Rich Man, Poor Man

By Chris Sparks

Life, like the year, has its seasons.

In youth, the springtime of life, we generally have good health, increasing strength and opportunities, and everything is directed at helping us come to full flower.

In maturity, the summertime of life, we bear fruit. We produce. We are active. The days are long, but sunlit. Everything is life and growth.

In late middle age, the autumn of life, we reap the harvest of long careers, send children off into their own adulthood, and fill our storehouses with good things for the winter.

In old age, the winter of our lives, we gradually consume the good things, the fruits of a lifetime, and rest. We have time to mend relationships, to reweave the threads of human connection, and to bid farewell as some go ahead of us in the journey into the new and eternal springtime of Heaven.

Or as a wiser man and a better writer once said:

There is an appointed time for everything,

and a time for every affair under the heavens.

A time to give birth, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to tear down, and a time to build.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;

a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to be silent, and a time to speak.

A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace (Eccl 3:1-8).

Of course, sometimes the seasons come unpredictably. Sometimes our youth is touched by frost, and our old age may be the most blessed, most fruitful time of our lives. No matter what, though, lives generally have something of all four seasons, of all four sets of mysteries of the Rosary, of Cross and Resurrection, of Annunciation and Ascension, of welcoming and saying farewell.

You know what this means? It means that we all are sometimes the rich man, and sometimes we’re the beggar seeking scraps.

It means we all are sometimes the child or the aged, dependent, in need of assistance, and sometimes we are the young, the strong, or the wealthy, able to bestow assistance on those around us. Saint Faustina, for example, was sometimes the dutiful daughter sending money home to her parents, the gardener, doorkeeper, and kitchen worker in the convent. And at other times, she was the daughter who ran away to join the convent, or the sick nun whose mysterious illness seemed made up until she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

And that makes it all the more important that we be generous when we can with those in need, because the tables will inevitably turn and we will need help, as well.

One of Pope Francis’ consistent challenges for all of us has been to go to the peripheries of life, go to the margins, and pay attention to the people who slip through the cracks. It’s a call that becomes all the more important in a crisis like the present pandemic and the whole smorgasbord of catastrophe that has been 2020.

We need to imitate the Lord Jesus, who, as the Good Shepherd, came for the lost sheep. In His parable, He talked about His willingness to leave the 99 in the sheepfold, to go outside of the sheepfold to find the lost one and gather him in (see Mt 18:12-14). “And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray” (Mt 18:13).

In this time of pandemic, of isolation, of lockdowns and quarantines, it’s very easy to mistakenly assume everyone else is doing as well as you, or better than you. It is easy for our neighbor’s problems and struggles to be out of sight, out of mind. It’s easy to neglect to call or check in with the neighbor who is alone, or elderly, or otherwise vulnerable.

Imitate St. Faustina, eager to serve, determined to be patient with her sisters in the convent, and living a life of hidden prayer and sanctity. Don’t forget your neighbors, your family, your coworkers, your friends. Don’t neglect the works of mercy, even in this overwhelming time. That doesn’t mean you have to give money or food (though if you can and they’ll be able to receive it as a neighborly act, do so). Just give time. Give the merciful gaze — look at people. Let them know you see them. Let them know they matter. Let them know that, if they disappeared tomorrow, they would be missed, that someone would notice, and would care. Let people know that they are not burdens. Let people know they are appreciated, and valued, and loved. Let them know that it’s good that they exist.

And welcome the gifts of those around you, even from those who are tactless or incompetent gift givers. There’s a mercy in welcoming the presence of the boring, the tactless, the socially maladroit. There’s a mercy in welcoming even the black sheep of the family to the reunion or the holiday dinner. There’s a mercy in loving even the unlovable, forgiving even the unforgivable. Saint Faustina at times taxed the patience of her superiors and sisters to the breaking point. And yet she was perhaps the greatest nun at her convent.

Pope Benedict once wrote (in a quote I’ve never been able to trace again) that part of the reason why God commanded that we must love our neighbor is because our neighbor also has to put up with us. That insight is a great reality check. As I said at the beginning of this piece, in life, we all take turns being the ones in need. We honor our father and mother because in an ordinary, healthy family, our parents loved us when we had nothing to give in return save cuteness. They cleaned up our messes, fed us, and tolerated all sorts of late night feedings, changings, and so forth, all for love. In our turn, we will someday take care of them in their declining years, feeding them, helping clean up their messes, and answering their generosity with our own.

Sometimes, you’re the Good Shepherd. Sometimes, you’re one of the 99. And sometimes, you’re the black sheep.

No matter what, we will act well if we keep in mind that we come from love and are intended to return to love, to Heaven, to God’s own life, which is endless self-giving love. That only makes sense if we remember that the most valuable thing in the world is a person, any person, of any age, any background, any life. People matter more than things or passing circumstances. C.S. Lewis put it perfectly in The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” The lives of the saints prove the truth of that insight.

Our neighbors will know we are Christians by our love. We will know they are Christians by their love. We will all take turns being givers and receivers, being generous in pouring out what we have and being generous in welcoming the gifts of others.

In hell and in high school, there’s the in-group and the outcasts, the popular and the unpopular, those with power and those without. In Heaven (and, when we live the Christian faith, in the Church), there’s endless generosity between people, between great and small, between the mighty and the weak, between God and creatures.

In hell, you may be mighty or miniscule, but you’re still in hell. In Heaven, because everyone is generous with everyone else, no one lacks for anything.

So in this wintertime of a year, make it a point to reach out to family, friends, and neighbors. Make sure the forgotten are remembered, the isolated are accompanied, and the needy not left in their need. And welcome the gift of the annoying, the inept, the awkward. Treat your neighbors in light of what they are: children of God, brothers and sisters to be loved and (yes, sometimes) endured, who through love and endurance may be transformed into some of the greatest blessings God has given you.

Pray for me, that I may practice what I preach. I’ll pray for you.

Jesus, I trust in You.

Chris Sparks serves as senior book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

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