Poor hidden in plain sight

I was a student for a good number of years and I really loved it. But, one of the worst parts about being a student was all the exams. If you think back – if you have not purged the bad memories from your mind – I think that you will agree.  As much as I hate to admit it,having tests and exams was good for me because it helped me learn. I was often behind in my studies, but if I knew I had an exam coming up then I would take the time to study and absorb the material. In fact, my favorite exams where the ones where the teacher gave the questions they would ask beforehand.  Often they would give ten essay questions from which you would need to answer three random ones on the actual test. For these exams I really studied! I had no excuse not to learn the material!  Our life as Christians is a lot like this.  We are students trying to learn how to live as God intended.  Jesus is our teacher.  At the end of our life we will be tested.  But Jesus is a very kind teacher; He really wants us to prepare well and be ready so He has been very clear about what we will be asked on our final exam. In the gospel that we have just heard, Jesus gives away one of the big questions that we will be asked on the final exam of our life.

In the end we will be judged on how we have treated the poor.  The question we will be asked on our final test as Christians is “what have you done to help the poor”? In the parable today, the rich man lived a luxurious life and did not lift a finger to help the poor man Lazarus who suffered on his doorstep. The rich man failed his test.  In the Church I know that many people do a great deal to help the poor. This is incredibly encouraging.  I would like to share one example I read about recently.  In LA there is a Jesuit priest named Fr. Greg Boyle who works with gang members, among whom he is simply known as “Father G”. Fr. Greg does a lot to get youth out of gangs and prison and integrated into society. He recognized early on that this was not an easy thing as many people are not eager to hire ex-gang members or convicts. In response he set up his own business, called “Home-boy Industries” which produces clothing and other products and is staffed by ex-gang members. Fr. Greg also set up a free tattoo removal service after having a conversation with a an ex-convict who kept complaining about how no one would hire him. He could not figure out why.  Fr. Greg, who could see quite clearly the tattoo of a profanity written across the man’s forehead, knew perfectly well and he did something to help this man and others in a similar situation. Closer to home, in our own parish many people do much to respond to the needs of the poor. Numerous groups have initiatives to feed, clothe and provide housing for the poor.  Many individuals give generously to collections to help the poor locally and abroad.  This is important because at the end of our life we will be judged to a large extent on how we have treated the poor.

Poverty often takes a different appearance than we expect.  When we think of poverty, images of malnourished children in developing countries often comes to mind. Or perhaps we think of problems closer to home: the poverty of Vancouver’s downtown eastside or in Walley.  This kind of material poverty is terrible and widespread.  Jesus calls us to do help ease this kind of suffering.  We need to be aware, however, that in addition to this material poverty there is another kind of poverty that is particularly rampant in the West. Mother Teresa is well-known for her work with the poor.  For the first years of her ministry, she served in India.  Later she expanded her work to Africa and Latin America.  Eventually she began opening houses in the developed world, in North America and Europe.  It was there that she first encountered what she called the “spiritually poor”.  These were people who felt unloved and unwanted by society: the elderly, the disabled, children in broken homes, those struggling with addiction, people on the fringes of society, the lonely. Such people are not starving for a food but for love. She explained that this kind of poverty is incredibly destructive and hard to alleviate.
I find the poverty of the West, much, much, much greater, much more difficult to remove because a piece of bread will not satisfy the hunger of the heart. And our people, the “shut-ins”, they are hungry people. The fear, the bitterness, the hurt, the loneliness, the feeling of being unwanted, unloved, uncared for … I think it is a tremendous disease, much greater than leprosy and tuberculosis.
It is important that we be aware of this spiritual poverty because we often turn a blind eye to it. Poverty often takes on a different appearance than we expect.
When you want to begin serving the poor, a great place to start is the poor closest to you.   Looking out at all the poverty and suffering in this world – both material and spiritual – it can be overwhelming.  Sometimes we don’t know where to start.  The parable in today’s gospel it is interesting that Lazarus is literally on the doorstep of the rich man and yet he is ignored. He was so close.  Are we missing some poor person who is on our doorstep?  Today I would like us to especially think of people who are spiritually poor because we often miss them.  When Mother Teresa would speak in the West she would often point out that we all come in contact with people who are spiritually poor every day but we often ignore them.  To seminarians in Lebanon she said:
Maybe right here in this wonderful, big university, maybe your companion is feeling lonely, feeling sick, feeling unwanted, feeling unloved, do you know that?
Speaking about the closeness of the spiritually poor she explained:
And maybe that kind of hunger is in your own home, your own family, maybe there is an old person in your family, maybe there is a sick person in your family, have you ever thought that your love for God you can show by maybe giving a smile, maybe just giving a glass of water, maybe just sitting there and talking for a little while.  There are many, many in rich countries. There are many.
When we want to start serving the poor, a great place to start is with those closest to us.

If Jesus were to give us a “pop-quiz” today, how would you do? In giving us one of the most important questions on the exam in advance, Jesus has done us a great favour. He has given us a chance to “study” well, to change ourselves and have a positive impact on others in the meantime. Today we can do some cramming for the final test.  Ask yourself, who is the Lazarus in my life? Perhaps we can be more generous in helping the materially poor. Beyond this, all of us know someone close to us who is spiritually poor.  Remember the words of Mother Teresa.  Helping satisfy the hunger of the spiritually poor can be as simple as giving a smile or lending an ear to listen. Let us be generous! Remember well that when your life here is over, you only get to take with you that which you have given away.