By: Rev. Peter Stamm, Director of Sacred Liturgy
One of my mentors when I studying to become a priest told the story of how he wanted to better understand the perspective of the very poor and what it was really like to be in their position. He himself was studying in Rome at the time, so one day he didn’t shave, he changed out of his clerical attire, put on some old clothes, and went down to Termini Station, the central train hub in Rome, and spent the whole day sitting amongst the beggars and homeless. What struck him wasn’t so much what people did but what they didn’t do as they walked by him - they didn’t make eye contact; they didn’t speak to him. Some moved a few steps away as they got near him, but most just didn’t notice at all. He may as well have not existed at all for them.
Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus can teach us a lot both by what it contains and what it omits as irrelevant to the meaning of the story. Here are some of the things we don’t know about Lazarus - How did he get into his situation? Did some misfortune befall him, or was it through his own fault, like the prodigal son we heard about a couple weeks ago, who ended up starving in a pigsty because he wasted all his father’s money? Had Lazarus lived a good life up until then, or did he have a slew of bad habits? Was Lazarus meek and gentle, or was he obnoxious and loud? Jesus doesn’t say. All that matters is that he was there, in a state of dire need.
Here are some things we don’t know about the Rich Man - How did he become rich? Did he work hard all his life, build up a successful business, and was he enjoying the fruits of his own labor? Or was he the first century version of a trust fund baby who never had to worry about money? Was he a “basically good person” who was polite to others, minded his own business, and just wanted to be left alone? Or was he corrupt, rude, self-entitled? Did he go to the synagogue on Saturdays, or did he stay at home? Jesus doesn’t say anything about this. All that matters is that he was there, and he didn’t care. He even knew Lazarus’ name, but Lazarus wasn’t his problem to address.
I’ve always found today’s parable to be one of the most sobering and frightening teachings of Jesus. The Rich Man loses his salvation not because of anything he did but because of what he omitted doing. Because of his indifference and unwillingness to take action. It’s not like he stole Lazarus’ money and made him poor. Or that he gave him a kick as he walked through the gate each day. He just ignored him and did nothing. It was one of those sins of omission, which we mention in the Penitential Rite at each Mass - “I have greatly sinned…in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.”
It’s frightening, at least to me, because I think we’re all formed, at least subconsciously, by the culture we’re raised in, and this teaching of Jesus really runs contrary to one of the big presuppositions of contemporary American culture - namely, that we’re really only responsible for ourselves. As long as we’re not actively harming others, that’s all that matters. This presupposition can take on either a conservative or a liberal variation - If people are in need or poor, maybe they just need to work harder and take responsibility, thinks the conservative. Or maybe it’s up to the government to take care of them, says the liberal. And I know that’s a simplification. But either way, the core thought is that it’s not my problem. But Jesus is saying very clearly that it is our problem. Why?
This challenging element of Jesus’ teaching can be encapsulated in one word - solidarity. The Catechism explains what this means - “Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that ‘everyone should look upon his or her neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind their life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.’ No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every person ‘a neighbor,’ a brother or sister. The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. ‘As you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me…’
“The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of ‘friendship’ or ‘social charity’ is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood. An error, ‘today abundantly widespread, is disregard for the law of human solidarity and charity, dictated and imposed both by our common origin and by the equality in nature of all persons, whatever nation they belong to. This law is sealed by the sacrifice of redemption offered by Jesus Christ on the altar of the cross to his heavenly Father, on behalf of sinful humanity.”
And that is where we need a lot of God’s grace - to transform the way we see each other. Or to begin to help us to even notice each other at all. To appreciate the beautiful wonder which is every human person, every one of us unique and unrepeatable, every one of us needing others in some ways, and in other ways in a position to give to others who need us.
Our weekly participation in the Eucharist - the holy Sacrifice of the Mass - is so key to acquiring the spiritual vision to see clearly the image of God in our brothers and sisters and to have the loving heart which doesn’t hold back from helping them, even though it will almost inevitably be inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so.
I think St. Mother Teresa put it best. When asked how she was able to serve the poorest of the poor, she said that it was intrinsically linked to the Eucharist. She said, “If I wasn’t able to discover Jesus hidden under the disguise of bread, I wouldn’t be able to find Him in the distressing disguise of the poor.” Let’s pray for this grace - that if we’re able to say “Amen”, “I believe,” to Jesus hidden in the Blessed Sacrament today, may He also give us the grace to see him this week in the person who is waiting for our help. A person whose name we may already know. A person we may have passed by in silence so many times before. A person who is made in the image and likeness of God. A brother, a sister, a neighbor. Another self.
Forming Disciples. Proclaiming Jesus Christ.
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