The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
— The Gospel of Saint Matthew, 25:34-36, 40
IT’S common among modern-thinking and highly educated people these days to argue that traditional Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity wouldn’t solve global problems, and neither would the Lenten penances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Instead, our age points to social, political and economic reform to address problems like mass poverty, wealth inequality, environmental degradation, crime and conflict.
Then one comes upon tales of human suffering and injustice which make long-term systemic solutions to the world’s ills simply too late and long-winded to matter. In these all-too-common tragedies, the Christian ethic of compassion and charity is the only response that can somehow help the needy.
Yesterday’s Gospel reading on Lazarus and the rich man is a plea, not to recast social structures, but rather for plain mercy and succor toward a suffering fellow human being. But the chasm of uncaring between the wealthy and the destitute keeps the bounty on one side from alleviating the deprivation on the other.
This lack of caring isn’t just between differing income levels. Early this week, a relative was brought to four hospitals in search of treatment. On Sunday night, the 45-year-old worker fell into a stupor, unable to speak or even look around, and began vomiting. From the symptoms, it seemed to be a brain stroke.
His wife and her brother brought him to Ospital ng Maynila Medical Center, about five minutes by cab from their home near the Manila Zoo. There a doctor mistakenly thought the unresponsive man had a mental ailiment and sent him to the Philippine General Hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
A PGH physician could not get the patient to speak up either, until his finger was poked with an object, causing pain. After finally speaking with him, the doctor sent him to Jose R. Reyes Memorial Medical Center, about an hour away in downtown Manila. But no treatment was given there either, and the wife was told to take her husband to the well-regarded Santa Ana Hospital, two hours away in heavy traffic.
At the fourth facility, the man was finally given medication to calm him down. But his blood pressure steadily dropped, and he expired past midnight on Tuesday, after some 26 hours of seeking help in four government hospitals, which presumably exist mainly for those who cannot afford private medical institutions.
The death certificate cited cardiac arrest and pulmonary congestion as the cause of his demise. Lack of prompt medical care should also be listed among the fatal factors. One has to wonder if the ill-fated man would have survived if he got immediate care at the first or second hospital, instead of being sent to a third and a fourth.
To be sure, this sad episode demonstrates a grave need to review and improve procedures and staff skills in handling emergency cases at Manila’s hospitals. And the rest of the country, too: if this happens in the capital, imagine how things are elsewhere in the country.
Yet just like the Lazarus parable, the four-hospital trek and tragedy recounted above shows that simple Filipino malasakit or compassion, more than sweeping hospital reform, is the life-saving ingredient sorely needed in our land and our world.
Of course, there is also a great lack of so many resources and capabilities in society, from ill-equipped medical facilities and poorly maintained public transport, to shoddy consumer products and services, and inadequate education systems. These systemic and institutional failings demand more than just individual virtue to correct.
But then, that has always been the state of our fallen world we live in: things go wrong, people make mistakes, conflicts erupt, calamities happen, and other “strings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as the Bard put it.
After billions of years of cosmological and evolutionary development, plus several millennia of civilization and technological advancement, we still have enormities like famines, epidemics, wanton violence, unconscionable exploitation, syndicated crime, war and terrorism, and other ills of the human condition.
The poor are always with us, as the Lord predicted, no matter how humankind has advanced. And in the face of what seems to be interminable imperfection in the world, human compassion and charity toward the least of our brethren has to be the very least to be done and the first resort in uplifting the suffering.
Learned experts and social reformers and revolutionaries, enamored of their grand visions of future utopia, may scoff at acts of Christian charity as band-aid solutions. But for countless souls through the ages — both those suffering and those giving succor — feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, instructing the ignorant, burying the dead, and other works of mercy offer the only salve and salvation in our cruel world.
Help the poor and the needy. You can’t go wrong doing the work of God. Amen.