A young priest, on his day off, felt really put out when he had to meet with a man who had dropped by the church, looking for help. "I’m off-duty," he grumbled, "and it’s almost dinner time!" When he arrived at the office, the visitor introduced himself only as "Jim." His clothes were shabby and he smelled terrible. It was pretty obvious he’d been living on the streets.
As Jim began talking, the young priest knew full well what was coming: Jim was going to ask for money. As he listened for what seemed to be an eternity, the priest sighed, fidgeted, rocked on his heels, and jingled the loose change in his pocket. When the housekeeper paged him and said he had a phone call, he curtly excused himself and left the room.
When he returned, Jim was gone. The priest felt guilty that his attitude had driven Jim away. He dashed outside, but Jim was nowhere to be seen. So he hopped in his car and began to search the neighborhood. When he spotted Jim, he ran up and said, "I’m sorry I had to leave. Please come back so we can finish our conversation!" But Jim just shrugged and muttered, "You’re just like everyone else. Nobody wants to listen."
In today’s gospel, nobody wanted to listen to Bartimaeus, either. As we heard, a large crowd was following Jesus while Bartimaeus was begging at the side of the road. When he heard that Jesus was passing by, he cried for help. But the crowd was put out by this and told him to be quiet. They didn’t want to hear him. And they didn’t want Jesus to hear either.
Jesus did ultimately hear Bartimaeus- because Bartimaeus kept yelling and yelling. But what about us? The Lord hears the cry of the poor! But do we? There are several reasons why we might not.
First of all, we’re often not told of the poor’s cries by the media. A few years ago, Jay Leno and a guest were taking about the "Balloon Boy" story. Remember that? The guest suggested that we put all the one and a half million homeless kids in our country into a giant balloon so they can get a tiny fraction of the media attention the "Balloon Boy" did. She has a point. Right now tens of millions of people are starving in famine-stricken East Africa. But we don’t hear much about that. We hear instead about the "Balloon Boy."
Another reason we might not hear the poor’s cries is that we don’t want to hear them, like the crowds in our gospel story. For them, Bartimaeus was a distraction, a nuisance. Maybe he made them feel uncomfortable, ashamed, or guilty. Perhaps he stank or looked shabby like Jim, and they were "grossed out." Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered; Bartimaeus’ needs were an inconvenience.
Aren’t we tempted to feel the same way? The homeless person approaches our car at the stoplight, and we stare straight ahead while we grip our steering wheel. Appeals come in the mail with pictures of starving children with wide eyes and bloated bellies, and we automatically toss them along with the catalogs. We don’t want to be bothered. We become jaded and indifferent.
We also might not think the cries of the poor are worth listening to. Perhaps we see it as whining, instead of crying. Surveys reveal that a majority of Americans believe that most people who are poor have only themselves to blame to their poverty. In other words, they’ve brought it upon themselves because they’re lazy or sinful. They’ve made their bed, we think, and now they have to sleep in it.
The truth is, however, that we have a responsibility, not only to try to hear the cries of the poor, but to answer them when we do. Jesus shows us this in how he responded to Bartimaeus. He stopped. He listened. He cared. He healed. We should do likewise; Jesus expects us to. Upon seeing a little girl begging with her mother on a street corner, a business man complained to God, "Why don’t you do something about this?" "I did," replied God. "I made you."
Of course, the government can and should do what it can. That’s part of its function and responsibility. But that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility. Jesus never told Caesar to help those in need. He has, however, told us.
But what can we do? To begin with, we can pray. We can pray for global justice and a fair distribution of the world’s resources. We can pray for the needy individuals we might pass by in our cars or on the sidewalk as we make our way to work- people with faces and names. And we can prayerfully examine our lifestyles, our financial priorities, and our stewardship of God’s blessings, that we might live more simply so others may simply live.
We can give of our time and talent to food pantries, refugee assistance centers, crisis pregnancy programs, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. We can mentor, tutor, repair houses, or become a foster or adoptive parent. To the best of our ability, we can give our financial support to the annual Archbishop’s Appeal, Catholic Charities, and other worthy institutions. We can support our parish’s participation at a local soup kitchen, and we can make regular contributions to a local food pantry. We can always be sure to treat the beggar with courtesy and respect. In addition, we can vote. We should weigh our society’s responsibility to care for its poorest members every time we enter a ballot box- whether the election be for president, or the city council.
Our world is filled with needy people like Bartimaeus- people in need crying out for help. Some we’ll meet on our doorsteps; others are halfway around the world. Can we hear them? Will we listen? How will we respond? With indifference and impatience? Or like Jesus- with compassion and love.
(My book of daily meditations for Lent, to be published by Ave Maria Press in November, is available for pre-order: http://www.amazon.com/Daily-Devotions-Lent-Living-Gospel/dp/1594713634/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335995419&sr=8-1 )