1 Tim 6:11-16
According to the Gospel as I understand it, God loves everyone, and as the love of God is infinite, I suspect that also means equally. The only limits on the unlimited love of God are those we place on it. But if God does have any preferences, according to the biblical witness it’s a great concern for the poor. When we consider the readings for today from Amos and the Gospel of Luke, with their strong condemnation of the oppressiveness and arrogance of the rich, we might also get the impression that God isn’t concerned about the affluent, but only the poor.
In fact, God is concerned for everyone, the rich as well as the poor. The words of Amos and Jesus in today’s readings are directed to the rich as an appeal to wake up and recognize their obligations to relieve the sufferings of the poor and oppressed. God wants the rich to be saved and will do everything possible to assist them.
There’s little indication in these accounts that the rich had themselves been actively oppressing the poor. Their sin was mainly indifference, an indifference based on willful ignorance. They weren’t paying attention, and the reason for that is because they were so busy enjoying themselves, wantonly and wastefully. The cruelest thing about such attitudes is probably the casual carelessness that simply overlooks the needs and suffering of the poor. The rich man did not persecute Lazarus. He just ignored him. In fact, the only compassion showed poor Lazarus was by the dogs who came to lick his sores. It’s a subtle touch in the story, and perhaps an important one. Dogs, after all, were despised in the Middle East and, if anything, treated even worse than the poor. (“Dogs” was frequently a term of reproach aimed at heretics and pagans in general.)
This week many Americans were shocked to see images of looters rioting in Charlotte and disturbances in Tulsa, Chicago, and other cities where the breakdown of trust between the police and citizens, between the rich and poor, the “haves” and the “have-nots” has erupted in violence.
It was shocking and meant to be. But it was also understandable, once you consider that for years, the poor and oppressed people of that world, and many other places, have considered mainstream America not only indifferent to their suffering, but the cause of it. So sporadic attacks on shops and sometimes shoppers along Chicago’s exclusive “Magnificent Mile” should not be seen merely as instances of theft, robbery and hooliganism. These are no less the expression of outrage by mainly young people who are out of work, out of luck, and out of hope. And increasingly out of patience.
If we do not understand that, we have not learned much from the recent turmoil in our streets. And what we need to learn is that our power, might, and economic prosperity are not only the envy of the world, but the cause of deep resentment when increasingly reserved to a privileged few and accompanied by arrogance and especially indifference to the needs and suffering of the many.
God’s message to us today speaks of care and concern, of the obligation as well as the opportunity to use the resources with which we have been blessed to alleviate suffering and poverty in our midst and wherever it exists. The danger to us is that we aren’t paying attention.
Americans are generous and caring people — when they are paying attention. And when we do not define assistance solely in terms of self-interest, which has become the great theme of our domestic and foreign policy for the last fifty years, to our shame.
But there are signs of hope. Acts of astonishingly generous philanthropy on the part of celebrities, digital-age tycoons, rock stars, and sports figures can do something to help alleviate the poverty and suffering of the wretched of the earth, but they cannot end it. What can end it is a massive change of heart on the part of the wealthy and powerful, whether individuals or nations, but also of ordinary, hard-working people who hope and actually try to redress the terrible inequality that mars the world today.
Building a future of hope is the true face of care — a divine face, for God cares not only for people, but for all of creation. Even the animals, who have given us their lives and affection as companions, and even sometimes minister to us in our sorrow and hurt, deserve our compassion. But above all, even such small signs of compassion and active care remind us that we have only to pay attention, to look beyond our own interests to see the desperate need that summons us to act and to act generously, impulsively, and cheerfully to overcome want and misery wherever we find it.
If we can, the people of the world will come to recognize us as sisters and brothers, not as willfully ignorant and indifferent inhabitants of the richest, most powerful, and spoiled nation on earth. For that day to come, we can surely pray.