Getting Beyond the Dogma of Personal Reponsibility

James Tissot [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday my friend Robert Charlock submitted a letter to the Indianapolis Star regarding the need for a Homeless Bill of Rights in Indianapolis.  The self-righteous on-line comments of those who assume poverty is usually the result of personal choices quickly emerged: “How many brought this upon themselves? When having a place to live and a job is no longer a priority for oneself, why should we fix their problem?”, “So a select group of people need a special ‘bill of rights’?”, and such.  If you stand with those on the margins, you’re sure to encounter the finger pointing of those who espouse the dogma of personal responsibility.
As I read those comments, the story Jesus told of the Rich Man and Lazarus came to mind:

Jesus said, “There was a certain rich man who was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and who lived each day in luxury. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores.

“Finally, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and his soul went to the place of the dead. There, in torment, he saw Abraham in the far distance with Lazarus at his side.

“The rich man shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.’

“But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.’

“Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’

“The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God.’

“But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke 16:19-31

I wonder what the rich man’s response was when he walked by Lazerus.  Did he assume Lazarus was where he was in life because he brought this situation on himself?  Or that he no longer considered a place to live and a job a priority?  Given the context and the reference earlier in the chapter to the Pharisees’ love of money I wonder if the rich man in this story was the type of man society as a whole viewed as a righteous man.  Perhaps he faithfully performed his religious duties without flaw and would have been considered a prime candidate for paradise by others.  Could he have been one of those Jesus rebuked for being “careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law–justice, mercy, and faith”? (Matthew 23:23)  Apparently, God had a different view of the situation.

When we presume that our own prosperity is the result of our own work and other’s poverty is the result of their bad decisions or behaviors, we tend to assume others just need to get it together and do the right thing to get out of their situation.  It’s easy to assume others deserve the misfortune they experience while we are entitled to the good things we have earned.  Though we cannot totally minimize the role personal decisions may play in a situation, we are on shaky ground if we assume it is not our responsibility to watch out for and care for those experiencing poverty.  God calls on us to care for those who are suffering and stand up for those who are ignored and oppressed.  From the experience of the rich man in the story Jesus told, it appears He considers it a serious matter.  So should we.



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