September 12, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
We’ve been away for a few days. I am taking the good news today from Luke 18:18-23.
An official asked him this question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.'” And he replied, “All of these I have observed from my youth.” When Jesus heard this he said to him, “There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became quite sad, for he was very rich.
It’s interesting that this pericope is the first one for me to reflect upon since listening to Fr. Mike’s homily on Sunday. I kept going back to his message as I walked around Chicago and here it is again — “Follow me.” Jesus is really trying to get through to me. For those of you who didn’t hear Fr. Mike’s homily, the question he posed was, “Are you a follower of Jesus or just an admirer?” He went on the tell us that it’s OK to be admirers, but we can’t be disciples unless we follow Jesus, unless we live the life he calls us to. It’s not enough to pray about it, to think about it, to intend to do it. We have to do it if we want to be disciples.
I, too, can say to Jesus that most of the commandments I have observed; I’ve been a “good” person by and large. But Jesus wants more from me. He wants me to follow him, to be his companion, to work alongside him, to love and heal people even the most unlovable and broken people. He wants me to give up what is most important to me, what I am most attached to, if it prevents me from loving and healing. He wants me to live in the kingdom now. Henri Nouwen in The Wounded Healer puts it this way, “His [Jesus] appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.” It is not enough that I am compassionate, I have to act on that by working for justice.
As I walked the Chicago streets, I passed quite a number of beggars, some sitting with pleading signs in front of them, others approaching and asking for help. Usually I was engrossed in my own thoughts — even thinking about Fr. Mike’s homily — and passed by them with barely a notice. Other times I passed by them deliberately without responding and then was struck by a dagger of guilt. My first thought was usually defensive. We give to agencies that support the poor. They should seek help from similar helping organizations. My second thought was often suspicion that begging was their full-time job instead of finding “gainful” employment. I spent a good deal of my walking time thinking about what my response should be. I go through the same exercise here when I pass by beggars on Massachusetts Street. I tell myself that I can’t give to them all. I’m like the rich official in thinking that I can’t give away all that I have!
If I want to be a disciple, what am I called to do? I kept asking myself this question. One solution I came up with is to always have some $1 bills in my pocket that I can fish out and hand to a beggar. I often don’t have a small bill in my wallet. That seems to be a paltry response, a half response, though. Nouwen’s words came to mind, “The agony of all people: our desperate cry for a human response from our brothers and sisters.” What adequate human response can I offer that might diminish another’s agony? What does my ignoring of a beggar sitting on the sidewalk cause him to feel? I think Nouwen gave me the answer, “If there is any posture that disturbs a suffering man or woman, it is aloofness.”
So, how can I be present to them, to acknowledge their plight, their pain instead of just appeasing my own conscience? I toyed with a lot of different things to say. “God bless you” seems a disservice to God and patronizing. How can I deepen my own humility and recognize my own need for human connection and regard in my response? How can I expose my heart and share in their suffering? Nouwen suggests, “Therefore we can discover and rediscover in the encounter…the basic principles of Christian leadership: first, personal concern, which asks people to give their lives for others; second, a deep-rooted faith in the value and meaning of life, even when the days look dark; and third, on out-going hope that always looks for tomorrow, even beyond the moment of death.”
Where is the answer in these clues? First, I need to look a beggar in the eye to let him know that I regard and respect him as another human being. To hold myself aloof or to ignore him is to compound his agony and to deny him compassion. It’s not just a failing on my part, I think it’s a grave sin. Second, I can give him a dollar. It’s not much, but neither is five or ten or twenty dollars in terms of alleviating the hardship of poverty. The important thing is to give an answer to his request, his plea for help. He has humbled himself to beg; I can at least honor his humility and acknowledge the value of his life. But what can I say to him? How can I offer hope for tomorrow, for a better life? That’s what I’ve been struggling with. What did Jesus offer the poor? He fed them; he healed them. He also gave them something to hope for. If they loved one another, life would get better. They would experience the kingdom of God on earth, a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.
What can I say that won’t sound presumptuous or empty? I honestly don’t know. I think that means that I’ll just have to rely on the Holy Spirit to give me the right words or give me someway to silently affirm that God loves them. It’s a good reminder that all I have to do is allow God to use me; I don’t have to come up with all the answers by myself. I want to do more than be an admirer of Jesus. I have to do more than regret passing by a beggar without responding in any way. I want to be a disciple. I’ll take a step and see where he leads me next.