by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Lying at the rich man’s door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.” Luke 16: 19-31
Today’s gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus requires little by way of explanation and analysis. While its principal message is clear: that every follower of Jesus has a responsibility to care for our needy sisters and brothers, it leaves us in no doubt that this responsibility is not a take it or leave it option. Care for the poor and needy is a Gospel imperative, for some, an uncomfortable and challenging one, but one to be embraced as an essential expression of our humanity and Christian discipleship.
In exploring this parable of the rich man and Lazarus, I suggest it is worth noting what is said and what is not said. For instance, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was evil or that he became rich through exploitation or extortion. Nor is there any hint of his belittling or abusing Lazarus. Moreover, the parable does not have the simplicity of a morality play in which a good person is vindicated and receives the reward of justice, and a bad person gets the punishment he deserves. It is more like a Shakespearean tragedy, in which the character flaws of a rich man lead to action (or inaction) that has consequences.
The rich mas was so caught up in self that he just didn’t notice Lazarus. There is not even a hint that the rich man knew the slightest thing about mercy and compassion, thus resulting in his inability to empathise with Lazarus, even if Lazarus’ presence at his gate caught his attention. Moreover, when the rich man ends up in Hades, he doesn’t grasp the consequences of how he has lived. He asks for mercy rather than for forgiveness for what he has failed to do. He asks for water, but not for life. To give him some credit, however, we must acknowledge that he cares about his family. He seems to realise that they are as insensitive as he has been, so he asks that they be given a wake-up call from Lazarus, visiting them from the after-life.
The power, of course, of this parable, like the power of every good tragedy, is that it impacts on us, challenging us to look at ourselves and our ability and willingness (or our inability and unwillingness) to hear the promptings of God’s Spirit at work in our own lives.
The prophets of the First Testament, followed by John the Baptist and then by Jesus himself, called us all to a change of mind and heart, to conversion. The first step in the journey towards conversion of mind and heart is to notice. The genius of this parable is that we are pushed to look at a poor man who has a name. We are further compelled to look at Lazarus because of the graphic description of the state of his body, which is covered in sores that he cannot prevent the dogs from licking. He is not just an anonymous member of a mass we call the poor. The description given of him reminds me of a picture displayed by media across the world exactly seven years ago. It was of the lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach in the Turkish tourist resort of Bodrum. His name was Aylan Kurdi. With his five-year-old brother and parents and twenty other refugees he was heading for the Greek island of Kos which offered safety. Their boat sank and Aylan and his brother both drowned. These two youngsters were the sons of heart-broken parents. Lazarus and these two little boys force us to move from thinking of poor people as an issue to seeing them as persons. They are not just statistical casualties. The poor and destitute are our sisters and brothers who offer us a way to conversion of mind and heart.
It is all too easy for us to focus on the issues of homelessness, destitution and refugees without encountering real people whom we classify as belonging to those categories. Today’s parable invites us to actually see these people in and through the man who is identified as Lazarus. In his Gospel, Matthew reminds us that, when we see the Lazaruses and the Aylam Kurdis of our world, we see and encounter Jesus (See Matthew Ch. 25) To put it another way, through this parable Jesus is nudging us to face our own vulnerability and to take the risk of relating to, and engaging with, the people who beg on the corners of our city streets, the newly-arrived refugees from Afghanistan and Syria and the Sudan; and to share with them something of our possessions, our time, our skills, the benefits of our education and whatever else we have to offer.
We can take consolation from the fact that we are not caught in the kind of fixed situation to which the rich man was confined when he died. While we credit him for pleading with father Abraham to send Lazarus to bring his five brothers to their senses, we need to listen to father Abraham’s answer: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead.” That response is arguably the kernel of this parable as far as we are concerned. We are still alive in our world, able to hear the voice of God in Moses and the prophets and to encounter the risen Jesus, very much alive in the people we encounter every day, and in his message embodied in the pages of the Gospels. Both Amos in today’s first reading and Jesus in the gospel-reading are inviting us to reach out in love to others by sharing our possessions and our gifts and skills. They are inviting us to do the right thing with all we are and have simply because it is the right thing to do.