Do the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell?


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

The gospel reading today (Luke 16:19-31) tells of a rich man who feasts sumptuously every day while ignoring a hungry beggar lying at his gate. When both die, the rich man finds himself in hell while the poor man goes to heaven.

The story tempts us to conclude that being poor entitles a person to eternal bliss, and being rich consigns him to eternal punishment. This is perhaps why many of us romanticize poverty. We regard social workers and advocacy groups who minister to the poor as models of Christian charity. Local film directors and producers win awards in international competitions when they portray the pitiable condition of marginalized Filipinos.

Many humanitarian aid groups also suck in donations from affluent countries by depicting the poor in their documentaries. They prod their hapless subjects to weep, clench their teeth and denounce the injustice they suffer before the ever-moving cameras. Of course, these are all done to elicit the pity and guilt of the viewers who, instinctively, reach out for their wallets, check-books, or credit cards to prepare their donations.

Such portrayal of the poor makes helping them very simple: give them money and food, and you appease their hunger and misery. The added benefit is,you also appease your conscience.

This is simplistic because it makes us forget that the flip side of hunger is the insatiable greed of those who hoard wealth that exceeds their needs. Their attitude towards the poor is similar to that of the rich man in today's gospel reading.

The rich man goes to hell, not because he is rich, but because he allows his wealth to blind him to the plight of his hungry neighbor. He represents all those who say: "Why help the poor? They are entirely responsible for the awful situation they find themselves in. If they only make better choices, work harder, get a college diploma, and avoid getting married or having children before they can afford these, then they will no longer be poor." They forget that poverty does not depend only on human decisions, but on socio-economic and political structures that deprive the poor of choices and opportunities to rise above their economic situation.

Many rich people refuse to see the poor in their midst. "Out of sight, out of mind." The gospel reading today aims at making the poor visible. Yet visibility does not always translate to recognition. Jesus wants us to recognize the poor as people who need our help, but he also wants us to remember that they are human beings like us. They have faults and weaknesses that are NOT merely brought about by poverty. Like all human beings, they are also vulnerable to temptation and prone to self-centered behavior.
By recognizing this fact, we realize that contrary to many self-styled social analysts, the problem of poverty is rooted, not only in the evils of capitalism, imperialism, and globalization, but in human sinfulness to which the poor are not immune.

In the gospel reading today, Jesus tells us that the poor are blessed, not because poverty gives them an automatic passport to heaven, but because historically, He chose their situation as a privileged place to manifest God’s saving grace.

Jesus chose to live and die as a poor man to avoid the most insidious effect of being rich: we become too self-sufficient that we put God outside our orbit of interest. Wealth has the power to displace God from our heart. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:21).