(James Tissot: Lazarus and the poor man)
"Lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus . . ."
The Word for Sunday: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/092516.cfm
We’ve all had the experience of coming to a red traffic signal, waiting patiently in a line of cars for the green light, while across from us stands a man with a sign pleading for money. The sign may say something like “Out of work” or “War Veteran, need help.” Whatever sort of plea is written there and whatever sad condition they may appear in, I think we all wrestle with the question, “Should I give him something? What will he do with the money anyway? Is he really in dire need or is this just a scam?” Or we can become somewhat critical and wish he would just go to some agency or temporary housing to find the assistance he needs. And then, we just drive away.
A while back I knew a priest who would never fail to pick up a hitchhiker along the road. We would warn him of the danger of that but his answer was always something like, “He’s just a guy needing some help.” I never did hear that he ever had a problem with anyone he gave a ride to but his stories were interesting.
Our Gospel this Sunday (Luke 16: 19-31) is a well-known story by Jesus about the stark contrast between rich and poor. If it sounds familiar you may imagine scenes from Charles Dicken’s famous tale “A Christmas Story” and the ghostly visit from Marley to the notoriously stingy Ebenezer Scrooge. Marley was sent from the dead to warn his former employer about the ultimate outcome of his selfish behavior; his complacency and indifference towards the visibly poor in his time will lead to his lost soul. So Marley was sent as a final warning to Scrooge to change his ways before it’s too late or he will end up like Marley himself, weighed down by the chains he forged in this life. In fact, Dicken’s admitted today’s parable was an inspiration for his story. But in the end, this last warning came as a sign of mercy. Who wouldn’t want a second chance to correct the wrong they have done?
So the overall theme of our readings this Sunday is both about warning and about mercy. Jesus addressed this story in particular to the elite of his time. To those who had every advantage to do good but used their position and privilege for their own advancement and flattered reputation he uses a story in which they may or may not have seen themselves. Were they so blind and self-righteous they missed the point entirely? Or, like Scrooge, did they use this story as an illustration where they had fallen short and begin to change before it was too late? The answer to that question is now to be answered by ourselves in regards to our behavior.
So our first reading from the prophet Amos (6: 1A, 4-7) takes a similar tone. “Woe to the complacent in Zion . . . stretched comfortably on their couches . . . they drink wine from bowls . . . they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!” This is quite a description of lavish surroundings with the intoxicated lying back on soft cushions, eating grapes and chocolate truffles. They are so caught up in their luxurious life style they are blind and unmoved by the suffering of the unfortunate around them. What they really do care about is trivial and meaningless. I hear the French Queen Marie Antoinette commenting, “Let them eat cake!”
This basically sickening image mirrors the story of Jesus told in Luke of the rich man “dressed in purple garments and fine linen who dined sumptuously each day.” And daily outside his door was a poor beggar, starving who would have been willing to nibble even on the scraps of food the man likely just threw away. You can imagine the man either arrogantly walked by or stepped over the poor Lazarus or entered another way in order to avoid even seeing him.
Then, “the poor man died” and “the rich man also died and was buried.” Death changed everything. The roles are reversed and the suffering Lazarus now sits in heavenly luxury by the “bosom of Abraham, “a sign of privileged position. While the rich man now begs for relief in a place of “torment, “separated by a vast chasm between himself, Abraham, and the now comforted Lazarus.
It certainly answers the question as to whether the nameless rich man (who is us) ever noticed Lazarus outside his door. Are we being too hard on him? Well, the story indicates he very much knew Lazarus since he calls him by name as he now sees him after death. All the while, he knew of Lazarus’ suffering but remained complacent to his fate. He could have easily helped him but refused to do so. His own comfort and reputation were far more important than to be bothered or inconvenienced by the wretched poor. Like Scrooge he may have even wished the poor would “Die and reduce the surplus population!”
Now, we may somewhat be in shock over the stark lesson portrayed here which may exactly be Jesus’ intention. Maybe we gasp trying to imagine such blatant complacency towards human suffering. We might see the Pharisees either with disgust or embarrassment on their face or squirming in their position. Sometimes, the truth makes us uncomfortable yet that becomes the agent of change.
While there are many among us, myself included, who have given some cash to those begging along the freeway ramps or city intersections, I think Jesus lesson is more significant. Both the rich man and Lazarus are symbols of deeper social inequality and indifference. The solution to poverty and human suffering in the world is truly complex. Yet, our overall attitude is perhaps where we begin.
In fact we may even wonder if my small part really makes a significant difference. Can we change the world and eliminate poverty and hunger? - Probably not. But we can certainly live a more compassionate and generous life.
The rich man wanted to send Lazarus as a warning to his brothers who were apparently living the life of leisure as well. Abraham’s comment that both Moses and the prophets have warned the ancients of their indifference to the suffering poor and that even someone from the dead (the risen Christ) would not change their hearts is disturbing. We too have been given the call to mercy from Jesus. We’ve been reminded about the abundant love that moved the Father to send his Son to us. We well know that we have many opportunities to assist and do our part in sharing a portion of our comfort with the uncomfortable.
So in these readings, as they always do when Jesus speaks of great inequality and injustice between humanity, we are invited to see things as God does. God sees potential for change. He knows that he has created us to not be divided but to see each other as having equal value in his eyes. There is a special place for the poor and helpless in the heart of God and so there must be among ourselves as well. Pope Francis reminds us that no one escapes the responsibility to make a place for the poor at our tables.
Compassion, mercy, selflessness, humility, generosity, and charity that promote human dignity are not some kind of new age social justice virtues. They are deeply rooted values we see enfleshed in the earthly life of Jesus and they become our way to ultimate salvation.
“My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime . . .” Who is my Lazarus?
O God, who manifest your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy,
bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain your promises
heirs to the treasures of heaven.
(Collect of Sunday)