Two Extremes to Forestall
Two extremes must be guarded against in the ministry of the poor. First, that physical poverty is not glorified in itself and second, that the poor are not used like tools for the salvation of the rich or like steppingstones into paradise. In Christian tradition and practice, the poor are loved for their sake as the special ones of God, “for whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me” (Matt 24:40). Actually, Luke’s presentation of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus could leave one with the impression that heaven is a reward for the earthly poverty of Lazarus. It is the missionary interpretation of the role of Lazarus in the story, which stops the reader short from viewing heaven and hell in compensatory balances.
Crosby points it out that: “Poverty never glories those who suffer its misery.”_ He thus advocates for a world where resources are not denied but shared, the evidence of which are the setups of social programs within missionary activities to fight against poverty and its sting, for in itself, poverty is an evil to be rejected._ This is the positive view of evangelical poverty as a means to the generous and equitable distribution of the world’s riches and resources. There is poverty in riches as there are riches in poverty. Consequently, when Jesus blesses the poor in his teaching on the Beatitudes, he blesses them in spirit – the spirit of de-possession and not of possession. That is what St. Paul points out to the Corinthians in calling it “the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2Cor 8:9). Poverty thus becomes the joy from a spirit that lets go. It becomes a virtue only in the sense of giving and receiving.
Eduard Schweizer notes that: “Only to one who can hear the Beatitudes and hear in them his own lack do they make sense: such a person knows very well that being poor necessarily means being “poor in spirit.”_ Seeing one’s lack helps one to receive from poverty. It is by reaching out to receive that we can properly give with humility.
Secondly, the poor, as we have seen, must be loved for their own sake. They must not be used like tools for the salvation of the rich. It is not a gospel value to perpetuate poverty in order to occasion love and kindness, generosity and compassion. Through the prophet Hosea, God declares: “It is love that I desire, not sacrifice” (6:6). True love is therefore tested in immateriality. In his observation on the “Demands of Charity”, St. Augustine warns that caution and prudence must be exercised in ministering to the poor lest generosity exploits the situation of necessity.
Dietrich Von Hildebrand attempts to resolve this situation by his formulation of the intentio benevolentiae concept, which is meant to express love for neighbor that flows from love of God and not love of self. Hence, von Hildebrand recognizes that the real gift is actually not in what is given itself but is the “solidarity with the true interest of the person, with the true benefit for the person.”
In her dramatic satire The Beggars’ Strike or The Dregs of Society, Aminata Sow Fall presents the opposite event happening in a Muslim West African city. When the beggars realized that the rich need them to receive their alms in order to acquire blessings in this life and pave their way to paradise, they go on strike in demand for higher alms! Eventually the rich become the beggars as they beg the poor to kindly receive their alms and to bless them. In a culture that recognizes the poor as a blessing for the rich, the extreme happens. Religion becomes a tool for the manipulation of the poor by the rich and the exploitation of the rich by the poor._ This story of the West African beggars foreshadows the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus where the Rich Man ends up as the beggar while Lazarus becomes the giver.
The story is told of a bishop who took a walk downtown one day and came across a beggar whom he invited for a cup of coffee. When he reached for his wallet to pay he discovered much to his consternation that he had left it behind in the house. The boy realizing the Bishop’s embarrassment, decided to pay for the two of them. The Bishop was so grateful. He called for a cab and invited the boy to ride with him to his house so he could reimburse him. The shabby looking boy looked at the bishop and shook his head saying: “You can’t fool me twice.” And with that he strode away to continue with begging elsewhere. The Bishop got the message. He could not pay for coffee. What guarantee was there, he would be able to pay for the cab. The beggar became the donor and the donor became the beggar.
From the fingertip of Lazarus
The central message of Jesus in this story actually resonates from its irony of situations. Languishing in hell, the Rich Man begs for water to be dropped into his parched tongue from the fingertip of Lazarus. And do not forget the fingers of Lazarus. Albeit in a different situation and state, those fingers belonged to a man with a body covered with sores, to say the least, a leper. And the Rich Man does not request that Lazarus serve him with a glass of water, but rather with his fingers! His present agony is nothing compared to receiving a drink dripping from the fingertip of a leper. The pains and suffering are all the more intensified in the rich man’s situation by the inability to possess the object of happiness and respite, which is painfully in sight.
Just like poor Lazarus was seeing the rich man feasting sumptuously, yet unable to share of that table – all the more painful – so it is with him now in hell. Luke records that, “from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’” (16:23-24). He sees heaven and those in heaven. Yet he cannot partake of heaven, because a great chasm is established between the two setups to prevent anyone from crossing from one side to the other. Jesus tells us that that chasm can only be bridged while here on earth.
The Church celebrates her liturgies in the spirit of lex orandi, lex credenti such as the liturgy of foot washing, which happens every Maundy Thursday when she reaches out through her ministers as a servant. Terrence Tilley writes in The Disciples’ Jesus that:
One sometimes wonders if pastors and bishops who ritually engage in actual foot washing on Holy Thursdays learn much of the spirit of foot washing and whether those whose feet are washed can recognize that spirit in many of the foot washers or learn how to accept such gracious hospitality and service. The minister should not wash feet at the Holy Thursday Mass if he will not continue to wash them outside the Mass! The live liturgy is outside.
To serve and to be served, to love and to be loved, to give and to receive are the characteristic two sides of the Christian coin of ministry. God loves a cheerful giver as much as he loves a grateful receiver. He loves the rich as much as he loves the poor. It is left for the two parties to strike a co-dependent style of living in recognition of each other’s gifts; that the things the rich lack are most often the things the poor have and vice versa. When we lose sight of what we receive from the poor, even as we give to them, the tendency to abuse their dignity is very high. We receive in giving, and the measure with which we give out is the very measure with which we receive. “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and flowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Lk 6:38).
Henri De Lubac strikes a beautiful analogy of this with the healing by Peter of the lame man in the Acts of the Apostles. The man was laid at the gate call Beautiful and we cannot but imagine again a physically disfigured man lying at the gate ironically called Beautiful. This situation equally contrasts the attitude of Peter as representative of a responsive Church to that of the Rich Man as representative of a secular world, which could not care less about the poverty and which defines its status from possessions.
De Lubac sees the encounter between Peter and the lame man in the image of “healing the Church herself.”_ In this image the Church by healing the lame man through Peter in the name of Jesus of Narareth, receives that same healing from God through the lame man.
From reflecting on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we have been laborious in presenting the thesis that Christian ministry to the poor needs to be integral through comprising giving and receiving. In the words of Ratzinger (Benedict XVI): “Those who have nothing to say about suffering except that we must fight against it are deceiving us. It is, of course, necessary to do everything one can to lessen the suffering of the innocent and to limit pain. But there is no human life without suffering, and he who is incapable of accepting suffering is refusing himself the purifications that alone allow us to reach maturity.”_ We learn these things in the search for meaning and happiness. And wisdom teaches, that poverty, pain and suffering are great teachers in this school. From the lyrics of the classical country song of Jim Reeves: “Across the Bridge”, it is the beggar who points out where to “find real happiness and love that’s true”:
I met a beggar along the way,
And I asked him where to stay
Where I’d find real happiness and love that’s true.
[And the beggar responds in the chorus]
Across the bridge there’s no more sorrow
Across the bridge there’s no more pain
The sun will shine across the river
And you’ll never be unhappy again.
This is precisely what Archbishop Oscar Romero pointed out in his speech at the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize. He asked that the world and the Church listen to the poor for: “The world that the Church must serve is the world of the poor, and the poor are the ones who decide what it means for the Church to really live in the world.”_ If the rich could recognize their gifts they would take greater care of the poor and would receive by giving and give by receiving for true enough, one can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving.
Eugen Nkardzedze is a Ph.D student in Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. He is a diocesan priest from Kumbo in Cameroon, and very much defines his priestly ministry from working in bush and remote places among the poor. His favorite missionary quote is “duc in altum”.