My late brother Bob was a pediatrician, as many of you know. In his very active retirement, he went to Brazil, China and Nepal on missions of medical mercy. He was part of a team that went with a plan to treat hundreds of children during their 2- or 3-week visit.
When Bob came back each time, he showed us his photos and told us of the beautiful people he met, how gracious and grateful they were, how devoid of envy. The children were stoically brave, he said. Besides, they had next to nothing and asked for nothing. Among them was an 11-year-old boy, whose chin had been fused to his chest as the result of a fire that consumed his mother’s dress as she held him in her arms when he was a baby. He made a turn toward recovery after his plastic surgery when Bob gave him a flashlight that one of his grandchildren had given him at his departure. That flashlight turned out to be the first object that the child had ever possessed. My brother could not talk about these things without choking up. A bond had developed between him and these simple, gentle, helplessly poor people.
Today’s Gospel excerpt suggests very graphically the age-old matter of the presence of so many poor people in a world of plenty. It’s hard to imagine any reasonable person not seeing that there is something terribly wrong with a world in which some persons are paid millions of dollars a year while others make in a year less than the rich spend on a single meal. It is manifestly immoral that children and adults anywhere should live in cruel poverty and die for lack of the most basic food while at the same time a relatively few persons live and die in unlimited luxury. How could anyone think that that is acceptable to the Creator — or to Jesus?
None of us can do it all, but neither can we legitimately beg off and demand that a Bill Gates or an Oprah Winfrey address the plight of millions of destitute persons while you and I have no obligation or responsibility in the matter. As I think along these lines, I realize how ingenious was the ancient Jewish concept of tithing – giving a fixed and steady percentage of their personal income (traditionally, 10%) to help those who were not able to help themselves. What if millions of us were doing that? And what if we did while millions did not? Well, at least we would have done something positive and we would enjoy the peace of knowing that we did our reasonable share, confident that none of us is expected to solve single-handedly the enormous problem of world poverty.
I know many former Catholics, a few in my own extended family, who left the Catholic Church because they were attracted by other religions that made giving to the poor a priority of their regular worship. That’s consistent, they say, with Jesus’ statement that true religion is taking care of widows and orphans.
It’s very likely that we need to be a bit disturbed by this challenging Gospel, the meaning of which is not that if you’re well off in this life you’ll be poor in the life hereafter, and if you’re poor in this life, you’ll have everything in the next. No, but it definitely suggests that to be sincere followers of Jesus we need to take very seriously our personal responsibility for our brothers and sisters whom the greedy and the powerful have cheated of their rightful share of the world’s goods.
If you are among those who have always made that a part of your good life, continue being an example to us all, and we will try to do better.