want to hear. So the number of poor on the streets increases and the policy makers do not even see them.
This crisis is probably not news to many here today. Bill Moyers, in a recent article in Sojourners magazine stated that because of the erosion of civil liberties and government prompted by fear in recent years we are on the brink of losing our democracy unless we act quickly. How have we responded to these developments? Often, I suspect, ours has been a passive acquiescence, a frustration at not knowing how to act to bring about change. We are aware of the inequities and neglect of the most vulnerable and helpless in our midst, but we are at a loss to know what to do. Unlike Dives we see them and their poverty shames us. We want to look away. How can we make a difference?
I am convinced we have a responsibility, as followers of Christ to reach out to the poor to learn from them. We must help them however we can. They in turn will help us to see ourselves as we are meant to be, as God sees us. In the late 19th century Arlo Bates wrote a novel about Boston society and the Episcopal Church entitled The Puritans, in which SSJE has a role. The thinly disguised Church of the Advent figures as well, and much of the drama of the novel revolves around the charitable efforts of its Brahmin members for the desperate poor of the North End, at that time immigrant Irish. To be a member of the Advent in those days, each was expected to make personal contact with those in need and help them. This was often thankless, even dangerous work, but such charity changed a multitude of lives. As a young society matron Isabella Stewart Gardner was one of those who took part in this ministry, spending long hours comforting and caring for friendless, destitute women dying at Charity Hospital. Letters from her spiritual director attest to her work, and her encounters with these unfortunates caused her to champion the marginalized for the rest of her life. Because of this contact she and others of her class and social standing, the Dives of their generation, were able to improve the lives of poor men and women whose destitution had been ignored by the very civic institutions that should have helped them.
We speak of God as love to make God approachable. And this is true. But we must not ignore God’s work of judgment. A time will come when each of us will be judged by how we have lived. Have we put God first in our life? Have we helped God take care of those most vulnerable? Have we loved and given ourselves away? St. Paul ‘s description of the last trump and final roll call are awesome, but I suspect the reckoning for us will not take that form. If we are in fact living in Resurrection time and I believe we are, we are destined to experience God’s judgment as we live. The good news of this parable of Lazarus and Dives is its clarion call to change, to broaden our view, to see the need at our doorstep before it is too late. There is much we can do, though for each of us the invitation will be different. Let us put aside passivity and begin to live each day passionately. Let the welfare of the poor be our preferential option. Let us make a commitment to vote and work for change that makes the world better for all. If we are rich in the things of this world and all of us here are rich in what we have received, let us amend our lives so that we are rich in good works, generous, always ready to share. There is no time to waste. Working with God we can make our lives make a difference.
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