Sunday, September 26, 2010

Standing by the side of the road.....

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle C
September 26, 2010

Last year, I had a friend visiting from out of town -- we were out sightseeing when we drove by a very pregnant woman, with 2 or 3 small children, holding a sign that said “Homeless, anything helps.” I couldn’t stop because the light was green, so I told my friend that we had to go around the block because I couldn’t just drive by and without giving her some money---my friend was already digging in her purse, so apparently she couldn’t drive by either. As we came around to the woman, the light turned red. My friend told me that she had to get out to talk to the woman and pray with her---so she jumped out of the car and went over to her. I prayed that the light would stay red for a long, long time…..thankfully, it did, and soon enough my friend jumped back in the car and we were off again. It turned out that the woman with kids was on the run from an abusive husband and was trying to figure out what to do next. I never saw her again, but still think about her and pray for her.

One Sunday afternoon, several years ago, I was teaching a Confirmation group session on the principles of Catholic Social Teaching---we were working on the one called the “preferential option for the poor.’ In talking about who is poor in our community, the subject of ‘those people with cardboard signs who stand by the side of the road’ came up. I shared with the group that when I feel that it’s safe to do so---in terms of traffic safety, and my personal safety---I try and give that person some money, if I have it. One of the participants, who thought that this was absolutely the dumbest thing he had ever heard, immediately commented that ‘those people’ were all scammers and should be ignored. I asked them to stop and imagine that their lives had just been turned upside down---that everyone who was employed at their home had just lost their job and they were about to be evicted, with no one to turn to. What would they do and where would they go? One thing became obvious----they had a lot of incorrect assumptions about social services. I kept asking “what would you do?” One suggested that they could win the lotto. I skipped telling them the probability stats and went right to ‘remember, you have to BUY lotto tickets, and you don’t have any money.” When they couldn’t come up with any realistic solutions to their brand new poverty dilemma----the participant who had made the ‘scammer’ comment looked at me, raised his hand, and very quietly and seriously said “I would make a sign and stand by the side of the road.” No one in the room said a word.

Here’s the way that my thinking goes on this issue: if the person with the sign is a scammer, it’s on his or her conscience---if they are in need and I don’t help, it’s on mine. I don’t want that on my conscience.

In the interest of full disclosure, another time, I was driving, and saw a guy with a sign. I drove closer and saw that the sign said “Need a hug.” I’m sure he did. But he looked a little sketchy, so, in the interest of personal safety, I smiled and waved and kept on driving.

I just know that when, God willing, I get to heaven, that pregnant woman with the small children will greet me at the gate, and I will hear the voice of Jesus say, “Hey, it’s ME! Pretty good disguise, no? And that guy with the “need a hug” sign? That was me, too. “

Everything that we have is a gift from God, and being a good steward requires us to use and share wisely. We all know this story, and we know that it doesn’t end well for the rich man---but not because he was rich. It doesn’t end well, because he was oblivious to the poor man who was right by his door. In the Confiteor, we pray: "I have sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do." There’s the sin. It’s the “what I have failed to do” part. The rich man didn’t attack or abuse Lazarus----he didn’t do anything at all to Lazarus. He did nothing. He had the money, the power, the ability to help someone who desperately needed it. He did nothing. It’s called a sin of ‘omission.’

My German grandmother taught me a word when I was little----"schadenfreude." It doesn’t translate into English, but it basically means taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. I must admit to a bit of "schadenfreude" when I read the part where the rich man, who was clearly used to giving the orders, had already arrived in hell, where he finally bothered to notice Lazarus, and continued to give orders. “Father, send Lazarus to give me water, to tell my brothers to shape up so they won’t end up like me, blah, blah, blah.” Are you kidding me? He never noticed Lazarus in life, and now that their lives had done a complete flip-flop, he wanted to treat him like a slave? Not that I’ve ever been to hell, but I’m reasonably sure that it doesn’t operate that way. The people in hell don’t get to call the shots, and they don’t get to have the people they wronged in this life as a personal assistant in the next. This is a very troubling parable, with drastic consequences---if you willfully ignore the poor, it seems that you end up in hell.

The Gospel reading last week encouraged us to be good stewards of our possessions and money, and cautioned us against making money into a god. Today’s Gospel goes further and tells us that we must, as good stewards, share what we have with those who are poor. But first we have to be aware that there are people in need.

Lazarus walks among us every day—do we see him? For the last month, he has been across the street staying at St Margaret’s Church with Congregations for the Homeless---and for 10 days, over 100 volunteers from this faith community fed and cared for him. He lives at St Martin de Porres Shelter. He stands by the side of the road with a sign that says “Homeless Vet. Anything helps.” He needs something to eat, and he needs a hug.

Today’s Gospel invites us to remember that we really are called to take care of each other---and it starts by noticing that there is someone there, someone in need, someone who is Lazarus walking among us, someone who is Jesus in disguise.

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