The Gospel for September 25th, 2016: “The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus”
Reflection: The Simplicity of Unselfish Love of Neighbor
One of the lessons I have learned from writing a weekly reflection on the Sunday gospel readings is the rich depth of Jesus’s words in general, and in particular the parables he tells. Today’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus provides an excellent example. On the one hand we have this cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring our neighbors in need as the Rich Man does to Lazarus, a beggar at his door. The Rich Man’s unwillingness to heed God’s call to help others lands him in Hell after his death, forced to contemplate a reversal of fortune where God has raised the poor beggar to the comfort of Father Abraham’s side and yet remains irretrievably distant from helping him as he suffers an eternity in a “place of torment” (28). And yet, the characterization and dialogue include poignant literary elements that offer other points of departure for contemplation of Christ’s message such as the foreshadowing of the raising of the dead of Jesus’s friend Lazarus and His own Resurrection found in at the end of the passage. The Rich Man suggests that if God cannot send Lazarus to him to quench his thirst, He can send the once-beggar to his five brothers as a sign to repent. Abraham replies for God from Heaven with, “‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (31). Notice the subtle message in this exchange that it is prideful to set the terms of our devotion to God–to say, I need a sign in the physical world right now so that I may believe and repent. Abraham reminds the Rich Man, and us, that the message of who our savior is was there from the beginning, and that we have consistently ignored the signs that have been given to God’s people. Therefore, it will be faith, not proof, that will save us.
It is another of these small details I would like to focus in today’s reflection. The Rich Man’s first words from the netherworld to Abraham are these, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames” (24). While I don’t criticize the Rich Man for asking for pity and relief from his suffering, I am struck by the fact he condescends to the beggar Lazarus, asking that he be sent as a servant to bring him water. His words suggest that he still sees Lazarus as beneath him in this request, despite the opportunity to see him in his full stature as child of God. The Rich Man remains self-centered in his attitude toward others as he did in life when he ignored Lazarus’s needs at his door. Such a change in perception toward others, especially those who are poor or needy or different, is a necessary ingredient for a the change in heart required to love them as God does. We must see them as beautifully created by God. In that, they are like us and not to be feared or competed with. In that, we must see past any discomfort that comes with those meaningless surface features that repel us such as Lazarus’s sores. Because if we can see them as lovable, we will find God asks much less of us in loving them than what we fear in our selfishness. We notice that Lazarus was not going to ask the Rich Man to clean his sores or take him into his house to live with him. Instead he would have been happy to eat the scraps that fell from the Rich Man’s table and probably went to the dogs or the garbage pile. When we are confronted with another person in need, I wonder if it isn’t just that simple to see their beauty with our hearts, rather than their flaws with our eyes, and ask them, Can I help you? And then let God take care of the rest. I pray that we not complicate it any more than that, and instead act with the faith of Abraham and Moses and the prophets when God sends a Lazarus to our doors.