1 Cor 1: 26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are,
29 so that no one may boast before him.
It is a remarkable scene in the Gospels. Our Lord had been invited by one of the “leading” Pharisees of the day to a meal on the Sabbath. He graciously accepted. But instead of flattering his hosts for this kindness, he used it as an occasion to teach, to proclaim the Kingdom of God wherein “the first will be last, and the last shall be first”, inverting the values of both a certain conception of religion, and, certainly, of our consumerist society. After showing them that the Kingdom of God transcends all cruel and merely external legalisms, he moved in closer, as it were, focusing on that subtle pride wherein some view themselves as righteous —the ‘winners’ before God and man— and others as, if not worthless, then at least less worthy. He said to them:
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honor. A more distinguished person than you may have been invited, and the person who invited you both may come and say, ‘Give up your place to this man’.And then to your embarrassment, you would have to go and take the lowest place. No; when you are a guest, make your way to the lowest place and sit there…For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted.” ( Luke 14: 1-11)
Here Jesus begins to turn the values of a pretentious society on their head. Then comes the really radical inversion:
“…he said to his host, ‘When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbors, for fear they repay your courtesy by inviting you in return. No; when you give a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; that they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate, because repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again.” (v. 12-14)
Jesus was poor. St Paul teaches that though he was, in his deity, rich (Col 2:8-10), yet, through his humanity, for our sakes he became poor, “that by his poverty [we] might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
In this year of the Jubilee, the Holy Father has asked all of the rich nations of the earth to forgive the debts of the poor nations. In this way the purpose of the Jubilee is set in beautiful and sharp relief. For mercy too often is rare in the cold world of economics. It is a beautiful thing to restore to the nations this concept of the Jubilee, the forgiving of the debt, as God has forgiven us our debts, this sign of the Lord’s favor toward all, not only to the “deserving”.
The Holy Father likewise at every turn has asked for the commutation of death sentences for criminals as a sign of the Divine Mercy in a world which —one increasingly fears— may no longer possess the moral authority to exact the most extreme penalty which human society can impose on man. Apart from a respect for the moral law, for moral absolutes, the very concept of justice is made to appear farcical. Societies which condone abortion (murder, afterall) may be logical in thinking little of the inconsistencies involved in decrying the violations of the moral law at one end of the spectrum (murder) but not at the other (abortion), but this thinking is morally schizoid to say the least. One also sees this inconsistency in our pornosophic west which applauds when our daughters (the daughter of some mother and father!) are given over to lust for entertainment in every form of media, at the same time that we decry rape, sexual harassment, and the general degradation of women.
Other Kinds of Poverty
But there are other kinds of poverty in our techno-efficient world today which often successfully hide much that would remind us of suffering. Because of the marvels of modern technology, one encounters physical signs of suffering far less frequently than in previous ages. Those without limbs have sundry prosthetic devices which compensate for disabilities and hide them from us. Surely this is a blessing for the victim, even if I am not sure what it does for the rest of us. Soon, through the marvels of technology we are told the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and perhaps even those victims of spinal cord injury and similar injuries will walk again.
Our elderly are sometimes needlessly hoarded into Nursing Homes (“out of sight, out of mind”), and, more ominously still, toxic pills or other lethal means are increasingly made available to them in certain states and countries when old age and the long terrible loneliness of separation from family becomes “intolerable” for them, in case they should decide to “exercise their right” to end it all. We should “respect” that right, the efficient society tells us.
When human beings are no longer viewed as having been made in the “image and likeness” of God, then they become meat for the techno-efficient cleanup Machine that seeks to eliminate the vision of suffering from our midst altogether. The awareness of suffering spoils the party and depletes “valuable” resources. It is for the living who still have some “quality of life” left to eat, drink, and be merry, it is said. For tomorrow we will face the same fate. So one had better grab all the gusto one can and then do ones duty and die. Holy Mother the state will assist, to be sure.
Another kind of poverty is less obvious and dramatic perhaps, but in the intensity of suffering, no less real. I am referring to those whom our materialist society relegates to the trash bin, the so-called “losers” in our society, the so-called hapless ones who for one reason or another are not “successful”. They are not and probably never will be among the so-called “beautiful people” rich in worldly goods and social circles. Perhaps these are the ones who in their lives were victims of circumstances beyond their control. They were not the ones born into wealth, perhaps they were not strong or “smart” enough to exploit the opportunities which came somewhere within reach and “make the grade” .
Some are excluded also because they do not look like the women on L.A. Law, and the loser men don’t look the part either. Some of them will never be great looking, or good looking enough; and in a society which puts a premium on looks and youth this is no easy realization. Many have succumbed to anorexia, bolemia and / or depression because they are do not like, much less love, themselves; they are too heavy, too thin, too tall, too small, or have some feature which they think (possibly rightly) is their undoing in a society which views television as the true mirror and measure of the finest, rather than the lying simulacra which it often is. There is a long and deep loneliness in many today who think they must measure up to the sparkling teeth, puffy lips, and glistening eyes of the goddess on the screen selling the toothpaste. They cannot forgive themselves for not measuring up and so they sometimes eat even more or starve themselves in compensation, or go under the knife to delay the advancing of the years or to correct some perceived imperfection. Their self-image is shot.
A Poor Young Mother
The consumerist-materialist society crushes the weak, it scourges even the “strong”, even as it tries to suck us all into its vortex of distortions and unreality via its dictates of what the good life is supposed to be and look like. The poor are often persecuted simply because they are poor, just as surely as the wounded chick is often pecked to death by the healthy ones.
Other problems seem simple but they can cause profound depths of sufferings. A poor young mother who has just given birth sinks into a depression because she now has stretch marks and fears her husband no longer will love her. The spiritual and psychological strength she needs to succor her newborn miracle is sapped by the thoughts of her “inadequacies”. Here we see how society’s image of women afflicts women when motherhood brings natural changes. To make matters worse, women sometimes see their husbands secretly taking delight at the air-brushed fake goddesses who are all over the hyper-reality of the television programs, and think they had better sink or swim before they end in divorce. How can they truly give themselves to their babies when they are gripped in fears and feelings of inadequacies? Even grandmothers think they should be in jeans and sneakers every day!
Then there are the men who do not make much money; they are the “losers” too; these are the ones who are not making a killing on the morally indifferent stock market, who might not own their own home, deck, pool and cars, who might not even have the skills required to make it in our ever changing global marketplace. Or maybe they are over 40 and the boss thinks it would be cheaper and sexier to hire young people and who therefore plots to get rid of the older workers rather than reward their service and age.
The Silent Profound Suffering
What suffering lays its weary head on so many pillows at night! Yet here is an opportunity to consciously choose the spiritual, to accept oneself as a gift from God and to choose holy simplicity so as not to be rich at the expense of the poor. It is a grace to simplify ones life as a protest and sign of contradiction in our consumerist society.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” These, the so-called “losers,” who no longer know, or who never knew at all, the “American (materialist) dream”, are the poor also. The poor, the “ugly,” the mentally ill, the “losers,” it is they we must reach with our smiles, our kind word(s), our invitations to coffee or dinner or (especially) Mass perhaps, and in whatever other ways we can help. For they are us and we are they. One moment’s “bad luck” could change much, or everything. They must perceive their dignity and worth through our love and real acceptance.
I know a woman with Tourettes syndrome who involuntarily lets out frequent and loud bursts of sound when she is at the post office. People try not to notice, but this only makes it worse sometimes. How I wish I could walk up to her and hug her, and tell her we are all human, all broken, and that I have come to love her sounds and the sweet dignity she strives to maintain as she carries that incredible cross. Instead I just try to smile warmly with my eyes as we pass each morning.
There are those who are divorced, whose lives seem broken into pieces. There are those suffering from various addictions and the almost bottomless labyrinth which that entails. There are those with AIDS or sick from a thousand other maladies. The homeless are out of sight, the liberal media too often overlook them, especially in times of prosperity. There are those who cannot afford decent clothes either for themselves or for their children. There is a woman I know with many children whose husband is mentally ill and cannot work. He often leaves home for long periods. The state came in and made her go to work while the children were put in day “care”. What a painful separation.
Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit
Blessed are the poor in spirit. It is the human person, the person who is made in the image of God and who by virtue of his or her creation (even before redemption) possesses true dignity, the Holy Father, echoing Jesus, never ceases to tell us. And it is part of the Gospel of the Kingdom to preach this, “with words if necessary”.
The last shall be first in the Kingdom. We must abandon ourselves to the values of the Kingdom and seek out the “little ones” who are brushed aside in the materialist delusional society and go out of our way to show them their dignity: by our smiles, our words and other actions. We must love the “losers” who need to know they are the winners according to the values of the Kingdom, and that their innocent suffering is redemptive in Christ. God and His Bride, the Church, has a special love for these.
This means we must love ourselves too, for few of us are so perfect as to “measure up” to the anti-values of that constructed hyper-reality which television and the “stars” and “starlettes” of Hollywood represent as the “good” life. Nor should we wish to. We must abandon ourselves to the poverty, simplicity, and sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24), to the God of the poor who loves us as we are, and to the values of His Kingdom, rejecting the illusory anti-values of television’s constructed “reality”. We can consciously choose holy simplicity, as Dorothy Day and so many others did, in order not to compete with the world’s poor.
May God help us to smile at and speak with Christ’s little ones — especially the most hurting and “out of place”— even when they are too hurting to smile back. The Beatles once asked in song, “all the lonely people… where do they all belong?”; surely the ones who are close to us belong in our smiles, in our hearts and prayers, in our homes, in our church…