Will I - And You - Take the Step to Eliminate Disparity?

Sr. Patricia A. Smith, RSM, Ph.D.

Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

The prophet Amos is not "Mr. Congeniality." He denounced the privileged of his day — those whose security in food, drink and home furnishings made them oblivious to the poor around them. He excoriated those who reveled in luxury while an unjust system ground their neighbors down." Alas," he cries, "Your day will come and its name will be Exile. Your injustice will serve you your just desserts."

Luke puts flesh on Amos' warning. Built on stark contrasts and a tone of irony, he presents a vivid drama in two scenes. In the first, we meet two men: an unnamed rich man and a beggar, Lazarus. The rich man: clad in finery, feasting on savory foods, drinking only the finest wine. Lazarus: body licked by dogs, covered with sores, longing only for scraps from the wealthy man's table. Though Lazarus sits at the rich man's gate, he is either oblivious or numb to the beggar's plight. Totally self-sufficient, his self-preoccupation isolates him from the pain before his eyes. They might as well be in two different worlds, for all the good it does either of them. A deep gulf separates them, though it is only as wide as a walk outside the rich man's door.

They do have one thing in common. They both die. But the contrasts, lived out on earth, continue even more dramatically in the next life. Scene two. Enter Abraham, paragon of faith, of hospitality. Genesis Chapter 18 recounts this hospitality. Like the rich man in our Gospel, Abraham was prosperous. But in contrast to him, Abraham was generous. Three strangers appear before his tent. He has no clue that they are really angels, messengers of God. Yet, he invites them to sit down, gives them water to wash their feet, food to strengthen them. He becomes an early sign of care for strangers, who may really be "angels unaware."

Upon his death, Lazarus is swept away to the bosom of Abraham, close to his heart. Lazarus is free at last from his earthly torments. But the rich man, now tormented, has lost all his earthly comforts. As the Irish proverb notes, "There are no pockets in shrouds."Now, flames lick him, as dogs had licked Lazarus' sores. Life with God, where Abraham and the beggar dwell, is far away. Comfort is out of reach for the one who had had everything he ever wanted within easy reach. And greedily hoarded it all.

An ironic contrast: now the rich man recognizes Lazarus, his previously ignored neighbor. Time to bargain. "Send Lazarus to cool my tongue. These flames are killing me." "Too late. You had ample warnings. You had your chance" "Then," replied the tormented one, "send Lazarus to warn my family." "Too late. They have plenty of people to warn them. If your family won't heed the voices of God, nothing will convince them. Too late."

What is this story trying to say to us, far removed in space and time from its setting? More specifically, what is its relevance for healthcare today?

The context is a series of Jesus' instructions to his disciples. Several lessons deal with the challenges that having wealth poses for conversion. Three themes emerge. First, what we choose to do or not do endures beyond time. What is "fixed" by our choices on earth (isolation, self-indulgence, caring about one another) becomes "cemented" in the life to come. We remain the kind of person we have chosen to be throughout all eternity. God respects our freedom that much. So, unless we change our self-absorbed ways while we have the chance, we will not allow God's mercy to enfold us- here or hereafter. There is continuity, for our good and for our ill, between this world and the next. The chasm between rich and poor cannot be crossed in the next life if we do not work to bridge it now. Conversion of mind and heart begins now or not at all. There is no "swooping up" into the welcoming bosom of Abraham and of God unless care for our needy neighbor marks our journey here below. Alas, later is too late.

The second theme is a variation on the first. Only enlarging our hearts now will cross the deep divide between rich and poor. Only our willingness to see the disparities that mar our world will, perhaps, inspire us to eliminate them. This is easier said than done. My needs, my security can confine me in the comfortable prison of my life. Only a willingness to step outside myself and see the suffering right under my nose may prompt me to act to relive that pain.

Third and scariest theme: The way the world works is not the way God works. There will come a time when the fortunes of the rich and the poor will be reversed, when justice will at last prevail. As Mary sings, "the poor will be filled with good things. And the rich will be sent empty away."For those who "have" now, this is a frightening prospect. We don't know when this reversal will arrive. But it is on the way. And it will come.

Today's readings offer enormous challenges. What do they have to do with the healing ministry of Jesus and of his church? What do they have to offer toward healing our healthcare system?

The bitter acrimony that has marked the healthcare debate in our country echoes themes found in today's readings. In the richest nation in the world, millions of people are uninsured. Or underinsured. In today's economy, many are only a hair's breadth away from losing a job. Others, rich off of exorbitant profits, bonuses and scams or comfortable in their own modest prosperity, rage against any attempt to offer basic health benefits to all. They do not see that "those people" (presumed different from themselves) are their neighbors, perhaps even "angels unaware. "It is as if many do not see that, for people who are poor, "no healthcare" translates into "emergency healthcare," and that we all do pay for that expensive "doctor's visit. "Even more profoundly, it is as if, by not seeing our common humanity, many of us have abandoned the virtue of compassion. There are legitimate policy differences over how to provide basic benefits to all. But an illegitimate difference is surely the stance that healthcare is a privilege, rather than a human right. Much of today's rhetoric seems to proceed from a "privileged" position. "Let others fend for themselves. Do not ask me to sacrifice my individual and family comforts for the good of the whole. Let the marketplace dictate the rules. Don't disturb my world. I've worked hard for what I've got."

There is no "my world. "There is only "our one world. "Unless we really see and act on the connections between us, not only will we not solve our healthcare dilemmas. We will not become the community of justice and compassion that God calls us to be. And, on more levels than we can imagine, it will be, alas, too late. The chasm will be too wide and it will be too late ever to cross it. Except by violent revolution. And who wants that?

Last December, I sat in my physician's waiting room. It was abnormally crowded, even for a winter morning. Her office is usually efficient. Appointments run close to the time scheduled. That morning, because of patient volume and obviously ailing people, my appointment ran an hour late. I asked my doctor what was going on. She answered clearly. First, so many were coming in before their health benefits ran out, because either the patient or a spouse was losing a job. Second, people were coming in to her office sicker, because they could not afford their medications. This, in a country with abundant resources. I don't pretend to be able to solve the complexities of our healthcare system. But I do know the following. Unless all of us take off our blinders and really see the human beings suffering right before our eyes, we are not worthy to claim the light that is Jesus and his message for our lives. Unless that seeing penetrates any shell that has hardened our collective hearts, no amount of pious praying will turn us into real followers of the one who made compassionate justice his life's mission. Will we allow ourselves to see?

Some days, I get discouraged at the massiveness of it all. I feel overwhelmed. What can I do? David Whyte's poem, "Start Close in," gives me some solace, and a bit of courage.

"Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own...
Start close in,
don't take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first thing
close in,
the step you don't want to take."
(From RIVER FLOW, Many Rivers Press, 2007)

Will I — and you — take that step?

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