When was the last time you encountered a person in poverty? How did you react? If we have lived in Austin for any length of time, we have probably been approached by someone asking for money or for food. Often like the disciples, we simply want people in need to go away. I’m not proud of it, but I know I’ve consciously desired to be able to walk past a person in need without them asking for something. Why do we shy away from encountering poverty?
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Perhaps we are afraid that we will not be able to do anything to relieve the person’s suffering. Perhaps we recognize that even if we can help someone through a corporal or spiritual work of mercy, we won’t be able to completely alleviate the suffering
Or perhaps, we want them to go to other towns and cities because we are afraid that their poverty will reveal our poverty. We don’t like admitting our own poverty – our own need. Maybe we shun the poor because we idolize the myth of the self-made man or woman, and we fear that the poor force us to see our own poverties.
Perhaps in encountering an impoverished person, we recognize our own poverty. Perhaps we notice how close we are to financial poverty – the worry about making ends meet. But perhaps other – more serious types of poverty as well: The poverty of love, a lack of friendship, loneliness. The poverty of envy and jealousy. The poverty of being a slave to lust or gluttony. The poverty of our own hidden sins, which we cover with a thin veneer of respectability. Or the poverty of worry and anxiety. The poverty of mental illness, the poverty of hidden family problems. The list could go on.
But the mythical self-made man simply does not exist. Our personal choices are formative – they matter – and we bear moral responsibility for them, but no man is an island.
From the first moment of our conception, human beings exist fundamentally in relation. No one gives birth to himself. No human being who ever lived or who will ever live has come to maturity without the intervention of another human being.
This fact is made perfectly clear in the incarnation, the enfleshment of Our Lord Jesus, who is God, needed his Mother. Think about that statement. God needed his Mother. We should tremble at the truth of it. God is perfect without need, truly without poverty. But when he became flesh and dwelt among us, he needed his Mother and St. Joseph to survive. Our Lord Jesus Christ grew to maturity because his Blessed Mother and St. Joseph chose to love him.
His ultimate poverty comes on the Cross when he empties himself, taking the form of a slave. This poverty continues in every Eucharist, when Christ, the King of King, allows himself to be held, broken and received by poor sinners that we might know his love.
This is what St. Paul speaks of today: there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, Christ impoverished himself so that he could encounter us in our poverty and raise us up with him. He makes our poverties places of victory through his love. He gives us himself at the bread that satisfies us, and in our weakness, makes us strong.
Having received such a gift, should we not do the same for those we encounter each day?
We can, indeed, we must be compassionate to those around us if we wish to be Christians in reality rather than merely in word. Hear these strong words from St. John Chrysostom for those who fail to show mercy after receiving the Eucharist:
“You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother, … You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal.… God freed you from all your sins and invited you here, but you have not become more merciful.”
As we pass through our daily lives in the City of Austin, we encounter a vast multitude of people who do not know Jesus and who have never received the bread which will satisfy. The Lord’s words should resound in our ears: “there is no need for them to go away, give them some food yourselves.”
We are Christ, brothers, and sisters, and though we may not be able to give a person money or food each time they ask, we can be compassionate as he was. But there is a cost: Compassion – suffering from another – requires poverty. It requires being vulnerable as he was. Emptying ourselves as he did. To be poor in spirit as he was.
Is this difficult? Yes. But is it worth it? Yes. When we offer compassion, this offering becomes like the two fish and five loaves. It becomes an offering to the Lord and bears a rich harvest through him who lives and reigns forever and ever in the unity of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.
 St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Cor. 27, 4: PG 61, 229–230; cf. Mt 25:40.