“Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!” That’s an axiom attributed to James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.
He’s right. If Jesus is to be believed, then we need to believe that the poor stand before us always as that place where we are judged. We get to heaven (or don’t) on the basis of our response to the poor. The cross of Christ is the key to life and the cross is forever being erected at that place where the excluded ones, the poor, suffer. Only at that place can we learn the crucified-wisdom that, at the end of day, puts us inside the circle of discipleship, or, stated in another way, opens up for us the gates of heaven.
But, as we know, it’s not easy to actually feed the hungry, clothe the naked, console the sorrowful, or help the downtrodden. Why?
Mainly because we never see them. We think we do, but in reality we don’t. In fact, that’s the point the gospels make when they point out the dangers of riches, namely, wealth blinds us so that we don’t see the poor.
We see this clearly in the famous, gospel parable about the rich man who dines sumptuously every day, while a poor man, Lazarus, sits under his table and eats the crumbs that fall there. The rich man dies and goes to Hades and, from there, he finally sees Lazarus – implying that he had never seen him before even though Lazarus had sat just a few feetaway from him during his life.
John Donahue, a biblical scholar, makes this point about that parable: “The rich man is condemned not because he is rich but because he never saw Lazarus at his gate: the first time he sees him is from Hades, emphasized by the somewhat solemn phrase, `He lifted up his eyes, and saw’. Here the text is bitterly ironic. In life there was a chasm between himself and Lazarus because of wealth and power; in death this chasm still exists.”
The real danger of wealth is that it causes a “blindness” that renders us incapable of seeing the poor. Jean Vanier, in the Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, made the same point: The “great chasm that can’t be bridged”, he suggests, exists already now, in the present distance between the rich and poor. The next life simply eternalizes a present situation where the rich and poor are separated in a way so that one cannot cross over to the other. Why?
According to the gospels, the major reason is that the rich simply don’t see the poor.
It is easy to miss the point here: Jesus isn’t saying that wealth is bad. Nor is he saying that the poor are virtuous and the rich are not. Indeed the rich are often just as virtuous in their private lives as the poor. We sometimes naively glamorize poverty, but poverty isn’t beautiful and, often times, isn’t particularly moral either. A lot of violence, crime, sexual irresponsibility, domestic breakdown, drug abuse, and ugliness of all kinds, happens on the poorer side of the tracks. The rich are no worse than the poor, in these things.
But where the rich are worse is in vision, eyesight. When we are rich, we have a congenital incapacity to see the poor and, in not seeing them, we never learn the wisdom of the crucified. That’s why it’s hard, as Jesus said, for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
That’s also why it’s hard for rich nations and rich individuals to reach across the great divide that separates us from the poor. We try, but in the richest nation in the world, the United States, one in every six children still falls below the poverty line and, worldwide, despite all the resources and good-will on this planet, one billion people subsist on less than a dollar a day and thirty thousand children die every day from diseases that could easily be prevented by simply supplying clean drinking water. There’s a gap that we can’t find a way to cross.
We see – but we don’t see! We feel for the poor – but we don’t really feel for them! We reach out – but we never reach across. The gap between the rich and poor is in fact widening, not narrowing. It’s widening worldwide, between nations, and it’s widening inside of virtually every culture. The rich are becoming richer and the poor are being left ever further behind. Almost all the economic boom of the last twenty years has sent its windfall straight to the top, benefiting those who already have the most.
What Jesus asks of us is simply that we see the poor, that we do not let affluence become a narcotic that knocks out our eyesight. Riches aren’t bad and poverty isn’t beautiful. But, nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.