Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Who’s the wealthiest person in the world—financially? Who’s the founder of Microsoft? What name do we associate with the creation of Apple? Who’s the owner of Amazon? Many of us know those names, even when most of us have never met or spoken with any of them.
Now… what is the name of any of the homeless persons you may have seen or maybe even have spoken with on the island?
It’s easy to be familiar with the names of the wealthy and influential, even from an anonymous distance; whereas the names of the most marginalized persons who are right in front of us can be quickly forgotten to you and to me. But in our gospel passage today, our Lord turns all of this around.
In the parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees, it’s the rich man who is nameless, whereas the poor man is known by name: Lazarus. Some theologians have speculated that this Lazarus must have been someone real and known by the early Christian community, maybe even the very same Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, whom one could meet and speak with to listen to his personal witness of Jesus Christ.
Regardless of whether or not he was a real person, he is given the dignity of a name, which elevates his status above that of the unnamed rich man in the parable, whose wealth is not sufficient to bridge that disparity. Wealth does not give that dignity in the eyes of God. Wealth is a responsibility and was instrumental to the rich man’s downfall.
The great sin we hear about from him is a sin of omission. It wasn’t what he did that was a punishable offense; it was what he didn’t do. The rich man didn’t do anything to help the one who died on his doorstep. He was in a position of influence and could have cared for Lazarus—even to some small degree—and it would have cost him nothing. Lazarus could have been filled from the scraps that fell from his table. But in the end, the rich man neglected his neighbor.
Lazarus was known by name to the rich man. He refers to him by name when he pleads to Abraham. Lazarus was no stranger. They were neighbors; one died in poverty; and the other lived with wealth. Yet, the rich man chose to isolate himself from the suffering of Lazarus. He washed his hands of any responsibility towards him.
Jesus condemns that mindset of isolation in one’s prosperity. You may remember the parable to the servant who was forgiven a very great debt to his master, and yet refused to forgive smaller debts owed to him by his fellow servants. And the master said, “You wicked servant. I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servants, as I had mercy on you?” Jesus condemns that mindset of isolating one’s relationship with God with our relationship to neighbor.
In another place, Jesus told the parable of a certain rich man who experienced a bountiful harvest, who had said to himself, “I will tear down my barns and build larger ones to store all my grain, and I’ll say to myself, ‘you have enough for years to come; now, eat, drink, and be merry!’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ Again, Jesus condemned that mindset of negligence towards one’s neighbor; a mindset of isolation in one’s prosperity.
At another place, Jesus told a parable about a wicked servant who thought to himself, “my master is delayed in coming,” and he began to beat his fellow servants; he ate, drank, and got drunk. Jesus said, “the master of that servant will come at an unknown day at an unknown hour. “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
A recurring theme from Jesus. Today, we hear yet another expression of God’s displeasure at neglect of one’s neighbor. It won’t be the last. Jesus will even identify himself with the most marginalized. The condemned will say to Jesus, “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or imprisoned and not minister to you?” And Jesus will respond, “Amen, I tell you; whatever you didn’t do for the least of my brethren, you did not do it for me”.
Earlier, I mentioned certain rich persons in the world. Yes, they have a responsibility. So do we. As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, all of us are very rich by historical standards. We live in a time of great prosperity. The ancient monarchs, pharaohs, emperors, and kings, with all of their wealth, did not enjoy many of the luxuries that are so commonplace today.
Think of modern medicine; it’s not common in the United States for people to die from tuberculosis or leprosy these days. Think of infant mortality, always a tragedy, but much more commonplace in the past. Think of modern travel; we often get visitors to the Church due to our proximity to the airport. Most travelers come not to immigrate, but for a vacation. Think of modern communication methods and the easy access we have to information. Think of refrigeration, high-yield crops, potable water from our sinks, sewage disposal, air conditioning, safety from our enemies, entertainment on demand—none of us are royalty, and yet we can listen to Beethoven or Mozart whenever we want—the list goes on.
We are extraordinarily wealthy when we compare our situation not with each other, but rather with every human being that has ever existed. We’re at the pinnacle of human privilege and are among the one percent of the most fortunate human beings to have ever lived, materially speaking.
As rich men and women, are you and I guilty of the sin of the rich man’s sin of omission? My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. That was the tragic eternal reality confronting the rich man after death.
Let it not be ours. While we still draw breath, there is still time while we live to repent and live the gospel of Jesus Christ through care of our neighbor. Today, we’re challenged to ask ourselves: what have I done to care for the poor ones in my midst? The question isn’t what should others do, or what should society do, or what should the Church do. The challenge is much more personal than that. How do I care for the poor right in front of me?
May God give us through his grace discernment of what I can do, and give you and me the strength and courage to do it.
The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)