Recently I was shopping in a big department store here in Sarasota, and it was my second time there in a few days (I nearly always end up having to change things!). The second time I was there a young man came up to me and asked me if I was a religious minister of some kind. He had helped me the first time too. I told him I was a Catholic priest and he wanted to know if he could ask me something. So I said, ‘sure!’ He said, ‘What do you think is the best way to deal with people begging on the street?’ I smiled when he asked me this and I told him it is one of the more difficult things we are continually faced with and there is never an easy answer to it.
I know from speaking to social workers and people who work with the homeless that more often than not you don’t really help people on the street when you give them money. You are often feeding an addiction of some kind. Having said that they are obviously a lot worse off than me, no matter how you figure it which makes it all the more difficult to pass by. We are told many times in the Scriptures that the poor will always be with us (Mk 14:7, Mt 26:11, Jn 12: 8, Deut 15:11) and we have a duty to look after them, but we must also be wise as to what is the best way to help. However, without a doubt the most important thing is that we treat each person we meet with dignity. Whether we decide to give money or not to someone begging doesn’t mean we cannot smile or acknowledge them. They are people that will be with us in heaven hopefully. Just because things haven’t worked out well for them now doesn’t mean it won’t change. We have a duty to look after them.
A temptation in many cities today is to ‘hide’ the poor, keep them out of sight, because we don’t like the ‘messiness’ of people begging and the discomfort that this causes. However, the Lord has given us these people to care for too and they have just as much a right to be part of our towns as we do. Just because it doesn’t suit us is no reason to ignore them. Remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar at his gates (See Luke 16:19-31). The rich man was condemned, not because he was wealthy but because he ignored the poor man who was right under his nose.
In today’s Gospel we are shown something interesting. First when the man asks Jesus what he must do to get to heaven, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, firstly to love God with our heart, mind and soul and secondly to love our neighbor as ourself. The order is important. Then when he asks Jesus, ‘But who is my neighbor,’ Jesus tells him the story of the good Samaritan. Something that we may not appreciate from the story is how much the Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people. They could see absolutely no good in them. Jesus was showing them (and us today) that goodness can be found in everyone, even in people we despise or may be prejudiced against. The people who were expected to do good (the priest and Levite) did not, and the last person on earth that they would have considered good did the most loving thing of all. But perhaps the key to the story is the commandments that Jesus quoted and the order that they come in. Our first duty is to love God above all else. Only then are we called to love our neigbour. Why? Because the strength we get to love our neighbor comes from our relationship with God. The closer we remain to God, or the more our relationship with God grows, the more we are able to see those around us who are in need and help them. Our neighbor is simply whoever is in need of help, even if they despise us or believe quite differently to us.
It is interesting that Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her sisters continually take people in off the street to allow them to die with dignity. They clean them up and they look after them as best they can, but they don’t try to convert them. Most of them would be Hindu or Muslim. They simply love them and treat them with dignity. They are able to do that because they love God first and that is where their strength and inspiration comes from. Needless to say they speak more about God by their actions than anything they could possibly say.
‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. And you must love your neighbor as yourself.’