"Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!" That's an axiom attributed to James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.
He's right. If Jesus is to be believed, then we need to believe that the poor stand before us always as that place where we are judged. We get to heaven (or don't!) on the basis of our response to the poor. The cross of Jesus Christ is the key to life, and the cross is forever being erected at that place where the poor, the excluded ones, suffer. Only there can we learn the crucified wisdom that at the end of the day puts us inside the circle of discipleship.
As we know, it's not easy to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, console the sorrowful or help the downtrodden. Why? Mainly because we never see them. We think we do, but in reality we don't. In fact, that's the point the Gospels make when they point out the dangers of riches, namely: wealth blinds us so we don't see the poor.
We see this clearly in the parable about the rich man who dines sumptuously each day while a poor man, Lazarus, sits under his table and eats the crumbs that fall. The rich man dies and goes to Hades. From there he finally sees Lazarus, implying that he had never really seen him before even though Lazarus had sat just a few feet away from him during his lifetime. The rich man is condemned not because he is rich but because he never saw Lazarus at his gate. The first time he sees him is from Hades.
The real danger of wealth is that it causes a blindness that makes us incapable of seeing the poor in our midst... It's easy to miss the point here. Jesus isn't saying that wealth is bad. Nor is he saying that the poor are virtuous and the rich are not. The rich are often just as virtuous in their private lives as are the poor. We sometimes naively glamorize poverty; but poverty isn't beautiful and oftentimes isn't particularly moral either. A lot of violence, crime, sexual irresponsibility, domestic breakdown, drug abuse and ugliness of all kinds, happen on the poorer side of the tracks. The rich are no worse than the poor in these things.
But where the rich are worse is in their vision, their eyesight. When we are rich, we have a congenital incapacity to see the poor. In not seeing them, we never learn the wisdom of the crucified. That's why it's hard, as Jesus reminds us, for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
That's also why it's hard for rich nations and rich individuals to reach across the great divide that separates us from the poor. We try. But in this richest nation of the world, the United States of America, one of every six children still falls below the poverty line. Worldwide, despite all the resources and good will on this planet, one billion people survive on less than one dollar per day. 30,000 children die every day from diseases that could easily be prevented by simply supplying clean drinking water. There's a gap here that we can't find a way to cross over.
We see. Yet we don't see. We say we feel for the poor, but we don't really feel for them. We may sometimes reach out, but we never reach across; so the gap between rich and poor is steadily widening. It's widening worldwide between nations; and it's widening inside virtually every culture on earth. The rich become richer while the poor are left even further behind. Almost all the economic boom of the last thirty years has resulted in a windfall for those at the top of the pyramid, benefiting the ones who already have the most.
Jesus asks simply that we each begin to really see the poor in our midst, that we do not allow affluence to become a disease that destroys our sense of vision. Riches aren't bad. Poverty isn't beautiful. Yet nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!