26 September 2010

On resenting beggars

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford

I resent beggars.* I avoid them when possible and ignore them when they can't be avoided. When they can be neither avoided nor ignored, I simply refuse them. Since I live in Rome most of the year, avoiding, ignoring, and refusing the Eternal City's legions of panhandlers has become something of an art for me. It is almost possible for me to make my way to and from the priory without feeling as though I have damned myself eternally. Almost. Living in the mid-town district of Houston, TX helped to train me for the running the begging gauntlet of Rome. Daily, nightly, all through the day everyday, the doorbell of the priory would ring. My wife and kids are up on the highway in our broken down car. I need $7.82 to buy a bottle of oil. I am stranded on the interstate and need just $5 to buy some fuel to get me home. Same story, different dollar amounts. Day in, day out. Once, just once, an honest beggar said to me, “I'm losing my buzz. Need a few bucks to buy some beer!” Without fail, I refused to give them cash. Most of the time, they accepted my offer of food and water. I don't resent beggars b/c they interrupt my work or cause me a bit of trouble in the kitchen. I resent them b/c they remind me just how far I am from attaining the holiness that brings the peace of Christ, just how much more there is for me to work on, to perfect, in order to achieve the necessary detachment from fleeting things. Like Lazarus outside the rich man's door, these beggars are a sign, a memento of impermanence—no less worthy of God's bounty than the rich man in his fine garments or a friar in his only habit. In this world, we too are impermanent, a vanity made to die. How should we live knowing this truth?

The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is not a story about the blessedness of destitution and the evils of wealth. Billionaires can be saints and beggars can be sinners. Jesus makes it clear that holiness is more readily achieved in poverty b/c a beggar's heart and mind are not focused on earthly treasure. However, a billionaire who shares her wealth in love for the sake of Christ does holy work. Beggars and billionaires both can lie, cheat, and steal. And both are perfectly capable of great charity and mercy. We could say that the question here is not what does one have or have not but rather what does one do with one's wealth or poverty. But these miss the point as well. Maybe the question is one of attachment. Is wealth or its absence the whole focus of your life, the defining quality of your existence? Closer but still not quite right. What if the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a story about how you choose to love, that is, how you choose to manifest love in the world? By what means—tangible, palpable, really-real—what ways do I, do you leave evidence of God's love behind? Giving a beggar in the Corn Market a pound or two may assuage my guilt, but have I loved? Organizing meetings on the causes of poverty, protesting corporate greed, and calling for the redistribution of society's wealth, all of these might edge me closer to a feeling of “getting things done,” but am I doing any of these for love, for God's love?

Let's ask an existential question: whether you are 16 or 60, who do you hope to become? Since you are here this morning, we can wager that you hope to become Christ! That's what you have vowed to strive for, promised to work toward. You died and rose with him in baptism, and you eat his body and drink his blood in this Eucharist. If you are not intent on becoming Christ, then you have come to the wrong place. Why? By participation in the divine, we become divine—perfected creatures made ready to see our Creator face-to-face. Let's break that down a bit. If God is love (and He is), and we live and move and have our being in God (and we do), then it follows that we persistently exist in divine love. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we live and move and have our being in the creating and re-creating love of God. If we are to become Christ—fully human, fully divine—, we must participate wholly, fully. . .heart, mind, body, strength, intention, motivation, completely and without reservation, holding nothing of ourselves back, and shedding everything that prevents the light of Christ from shining through us: false charity, self-righteous indignation, token works of mercy, vicarious poverty, the delusions of worldly justice. Becoming Christ is always and only about becoming Christ for others and doing so for no other reason than to be a witness to the love that God is for us. To become Christ for any other reason is to become the Rich Man who steps over Lazarus on his way to yet another sumptuous feast.

Earlier on, I asked, how should we live knowing that we are impermanent beings? We can take the Rich Man as our anti-example. Why does he find himself in Sheol? Not because he's rich. But because he failed, repeatedly failed, to love. Like us, the Rich Man lived and moved and had his being in Love Himself. He was gifted, freely given, all that he had and all that he was. While living and moving and being on earth, he refused to allow the light of God's love to shine through his words and deeds. Lazarus was for him a sign, a memento of impermanence, a story about the vanity of all the things he held dear. But he refused to see the signs, refused to read Lazarus' story, and God honored his choice to reject His divine love by allowing him to abide forever outside that love. Sheol, or hell is by definition, one's “self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed...” God does not send us to hell, we send ourselves. Just as the Rich Man places a limit on his love, so God honors that limit after death. The chasm that separates the Rich Man from Lazarus after death is precisely as wide and deep as the chasm the Rich Man placed between the freely given love of God and the beggar, Lazarus. Failing to participate in divine love while alive, the Rich Man chooses to deprive himself of that love after death. And so, he finds himself in Sheol begging the beggar for just one drop of water. 

Our Lord commands us to love one another and to go out and proclaim his love for the world. He does not charge us with ending hunger or fighting poverty or ending war. Our goal as followers of Christ on the Way is not is turn Lazarus the Beggar into Lazarus the Respectable Middle-class Worker. When we heed our Lord's command to love, feeding the hungry and standing up for justice come naturally; these arise as works uniquely suited to the witness we have to offer. What could be more just, more perfectly humane than helping another to see and enjoy the image of God that he or she really is! Poverty, hunger, war, all work diligently to obscure the image of God placed in every person. But they are all just effects of a larger and deeper evil: the stubborn, cold-hearted refusal to manifest the divine love that created us and re-creates us in the image of Christ, a refusal that God Himself will honor at our death. 

How should we live? As if we were Christ himself among the poorest of the poor, enthusiastically loving because we ourselves are so loved.

*When I preached this homily, the irony of this opening sentence struck me.  As a Dominican friar, I am a beggar!


  1. What is your definition of "resent"?

  2. Just plain ole "resent"–verb (used with object) to feel or show displeasure or indignation at (a person, act, remark, etc.) from a sense of injury or insult.

  3. I'll have to read the whole homily when I'm more awake....but interesting coincidence....we had a Franciscan Friar from Nicaragua begging at Mass today. I was struck by the concept of "We beg daily for all our food". Since my view of beggars is similar to what you describe here (I mean really, how many time has your house burned down?) it gave me pause for thought.

  4. fragranceofgod4:30 AM

    All religions have honored the beggar. For he proves that in a matter at the same time as prosaic and holy, banal and regenerative as the giving of alms, intellect and morality, consistency and principles are miserably inadequate.

    Walter Benjamin

  5. Great thoughts, Father. I resent the beggars in Rome who pretend to be paralyzed or have some other malady...then stand up easily and go to some other corner to beg from tourists.

  6. fr. Dismas, OP1:54 PM

    "Alms" comes from the same root as "mercy" in Greek: eleemosyne (e.g., Kyrie eleison!)

    I tend to point this out in homilies. If we want mercy from God, then it'd behoove us to give mercy as well (i.e., alms, spiritual or corporal works of mercy). How exactly, is up to Prudence, but sitting in our homes and doing nothing is not an option.

    And for us moderns who think we're so advanced: the practice of giving alms to the poor in exchange for their prayers was an honored "exchange" in Medieval Europe.

  7. This is SO right on. Thank you for the candor. We have so far to go.

  8. Great post...Interesting to read