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Lazarus at our gates

In the second week of Lent, as Catholics moved into their preparation for Easter, the Church asked us to reflect on the Lord’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We recall the story of the rich man dressed in the finest clothes, dining sumptuously every day, and the poor beggar, Lazarus, lying at the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, longing to eat just the scraps which fell from the rich man’s table, but no one gives him anything. As the story continues, Lazarus dies and is carried by angels to the “bosom of Abraham” (Heaven); the rich man also dies, and is buried in Hell. Looking up, the rich man sees Abraham and calls out, “Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham replies that that is impossible, for between them a great chasm has been fixed.

Notice that there is no indication that the rich man gained his wealth unjustly. He had followed the rules, the money was his, and he felt free to use it as he wished. Unfortunately for him, the Lord does not see it that way. Rather, in the later language of the social teaching of the Church, wealth bears a “social mortgage” and one is not free to do with it as one wishes; the goods of the earth were given in order that all men and women should be able to live decent, dignified lives. Thus alms-giving or direct aid to those in immediate need is both a virtue and an obligation.

Alms-giving is necessary, but is it enough? Alms-giving is for emergency situations, the “widows and orphans” so often mentioned in the Bible. But for ordinary situations, human dignity requires that a family be relatively independent, relatively able to take care of its own needs. For this reason Catholic social thought has long emphasized the importance of widespread land ownership, the small family farm which provides basic security to the family and the broad base of economically independent citizens necessary for a stable democracy.

A recent presentation by Tomas Africa, sponsored by the Social Weather Stations, suggests that in the Philippines, alms-giving is both very necessary and not enough. The total income of the top 1 percent of Filipino families equals that of the bottom 30 percent. The wealthier 50 percent of families receive 80 percent of total family income; the poorer 50 percent receive only 20 percent. Given the low per-capita income of the country, such inequality spells destitution for a vast number of families. Moreover, this proportion did not change significantly from 1961 to 2009. Whatever economic development occurred in those 48 years was shared just as unequally: 80 percent to the wealthier half of families and 20 percent to the poorer half. For growth to reduce inequality, a greater share of its fruits must go to the poor.

It is clear from this that the “social mortgage” on private property is not being paid in Philippine society. The goods available in this society are not being used in such a way that all Filipinos can live decent and dignified lives; even the fruits of economic growth are going disproportionately into the pockets of those who are better off. The land-owning system and the hesitance of government to touch the incomes of large landowners through serious agrarian reform (it is easier to teach birth control to the tenants) is one factor. The tax system is another, as well as corruption at all levels. Public educational institutions are starved for funds, while the wealthy provide their children with a head start in life by sending them to elite and expensive private institutions. The legal system is so complex that highly paid lawyers can almost always find a loophole for their clients. One could go on, but it is clear that many of the key institutions of Philippine society are what the Popes have called “structures of sin,” meaning accumulated personal sins of greed and injustice hardened into institutions which perpetuate the injustice. Is it not time to foreclose the social mortgage?

The structures of which we have spoken are not set in stone; they can be changed as other nations have shown. Taiwan and South Korea kicked off their economic development with agrarian reform measures that, by putting money into the hands of small farmers, provided a market for bicycles, lanterns, water pumps and other products of early industrialization. The “GI Bill of Rights” in the United States provided college education for millions of Afro-Americans and youth from the slums who had served in the armed forces, moved them into the middle class and changed the social structure of the country while repaying its costs many times over in increased productivity.

More than 40 years ago in his great encyclical “Populorum Progressio,” Pope Paul VI spoke of the drastic changes in social structures required if justice is to prevail: “We want to be clearly understood: the present situation must be faced with courage and the injustices linked with it must be fought against and overcome. Development demands bold transformations, innovations that go deep. Urgent reforms should be undertaken without delay.”

As Holy Week and Easter approach, we might meditate on those words, and on the closing words of the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. To the wealthy man’s request that Lazarus be sent back to earth to warn the rich man’s brothers lest they incur the same fate as he did, Abraham replies sternly: “If they will not listen to Moses or to the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

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