There are several New Testament Bible verses where Jesus proclaims blessings unto the poor and woe unto the rich, many of which I knew about long before converting to Catholicism. We can see them in the Beatitudes of Matthew (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.) and in the Sermon on the Mount in Luke (Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.). There’s that ubiquitous quote about squishing a camel through a tiny hole in Matthew 19 (And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”), which immediately procedes the story of the rich man asking how how he can be saved (Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.).
Having always been on the side of economic justice and having lived just above the poverty line for most of my adult life, I simply took it for granted when I heard about the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” – being poor is hard, and there are so many people worse off than me! Of course the Church roots for the underdog! But what does that really mean? Being broke does NOT feel like a blessing. Do poor people have access to an objectively higher plane of morality than rich people? Would one have to be born poor to qualify, or does it just come by Grace whenever a person’s income drops below the federal poverty line? Or is it only reserved for those people of the developing world who live on less $1 a day?
Sermon on the Mount by Gustave Dore
If one believes that all people were created in the image and likeness of God and are destined to share in His glorious nature, then there can’t be anything objectively different between the souls of poor people or rich people. Why bother bringing up anything material if the point is to get on the spiritual road?
Poor people live on the edge, privatizing the risk for their investments in getting ahead and always one disaster away from being kicked back to the starting line. I got a parking ticket this morning. I should have paid better attention to that one “No Parking” spot on the block full of empty spaces, I know that. I got a parking ticket and it cost me 10% of what I will have earned for the month of January, provided I get enough shifts in the next week-and-a-half.
“F&*K!!” I yell, slamming both hands against the steering wheel when I realize the ticket on my windshield. I had just texted my brother that I was on the way to the hospital to see him less than a minute before, and in my rage I did not notice that my phone had fallen out of the car as I threw open my door and grabbed the ticket from my windshield. Just a year old and still not paid off, that smart phone is as glued to my hand as fingerprints. I need it for work. I need it for a lot of things, I think. Most importantly though, I cannot afford a new one. The anxious searching for the phone begins a few blocks from where I had gotten the ticket. I rummage under the passenger seat at red lights and under my butt as I drive, unable to make the left turn I need to get back to the block where I might have dropped the phone.
My mind is racing, burning with the knowledge that I lost more than half of January’s income in a flash. How could I be so careless?! How will I pay the rent? I am going to be late to visit my brother! I will not be able to work! Dammit, God, could you please just cut me some freaking slack for once?!! And then I hear myself, I see myself, and I start to cry.Through gritted teeth and tears, I drive the next twenty blocks reciting the Lord’s Prayer in between pleas of “please, please let my phone be there”. It’s not there. The cops around Independence Mall help me look for it and try calling it to no avail. It’s late and I need to go see my brother.
I need to see my brother who has just undergone very painful bone surgery. I need to see my brother who has not walked in more than a year. I need to see my brother and that is more important now. I give up on finding my phone and head to HUP, letting go of the ticket and accepting that this is a chance for me to detach even further from those material things that stand between me and a closer relationship with God. I don’t need a phone to build relationships in my community and in my church. I don’t need a phone to love and be loved. I don’t need to have next month’s rent in the bank in order to be secure enough to give of myself. The tears stop, I find a parking spot, and set off to find my brother’s room, hidden on one of the top floors of the vast medical campus. My brother lets me borrow his phone to text mine, but a missing smart phone now seems just about the tiniest grievance compared to what he’s going through, and in my heart I say please lessen his pain, please let him get some sleep already, please help him stay hopeful.In the end I got my phone back. One of the cops had found it and taken it to the Apple store, trying to get an ID to return it to me. He even chased down a PPA officer to see if he was the one who had given me a ticket so he might be able to find me using my plates. He delivered it to HUP, just as my brother was about to begin physical therapy. With my phone back in my possession and in working order (in spite of being seriously bent up from being run over), I walked back to my car and headed to the Italian market, tears erupting from my eyes yet again. And there was a $2 slice at Lorenzo’s that was the best I ever tasted. And perfect green beans for $1 a pound. A man with a bag full of Sarcone’s seeded Italian, sharing a hunk he had torn off with a little girl. The smell of burning cardboard and wood blowing up from the oil cans. The fishmonger lady giving another lady a deal on trout. The sky as blue as the day I conceded to the God-shaped hole in my chest.
In moments of suffering or terrible bad luck, there is always an opening, an opportunity to see one’s utter dependence on God and all of the people around us. Poor people are not objectively more moral than rich people, but they most certainly suffer materially more than rich people do, which means that they have many more opportunities to acknowledge that dependence and be grateful for all the tiniest details that bring joy to their lives. If a missing phone is just an opportunity to spend a tiny portion of your monthly income on a brand new phone, the experience is less likely to bring about that realization of dependence, as you will see yourself empowered by your money to solve whatever problems that may come up. You probably won’t be humbled by needing to borrow money from a friend to pay for a parking ticket or an emergency root canal or next week’s groceries or any other unplanned stability-shaking event that kicks your ass when you don’t have much money. And I think that is the crux of why the gospels say that it is so much harder for rich people to “enter the Kingdom of God”. It’s hard enough to humble oneself in a fit of broke-ass frustration and helplessness. It’s nearly impossible when that level of every day risk is not a part of your life.