Throughout Jesus’ public life he was questioned on how to live and ultimately die in God’s favor. Three of the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of a rich young man who asks Jesus how he can gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to obey the commandments to which the young man replies he has done since his youth. Jesus responds, “If you want to be perfect… sell your possessions … give to the poor….and come follow me.” (Mt.19:21, Mark, 10:21, Luke, 18:18). As the story goes the young man hangs his head and walks away. We are not given any more details so it is possible that after thinking and praying about what Jesus said he did give up his possessions and follow Jesus.
Was Jesus serious? Did he really mean that gaining eternal life meant one had to put aside the comforts of home and provide for the poor? Did he mean that instead of the new car or remodeled kitchen we should help those who have less – perhaps those with no car or inadequate living conditions? Was he saying that as personal or corporate wealth grows a sense of responsibility for providing ample food, clean water, educational opportunities and basic health care for those struggling should grow as well? It is a radical message as counter-cultural and difficult to embrace today as it was in ancient times. It leads to another question posed in scripture: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis, 4:9). And the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”! It is the implementing of the question – the action plan – that begs reflection.
As Americans we embrace the notion that with enough hard work and perseverance all things are possible. We call it ‘pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps’. It is part of who we are as a culture; an admirable trait that helped propel us to prominence in world leadership. However, if we take the teachings of Jesus concerning the poor seriously we have to acknowledge that despite hard work and perseverance there will always be individuals and families who need assistance at one time or another in their lives.
Each of us has to decide how to care for those who need support. The most drastic decision is to give up all we have and minister to those in need as our sole calling. The Lay Mission Helpers, an organization based in Los Angeles, are an example of following this calling. Lay Mission Helpers leave their comfortable American lifestyles and move for three years to very faraway places to purposely walk with the poor, sharing faith as well as teaching and learning. Few among us will opt for this. However, we can support generously those who do choose this calling. Los Angeles has numerous agencies and organizations that have as their mission serving people in need. There are schools operating in areas where many parents do not have the extra money to pay Catholic school tuition as well as food banks, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and agencies that provide legal and medical services. Any of them would welcome help either financially or in terms of volunteer hours.
As I re-model my own kitchen, functioning before the re-model although admittedly tired and worn with cracked tile and an unreliable oven, I struggle at times to justify the decision. I do believe we are all our brother’s and sister’s keepers and know this requires sharing resources. The “how-to” is the catch and it will differ for each of us.
Some say that time is more valuable than money. They say it is the personal connection we make that is important as we walk with another in their struggle. No doubt this is true and transformative, as well. However, money is desperately needed by many agencies and institutions that serve the poor and marginalized. It is not an either/or situation. Each of us can give one or the other while some can give both. The point is to make the commitment whether it is to the Lay Mission Helpers, Dolores Mission, Homeboy Industries, St. Francis Center, Together in Mission, the program that helps schools and parishes in need or any one of the countless other groups working to alleviate poverty and help those in need. Jesus was clear about serving the poor. How it is done is up to each of us.
Anne Hansen is Regional Director for IVC Los Angeles and has written a column for the Tidings newspaper for many years (nearly 20) – Family Time. She co-authored Culture-Sensitive Ministry (Paulist Press, 2010) and offers workshops and retreats throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.