'Money, money, money...it's a rich mans world' (ABBA)


The ABBA song “Money, Money, Money”, paints a picture that all will be sunny if you had money, for it’s a rich man’s world. Yet, that’s not always the case as we see in today’s Gospel. It presents to us the story of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus. A very quick synthesis of the Gospel reminds us that wealth in itself is not bad. But wealth brings with it certain responsibilities, a certain stewardship. We must give account for how we handle the wealth God has entrusted to us. The rich man walked by the poor man Lazarus, without acknowledging him, that he existed or that he was in need.  Jesus’ parable does not tell why he ignored Lazarus, but we know how society worked then and still does: the wealthy have power and privilege; the poor are marginalized and set apart.

Most of you know that my home town is Athlone. We don’t have really have beggars or homeless people on our streets there. We have some Romanian men who sit outside Athlone Castle at the Town Bridge and belt out a few tunes on an old accordion or a saxophone. Sometimes I drop a coin into their case as I pass by if I am at home visiting.  They are beggars moreso than homeless people as I understand that they have a roof over their head. Some people complain that they are there at all as they can often be heard even from the church.

However,  I live and work in Dublin, the capital of Ireland. Usually 3-4 days of the week, my work brings me to walk through Dublin’s busiest streets where more than often in a distance of 200 metres, I can meet 8-10 homeless men or women.  Once I did the calculations, to walk the distance from where I get off my first bus to where I get the second, I often meet 17 homeless people. Some of them are the same faces, each day, each week, each month.  If I give each person 50 cents, that’s 8.50 each way, 17 euros a day, 68 euros a week.  Do I give to one and not to the other? How do I decide who to give to and who not to give to?

I have reasoned it out so often in my head: “Don’t give them money, you’re just fuelling the addiction’, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ or ‘What would Peter McVerry do? For my non-Irish readers, Peter McVerry is an Irish Jesuit priest who campaigns tirelessly to help the homeless and find housing and employment. My heart suffers a lot to see these brothers and sisters of mine.  You see young lives, young men and women, sitting in a sleeping bag in the rain. They stare blankly ahead, as if they don’t care, or wondering does anyone care, destroyed by a hopeless future as the crowds of people bustle by. Sadly, very very few even gaze their way. It’s become ‘normal’. But to walk by once without acknowledging the person there is to walk by once too much!
The sight of a human being lying motionless across the concrete should be enough to shake anyone into a state of altruism, yet for some reason it doesn’t. People are afraid to get involved. Instead we divert our eyes, conceal our hearts and to those who try to reach out to us, we reject our common humanity and regurgitate clique phrases like “I’m busy” and “sorry but I don’t have any spare change.” I hear others say that they chose that way of life. They can stop if they wish. They’re scrounging off the goodness of others. However, addiction of any form is a vicious circle and it’s not as easy as it seems. Sometimes that dark voice tempts me to say the same and then I think ‘there goes I but for the grace of God’.  

The first thing I try to do is just to acknowledge the presence of those who sit on the streets.  To acknowledge that they exist.  And that is a risk...because if you make eye contact, they might ask you for something, your conscience might be probed. You might feel awkward. More than often, homeless people or beggars appreciate you saying hello even if you don’t give anything. If we consciously and deliberating avoid homeless people, we can be rein
forcing their sense of worthlessness as well as invalidating their very existence. I don’t always give money, I might have some chocolate or fruit in my bag which I offer. Often I am asked for a holy medal when they see that I am a sister. Sometimes it is just a need to talk and to have someone acknowledge that they are hurting, they are suffering, they are trying to change their lives and that they are not on their own. On the flip side, I have also been sworn and spat at, had food thrown back at me but that is the risk. People who are hurting lash out in the face of goodness because it may be so long since anyone was kind to them.

O' Connell Bridge, Dublin (stock photo)
There are certain things in life that we must accept. Some people who are homeless will use money as they see fit, and in ways we may not agree with. Not every homeless person will buy drugs or alcohol so we shouldn’t generalize and stereotype every homeless person. So a question, how often does fear prevent us from stretching out a helping hand to those in need? We read and meditate on the Gospel but how does it translate into our every day life? I have to admit that often I have returned home from the City Centre with the faces of the homeless etched on my mind, the ones I passed by, the ones I was afraid to stop at because they looked violent or drugged. I talked about this to a friend of mine as it was eating at my conscience. He reminded me that we shouldn’t be motivated by guilt to help the needy because guilt will eventually burn us out. We can’t solve all the world’s problem. No-one can help everybody but everybody can help someone. The reality is that we are all needy and poor in ways that we may not even be aware of.

Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman put it best in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” where he states the following: “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”Daniel Kahneman (2011). One of the most eye-opening experiences I had was an encounter with a homeless man on the streets of Ottawa. I know I have blogged about this before here. It was a moment where all my judgments and stereotypes were blown away. One cold November evening I was with some friends coming back from a Pro-Life prayer gathering and we decided to de-frost with some hot chocolate at a local ice-cream parlour. When we finished we came back out onto the street and we met a homeless man called Lorenzo. He was very talkative and had quickly realized that he was talking to 3 priests and a sister. As the conversation went on, he asked us if it would be okay to pray there on the street. It was a Sunday evening and Elgin Street was bustling but there we stopped and prayed, led by Lorenzo. The prayer just flowed from him, imbued with Scripture, it was so beautiful. I often return to that experience because it reminds me that it doesn’t’ matter how many letters you have after your name, or how many years you have studied, if it doesn’t reach the heart and overflow into your daily life, it is all superfluous. Also, I had thought that I could help him in his life by simply giving him a few dollars, yet, he ministered to me through his prayer in a way that changed my prayer life and how I turn to God in prayer. Each one of us is a pilgrim on life's journey and we can have an influence on each other's lives whether we realise it or not.

So the next time you walk the streets and encounter a brother or sister who is homeless or begging, the least you can do is make eye contact and say hello. Open your heart and you’ll see that more than often, it is you who receive, even though you think you’re the one doing the giving.


Comments

  1. This is truly a frightening Gospel.
    You see I know this rich man. He is a fine upstanding decent fellow. He lives in South County Dublin and is involved in several community projects. He has a lovely family for whom he does the very best for them - made sure that his children are in good schools. If you have a problem, he will always be there to help out.

    He is a regular attender at Church and helps out with Parish projects. While he does not regard himself as being particularly wealthy, he does have a fine house, a nice car (his wife also has her car). They have at least one foreign holiday each year.

    He doesn’t give to any money to beggars on the street. He believes that they only beg because they can get more money begging that working.

    Yes, it is a frightening Gospel.

    Where exactly did we go wrong?

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