Dominicans are to be poor in spirit and in fact. Think of the ways we describe the poor. I googled the phrase “welfare people are lazy”. What did I find? Phrases like this.
“I want to sign my dog up for welfare. They said he’s not eligible. I said he’s lazy, unemployed, and doesn’t know his daddy. He gets his check next week.”
“For all the taxes they take out of my paycheck, the least they can do is send me a picture of the getto family I’m supporting to hang on my fridge.”
“If you can afford beer, drugs, cigarettes, manicures and a tattoos, you don’t need food stamps or welfare.”
“I work hard so people on welfare don’t have to.”
Then I googled “illegal immigrant”. Here is what I found.
“I demand to live and work in your fascist country, you miserable racist.”
“No Amnesty! Secure the Borders! Deport Illegals!”
“The US is not responsible for a failed nation in Mexico.”
“Breaking into my house does not give you the right to stay. No Amnesty.”
“Illegal workers destroy living wages.”
And here is what I found when I googled “American should help the poor in the United States.”
“Keep ’em fighting, Keep ’em poor. Poverty is no accident.”
“More than 1 billion people lack access to health care.”
“Welfare. When you love strangers so much you are willing to steal money from another stranger to help them out.”
I am not suggesting these sayings tell the whole story. My point in quoting these statements is to suggest there is no lack of emotion associtated with the issues of welfare, immigration, and foreign aid. It appears that few like taxes, and when we have to pay them we look for someone to blame.
I mention these phrases, and reference the strong emotion about these issues because the first reading from centuries ago suggests these issues, while not identical, are similar to life many centuries ago. Consider the phrases we heard in today’s readings.
“You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”
“You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.”
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him.”
“If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge,you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”
The Jewish law had a special emphasis that there were high expectations for treating the most vulnerable in society. Widows, orphans and aliens were given special consideration in the Law becuase they were those who were without even the most basic needs.
To be sure, these issues I mentioned are not easy to decide. Also, there is a certain dignity to work. But so often, statements about these issues that I mentioned at the beginning of the homily are born from ignorance. Most people who complain about “those people on welfare” often do not know any people on welfare, or if they do, it is a small number.
When it comes to immigration we often know little or nothing about the conditions in the countries from which so many of these immigrants come. As I have witnessed, it is easy to call for harsh penalties for those who come into this country illegally, but much harder when that undocumented worker has a name and works for us.
Note the differences in the Ebola reality in our country and in those countries in West Africa. We had a perhaps three individuals who have contracted the illness, and only one has died. West Africa is so strained by the spread of this disease that there are in some places no longer any place for the sick to go. Thousands have been infected in West Africa, and thousands more are expected to be infected.
We often know little about these countries in Africa. For most of us, our African geography, if we know it at all, is poor. We often know little of the life for the ordinary person in Africa. Most of us have no concept of what our government actually provides in foreign aid to other countries, and perhaps even less about how much of what we classify as foreign aid might really be called military assistance.
I am not hear to be partisan, especially so close to the election. I do not have political solutions, nor am I oblivious to the complexity of these problems. What I am trying to do in my life, and suggesting you do in yours is to wrestle with the words of today’s gospel.
Consider Jesus’ answer when asked about the greatest commandment.
“When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
We know there was a lawyer who after hearing this commandment asked “Who is my neighbor?” When we couple the gospel with the first reading (which is the purpose of the readings on a Sunday) we can see the emphasis upon the question of neighbor is upon the most vulnerable.
We have examples of the vulnerable all around us. Already we have mentioned the poor and the immigrant. There are those single mothers who often are the courageous among us choosing life for their children and seeking to work and educate them. There are the unborn children, some of whom are in great risk of harm because of abortion. There are those vulnerable senior citizens who live too much of their lives alone and without what they need. There are those vulnerable people who have no health care. Unfortunately the examples of the poor and vulnerable are many.
Today I am called to refelct upon the question asked by that lawyer. “Who is my neighbor?” As a Dominican I am called to reflect upon what it means to be poor in spirit and in fact. Perhaps you might do the same.