by Brother Julian McDonald cfc
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered in sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Luke 16, 19-31
The American writer, Kurt Vonnegut once described himself as an atheist with a fondness for the Gospel beatitudes. In introducing himself to the gathering at a commencement ceremony (graduation) at Rice University in Houston, Texas, he had this to say: “Have we met before? No. But I have thought a lot about people like you. You men here are Adam. You women are Eve. Who hasn’t thought a lot about Adam and Eve? This is Eden, and you’re about to be kicked out. Why? You ate the knowledge apple. It’s in your tummies now. And who am I? I used to be Adam. But now I am Methuselah. And who is the serpent among us? Anyone who would strike a child.
So what does this Methuselah have to say to you, since he has lived so long? I’ll pass on to you what another Methuselah said to me. He’s Joe Heller, author, as you know, of Catch 22. We were at a party thrown by a multi-billionaire out on Long Island, and I said ‘Joe, how does it make you feel to realize that only yesterday our host probably made more money than Catch 22, one of the most popular books of all time, has grossed world-wide over the past forty years?’ Joe said to me: ‘ I have something he can never have.’ I said: ‘What’s that, Joe?’ And he said: ‘The knowledge that I’ve got enough.’ His example may be of comfort to many of you Adams and Eves, who, in later years, will have to admit that something has gone terribly wrong – and that, despite the education you received here, you have somehow failed to become billionaires. This can happen to people who are interested in something other than money, other than the bottom line. We call such people saints – or I do. Well-dressed people ask me sometimes, with their teeth bared, as though they are about to bite me, if I believe in a redistribution of wealth. I can only reply that it doesn’t matter what I think, that wealth is already being distributed every hour, often in ways that are absolutely fantastic…Most graduates from Rice, or from Harvard, or Oxford, or the Sorbonne, or any place else you care to name have commonly been rewarded with modest but adequate amounts of money – and even less fame. In place of fame, they may have had to be content with someone’s seemingly heartfelt thanks for something well done from time to time…In time, this will prove to have been the destiny of most of the Adams and Eves in this class at Rice. Please love such a destiny, if it turns out to be yours – for communities are all that is substantial about what we create or defend or maintain in this world. All the rest is hoop-la…Neighbours are people who know you, can see you, can talk to you, to whom you may have been of some help or beneficial stimulation. They are not nearly as numerous as the fans, say, of Madonna or Michael Jordan. To earn their good opinions, you should apply the special skills you have learned at Rice, and meet the standards of decency and honor and fair play set by exemplary books and elders.” (Rice University Commencement Address, May 9, 1998)
You may wonder what Kurt Vonnegut’s address has to do with today’s gospel reading and the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man. Vonnegut makes the point that what matters most in life are human decency, relationships and building community (networks of relationships that connect people with one another and offer companionship and security).
The tragedy of the rich man in the parable was that he apparently had nothing more than wealth and a life of luxury. It seems that he saw Lazarus lying in need at his door, but just didn’t notice him. He lived in a self-enclosed cocoon, insensitive to his surroundings and to everyone around him. There is not even a hint of compassion in his personality. Moreover he is blind to the realities in the midst of which he is living.
Underneath Vonnegut’s words to the Rice graduating class is the message that qualifications, experience and opportunities are for the benefit of those among whom we live and with whom we are meant to engage. Gifts and blessings come with the responsibility of stewardship. In the Christian context, they are entrusted to us to develop and share, especially with those less fortunate than we are. A gift reaches its full potential only when it is shared. The realisation that we have enough is inseparable from the awareness that having enough means being open to share.
Today’s parable, incidentally, is the only one in the Gospels in which one of the characters has a name. Lazarus is indeed poor, unnoticed and probably deliberately ignored. For the rich man to reach out to him would mean that his own comfort would be disturbed. For him, Lazarus is merely a nuisance. But the name “Lazarus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Eliezer”, meaning “God is my help”. True, Lazarus is desperately poor, but by identifying him by name, Jesus is signalling that, despite his poverty, social alienation and physical wretchedness, he still puts his faith and trust in God. By contrast, the rich man puts his faith and trust only in himself, and distances himself from relationship with anybody.
Today’s gospel parable is a reminder to us all that, irrespective of the circumstances of our lives, we all have something from which others could benefit, even if it is only our time or a listening ear. The parable is also an invitation to be on the lookout for the Lazaruses on our doorsteps. Could it be that they are the millions of refugees confined to camps and detention centres or wandering the globe in search of welcome, acceptance and hospitality, gifts in the storehouses of those who know they have enough?
I leave readers of this reflection with a suggestion. Try searching the internet for a not-for-profit organisation that calls itself My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group. It can also be accessed through The Sleeping Bag Project. On this site there is a window with the name Our Story. It is an account of how a woman with a very sick teenager was helped by a homeless man. She tells how this chance meeting left her with an indelible memory, and how that one experience led her and her family to open their eyes and their hearts to an endless succession of Lazaruses. As today unfolds for you and me, we can be sure there will be at least one Lazarus longing for us to engage with him or her.