Here’s a story that will delight you fathers with daughters possessing intelligence superior to your own. On Thanksgiving my daughter, a recently minted medical doctor, and I visited someone in the hospital. I was grateful for her presence for in addition to comforting the patient with her soothing manner she was able to translate in layman’s terms for my benefit the very clinical diagnosis presented to us.
In the car on the way home I congratulated her for having performed two works of mercy: a corporal work in “visiting the sick” and a spiritual work in “counseling the ignorant.” My daughter replied: “I didn’t know instructing the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy. Are you making that up?” “No,” I said, “I am not making it up.” “Can you confirm it?” she asked. “I don’t have to confirm it. I just know it!,” I insisted. “Yes,” she suggested, “but, you’re ignorant.”
I was reflecting on this filial retort, tongue-in-cheek though it was, a few days later as I listened to a Franciscan priest sermonize on Luke’s gospel passage about the widow’s mite and about poverty generally. Like my daughter’s simplified technical interpretation, his words lightened my own burden of ignorance.
Poverty, he posited, means being left behind, left behind in a world where everyone else is moving forward. Poverty is the lack of the wherewithal to meet one’s essential needs let alone the lack of the means to obtain one’s ‘wants.’ Whether members in a family, families in a nation or nations in the world, these impoverished groups are frustrated by their inability to satisfy the basic requirements for human fulfillment; and their plight contrasts sharply with the condition of others whose essential needs are so fully satisfied they come to believe that their non-essential ‘wants’ are in fact their new critical needs.
In the gospel passage the widow gave what she could not afford to give while the others gave from their surplus. Her act evidenced her total reliance on Providence.
The irony here is that those who are “left behind” may already be ahead of the rest of us in terms of intimacy with the Lord for they place total trust in his care. If we slow down and use our surplus ‘wants’ to address the essential ‘needs’ of others left behind, we may find the experience enlightening. As Mother Teresa so often pointed out: as the wealthy relieve the material poverty of the poor, the poor relieve the spiritual ignorance of the wealthy. In this mutually enriching collaboration of poverty and ignorance, Providence provides us salvific hope.
The advance of the Kingdom is not so much a marathon where each runner is on his own and some are left behind. It is more like line dancing where every dancer in the troupe is responsible for being in sync with every other dancer – a wonderful accomplishment that occurs when all, mindful of each other, dance together to the same music. Catholic philanthropy is the dance hall.