by Mark Zirnheld, CEO and Director of the Society of Saint Vincent dePaul
… I have seen that offering material assistance, while temporarily beneficial, is only addressing the obvious. Increased funding and creating new programs has not eliminated poverty in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. The real poverty I have observed is a poverty of empathy.
Many times when there is a discussion about issues concerning poverty, an often used statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is brought up to indicate the apparent hopelessness in ending impoverishment in our society. After all, He said, “The poor you will always have with you.”
I feel that this certainly isn’t a command or prediction, but perhaps it was a way to cause some discomfort among his followers to provoke them to action. After all, Jesus was definitely concerned with the plight of the less fortunate throughout his adult ministry as described in the New Testament.
When this phrase is uttered by Jesus, he has just been anointed by a woman. The apostles, especially Judas, are aghast at the seeming waste of expensive oils that could have been better used in the care of the poor. Jesus, at that moment, may be sensing that the apostles’ intentions may not be truly sincere and he calls them to introspection of their treatment of the needy. Judas is especially an example of insincerity for he was the “treasurer” of the disciples and was using some of the money collected to aid Jesus’ ministry to enrich himself. (John 12:6) These oils would have certainly increased the treasury and thus been available for his use – a disturbing and selfish contrast to the teachings and actions of Jesus by one of his inner circle.
I’m not a biblical scholar, but those who are agree that Jesus is referring to an Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy that talks about the treatment of the poor and others by the Jewish faithful. The underprivileged are to be treated with generosity so as to please the Lord. The audience Jesus was speaking to would most undoubtedly be aware of this passage. As has been detailed in various New Testament passages, Jesus often alluded that strict adherence to the religious laws as provided in the Old Testament was not always truly spiritual in nature. It was a form of “lip service” and a way of going through the motions in order to look faithful in the eyes of man as opposed to God. In the Gospel writings, Jesus is again calling for a type of systemic change in society which was originally outlined in Deuteronomy. If the faithful, who are called to act in justice and fairness, would do so, there would be no poverty, for it would be known that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all.
In my role with the Society of St. Vincent dePaul, I have seen that offering material assistance, while temporarily beneficial, is only addressing the obvious. Increased funding and creating new programs has not eliminated poverty in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. The real poverty I have observed is a poverty of empathy. Many of the people I have encountered no longer are thought of as individuals with stories worth hearing. They have found no compassion shown – or worse – expected, as they move through their day. These individuals often feel not only invisible but disposable. Sometimes I’ve considered that stray animals find a more compassionate response then these people do in our community.
When we have lost our ability to have empathy for others, the words of Jesus that the poor will always be among us is inevitable. Maybe one day material poverty may be solved, but the need for people to connect to other people in a meaningful way will always be with us. I encourage you to take a small step toward developing that skill. Take a moment and listen to someone with empathy. Try to understand and share the feelings of another. It doesn’t have to be a stranger – maybe a family member or friend. I think you’ll possibly both find the experience heartening.
Being productive, aiding one another, listening non-judgmentally, and being respectful – these things not only allow us to derive self-worth, but also empower the same qualities in those we interact with in our daily lives. It may sound naïve in theory, but it can be difficult in practice.
Mark Zirnheld is CEO and Director of the Society of Saint Vincent dePaul, the oldest charitable organization continually active in Western New York.