• Luigi Gioia

Learning from the poor

AUDIO

"Jean Paul Sartre famously declared L’enfer c’est les autres, “Hell is other people” – Luke instead here says: “Hell is the chasm we put between ourselves and other people”.


"I'm learning one thing good...If you're in trouble or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones."

This line from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck has remained branded in my memory since I first read it over 20 years ago. We are all familiar with the harrowing vicissitudes of this family of tenant farmers, the Joads, driven out from their Oklahoma farm by drought, economic hardship, and banks’ exploitation. Lured by the deceitful prospect of high paid jobs orchestrated by Californian farmers, the family embarks on the long and perilous journey Westward only to discover that the state had intentionally oversupplied the labour market to lower wages and exploit workers to the point of starvation. At one point in the novel, the mother of the family goes to a grocery store to get some food but discovers that their meagre earnings are insufficient even just to get enough to eat. When she realizes that she can’t afford sugar for his son’s coffee, she is so heart-broken and distressed that the shop assistant, despite being himself very poorly remunerated, pays for a dime of sugar. It is at this point that the mother says:

"I'm learning one thing good...If you're in trouble or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones."

I have always found that this sentence is the most eloquent explanation of the page in which Luke’s Gospel proclaims that there is real blessing and consolation in the condition of poverty:

‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. […] But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. (Lk 6.20f, 24f)

Luke is not just promising a reversal of earthly fortunes in the afterlife but suggests that there is a consolation attached to the very condition of hardship and need - a quality of heart, a sense of solidarity, a form of compassion which brings consolation, hope – a ray of light in the midst of gloom.

This helps us to understand where the rich people’s misfortune really lies – and explains why Luke says: “Woe to you who are rich”. What is about wealth that endangers the lives of those who are endowed with it?

We are given some answers through the vivid and dramatic imagery deployed in the parable of the rich man and of Lazarus. Just like Dante’s Divine Comedy, these parables are not about the afterlife – they are literary devices meant to depict the ‘commedia’ which is our present life. Both Luke and Dante invite us to see human life as if at birth we were put on stage and given a role to play. Some play the rich person, others the beggar. Most of the time, we play the same character in the same play for the whole of our lives. Instead, Luke invites us to play the same role in two different plays.

Try to imagine this about yourself: today you play the character of the wealthy man “dressed in purple and fine linen who feasts sumptuously every day”, tomorrow you find yourself tormented in the Hades, surrounded by flames, thirsty and in agony, begging for relief. Or, alternatively, today you are the beggar laying on the pavement outside the rich man’s mansion, covered with sores, ignored by everyone except the dogs, tomorrow you are carried away by angels, enjoy the comfort of heaven, and rejoice in the company of Abraham.

We might think that the parable is about punishment and recompense, but nothing in the story suggests that the beggar has done anything in his life that deserves reward. He was just unlucky. Or, pursuing the metaphor of the comedy, he was just assigned that role to play. The main character in both plays of course is the wealthy man – unlike the beggar who is never given anything to say, the wealthy man speaks often.

“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”

“Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.

Just as it is not about reward and punishment, so the parable is not really about the prospect of a reversal in fortunes either. Rather, it is meant to bring about a moment of realization.

What is striking in these two scenes is that even when the wealthy man is put in the situation of having to beg, he does not lose his sense of entitlement. In the first half of the parable, the suggestion is that the wealthy man does not even see the beggar even though he presumably walks past him daily, since Lazarus lays at the gate of his house. For the rich man Lazarus does not exist, is not an interlocutor, can be ignored completely. The most interesting detail in this parable is that even when he is forced to acknowledge the beggar’s existence because he needs his help, the wealthy man still treats Lazarus with the patronizing way typical of those who believe they have everything and everyone at their disposal. The wealthy man could have spoken directly to Lazarus, but still considers this beneath him. He addresses Abraham instead:

“Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue”

“Send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them."(Lk 16: 27-28).

He asks Abraham to treat Lazarus as one of the servants he was surrounded by during his whole life: send him, make him do this and that. He does not even mention Lazarus’s name, surely because he has never bothered inquiring about this. Lazarus remains invisible to him, disposable. In this lies the misfortune of the rich man – this is why Luke says “Woe to you who are rich”: wealth, entitlement, privilege can make people blind, deprive them of their humanity, prevent them from sharing in the greatest treasure of all, the ability to feel empathy for other people, the consolation, the joy, the happiness, the bliss that comes from compassion and kind-heartedness – “Blessed are you who are poor”.

If there is punishment, agony, torment for the rich man in this parable, it does not lie in the fictional flames but in the chasm which entitlement creates between him and the rest of humanity – a chasm which, as Abraham says, cannot be crossed. Jean Paul Sartre famously declared L’enfer c’est les autres, “Hell is other people” – Luke instead here says: “Hell is the chasm we put between ourselves and other people” – it is the refusal to see other people’ suffering, being afraid of showing empathy, feeling threatened by acting compassionately with those in need.

The message of the Gospel is that in this life we can still bridge this chasm – not as a concession, but as an acknowledgement that even when we have material wealth and lead comfortable lives, in reality we are just as poor and in need as ever other human being. We are in need of each other, in need of humanity, of compassion, in need of kindness – because only these bring us true joy, true happiness: “Blessed are you who are poor”.

We should reverse the sentence by Steinbeck I quoted earlier:

"I'm learning one thing good...If you're in trouble or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones."

We are not those who help to poor people. We ourselves are the poor who can find help only if we go to poor people. Only poor people can help us to reclaim our humanity, bridge the chasm, quell our thirst, bring us relief in our agony.

And we are not asked to be naïve or idealistic about reaching out to the poor. Just as wealth and privilege, misery and destitution can make people mean and manipulative. Even just understanding who the real poor are today and finding ways of helping them effectively is a challenge. I have always found that the best and most effective way of reaching out to those in need is collectively, within the framework of proven structures and organizations that have become expert in channelling help and support while protecting helpers and volunteers. Some of us here volunteer for the Refectorio Felix in Earls Court a drop-in centre and community kitchen which welcomes without judgement anyone struggling with a variety of issues, such as homelessness, loneliness, substance abuse and mental health difficulties - offers a sanctuary for people in need through an environment of safety, security and compassion honed over many years of service – and in which last year more than 300 volunteers distributed food to almost 5000 people. If there is one aspect of the life of the Church that shines in the eyes of society despite all its other shortcomings, it is precisely its unfailing commitment to the poor, the marginalized, the immigrants, and the oppressed.

In the comedy which is our life on earth, what matters is not whether we are assigned the character of the wealthy man or of the beggar – in either of them we can let ourselves to be blinded by entitlement, privilege or bitterness and recrimination. These are the real chasms which we need to bridge. It is not about escaping punishment – but about retaining our humanity, and the unique consolation and happiness which can only be found in empathy, compassion, and love. “Blessed are you who are poor”.




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