Living in an industrialized nation as we do, it is easy to forget how much poverty there is in our world. With all the advances in technology over the past century, we might even be deluded into thinking that most people in the world lead relatively productive and comfortable lives.
Unfortunately, just the opposite is true.
According to the United Nations, ten percent of the world’s population subsists on just one dollar per day. An astounding eighty percent of human beings live on less than ten dollars per day.
An estimated twenty-four thousand children die everyday because of malnutrition or lack of health care. Almost one and a half million children die each year because they lack clean water. Over two million children die each year because they are not immunized. And fifteen million children are orphaned because their parents have died of AIDS.
As it turns out, most of the world lives in total and abject poverty.
The thought of billions of people starving to death and suffering because of untreated illnesses can be overwhelming to us. We might feel that it is beyond our power to do anything about it, or that we lack the resources to help all these poor people.
But, consider this. Every year, Americans spend eight billion dollars on cosmetics including lipstick, hair gel and deodorant. It would cost only six billion dollars to provide a basic education to all the children in the developing world. Also, in Europe and the United States, pet owners spend seventeen billion dollars annually on food for their dogs, cats and canaries. By contrast, it would cost only thirteen billion dollars to provide for the basic health and nutritional needs of people in poor countries.
The causes of poverty in our world are many and complex. Just sending money to the developing world is not the answer. Feeling guilty about the abundance of material blessings we enjoy will do no good either. Nonetheless, the reality of so many of our sisters and brothers suffering needlessly should challenge us to look at our lifestyles. Do we consider our money and possessions as gifts given to us by God to share with others? Or do we spend our money in whatever way we see fit with no thought about how it will help or harm others? Are we content to just make sure our needs and the needs of our loved ones are provided for? Or do we feel a sense of responsibility to provide for the needs of others?
The Bible makes it clear that we will be judged on how we treat the poor. In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos blasts the rich people of his land who hoard riches and enjoy lavish feasts all the while turning a blind eye to the needy. They use their wealth to isolate themselves from the poverty that surrounds them. Though these words were written some seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, they could just as easily have been written about our own society. The woe that Amos predicts will fall upon the people of his day is the same that will fall upon any society that fails to care for the destitute.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus continues this theme. We are not told much about the rich man except that he is very wealthy and enjoyed the finer things in life. He very well may have been a decent person who was kind to others and religious. Yet every day he was content to step over Lazarus without a thought to helping him. He could not bring himself to acknowledge or care for the poor man at his door. For that reason, he suffered torment in the afterlife. If we are walking past panhandlers in the street or looking the other way when the needy turn to us for help, then we clearly have to take a hard look at how we are living our lives. God has set aside heaven for the poor. If we want to have any share in that everlasting life, then we must open our hands and hearts to any needy person we meet.
Preaching on last Sunday’s gospel, Pope Benedict XVI once said: “It is Christ who teaches us the right use of money and worldly riches, and that is to share them with the poor, thus obtaining their friendship, in sight of the Kingdom of Heaven."
Instead of using our wealth to isolate ourselves from the poor, we must use it to make friends with them. Our goal should be to be so generous with the needy that they pray for us. God hears the prayers of the poor and answers them. If we can get them to pray for us, we can be sure that God will shower us with even more blessings. Not only would their prayers serve us well in this life, but they would prove to be powerful advocates for us when we stand before the throne of God at the hour of our death. Imagine standing naked before God, conscious of the many sins we have committed during our life, and someone coming forward to say, “He gave me food when I was hungry”, or “She gave me her coat when I was cold.” Then we could have confidence that God would treat us with mercy because we have treated the poor whom he loves with dignity and compassion.
At this Eucharist, we are about to come face to face with a poor person. We meet Jesus who makes himself poor so that we may receive Him. In receiving Him, we become rich. Just as surely, we meet Him in those who require our help. We have been blessed with such an abundance not to enrich ourselves, but to be instruments of God's generosity and providence in the world. The challenges of poverty and hunger are daunting. We might not be able to change the world, but we can make a difference in the life of someone we run into today. And if that person will be moved enough to pray for us, then we can be sure of continued blessings from the hand of God.