He wasn’t a bad man. In fact, he was well-respected in the community. He was known for his good business sense and his gifts to charities and the synagogue. He made a good profit, expanded his operation, and treated his workers well enough, paying them just enough to survive but not enough to flourish. When he had to downsize, laying off employees plunging them into poverty and homelessness, he didn’t feel guilty, “after all, it’s just business, nothing personal; there wouldn’t be jobs without profits and to maintain the business, someone has to sacrifice.”
But wealth can’t insulate you from mortality. The good businessman and the beggar, who had been laid off the previous year, died the same week. The businessman had an elaborate funeral with eulogies touting his generosity and was buried in a pretentious tomb, appropriate to his social standing; the beggar was anonymously buried in the potter’s field outside town.
To his surprise, the businessman wakes up in Hades, tormented by fire and thirst. More surprised, he discovers the beggar cradled in the bosom of Abraham. Still thinking he has power and status, he asks Abraham to “send” the beggar to serve him. Abraham replies that the gulf is too wide, and the rich man must endure in insolation the torment he is now experiencing.
These are hard words for us, especially if we have things. They fall into the category of Thomas Merton’s “conjectures of a guilty bystander.” I feel convicted by the distance between my wealth and others’ poverty, and my failure to respond to the cries of the poor. Perhaps you do too?
The passage really isn’t about heaven and hell, though there is an element of threat. It’s about noticing. It’s about seeing what’s all around you and then responding. The rich man was simply unaware of the pain of Lazarus. Each day he passed by, not noticing, perhaps, choosing not to notice, or judging the beggar as a nuisance, unworthy of his concern. He justified his apathy philosophically – “The poor are with you always, and if I help him, it will only add to the problem. The poor are lazy, and if we reach out to them, they’ll just quit working and be a burden on the community.”
One of my spiritual mentors Gerald May sees spirituality as a process of pausing, noticing, opening, embracing, and responding. In other words, spirituality involves seeing the world around us, examining our attitudes toward others, and responding to the world in the way that Jesus would.
It’s easy to pass by the poor and vulnerable. After all, they’re not like us. We have homes, they don’t. We’ve had jobs, they don’t. We worked for what we have, they’re lazy. Yet, it is possible that these judgments are false: in America today, many families are just a medical expense or automobile breakdown from homelessness; many on the Cape have jobs that pay less than they need for rent; many families have no relatives or savings to fall back on when the going gets tough; many are part of a cycle of poverty that goes back generations due to lack of education, health care, property ownership, and in some cases, gender and race.
Our job as Christians is to pause and notice, feel the pain of others, and then respond with grace and generosity. Jesus once said, “as you did unto the least of these, you did unto me.” In that same spirit, Mother Theresa spoke of dying beggars as “Christ in all his disguises.”
Today, we need to notice. We need to notice as we make sandwiches, notice as we read the news or see a person experiencing homelessness on the street or waving a placard about their need for work. We can’t solve every problem on our own, but we can reach out in appropriate ways – directly or through organizations we support – to ease the pain of God’s children, regardless of how they got into their predicament.
Christ is here, and we need to bridge the divide, to see those who struggle to get by as God’s children and our siblings, to see Christ in each one, and let the Christ in us join the Christ in them in God’s way of Shalom.