Who is responsible for the needs of the poor?

Matteo Ricci, a 16th-century Jesuit, told the story of two men walking together. One of the men was extremely rich and one was extremely poor.
A passerby commented, “Those two men are very close friends,” to which an ancient sage was said to have replied, “If that is true, then why is one of them rich and the other poor?”

This vignette, retold in Praying with Jesuits, Finding God in All Things, points to something that tugs at our Catholic consciences. What is our role as Christians in the face of great income inequality?

The September 3 issue of Atlantic Magazine has an eye-opening article called “The Pandemic Has Created a Class of Super-Savers.” Amid all the evictions, unemployment, small businesses failing and the hospitality and airline industries in the doldrums, there’s an interesting phenomenon: some people are saving a lot of money.

Many who still have jobs, or are retirees on fixed incomes, are saving more because they aren’t spending as much. Much of this is due to travel restrictions. For me, it’s no flying to see kids and grandkids.

But also, no eating out (although we support restaurants through carry-out). No movies at the theater. Who needs new clothes? Our carpet was going to be replaced this spring. But now no one sees its worn spots except my husband and me, and besides, should we invite carpet installers in?

But the Atlantic article takes this to an amazing level. Who knew that some people spend an average of $23 a day going out for business lunches with co-workers? The guy who reported this says he’s working from home, making himself a ham sandwich and saving upwards of $400 monthly on lunches.

Here’s another one. A finance guy now working at home told the Atlantic that he spent roughly $3,000 once a month on short family getaways. There’s “just nothing to spend money on,” he lamented. His spending is down by at least $10,000 a month, not counting the $25,000 he won’t spend on his family’s Christmas getaway. Now, there’s a super saver.

I’m curious about how much of this excess is being given to those in need. In my city, St. Vincent de Paul is besieged with pleas for help. I’m sure Catholic Social Services in Anchorage and Catholic Community Service in Juneau are experiencing enormous demands. Wouldn’t it make sense that the super savers – or any of us who aren’t spending what we once were – would be giving more?

Both guys above said they wished society was more just and indicated they would be willing to pay more taxes. The guy eating ham sandwiches indicated he’s “doubtful about the efficacy of charitable giving and believes it’s the government’s job to step in when people need financial support.”
Some argue that the government’s job isn’t to take care of the poor; that’s what charity is for. Conversely, others argue that our tax structure favors the super-rich and needs reform.

To me, it’s not an either/or argument but a both/and. A society is judged by how it treats its poor and that should be reflected in our tax structures. At the same time, we’re called to personal sacrificial charity. Both reflect a country’s morality and a Christian’s morality.

Jesus had no sympathy for the rich man who ignored Lazarus as he begged for scraps from the table.

And I love the quote from Brother Eamonn Davis, an active 89-year-old Irish Jesuit: “You won’t get into heaven unless you’ve a passport from the poor.”

When our travel restrictions finally end, that’s one passport we hope we’ve had stamped.

The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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