This week’s Gospel relates the well- known parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It begins by giving us a glimpse of “the gilded age” in Jesus’ time. “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.” The palatial homes of the wealthy were built in a way that would flaunt their riches. Wealthy city- dwellers had dining rooms that were often slightly elevated from the street level and opened-aired. In the hot climate this afforded cool evening breezes to blow through. It also allowed the “common peo ple” to get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Lazarus, a beggar who was covered with sores, found a place on the street below the dining room. He would watch the master of the house and his guests feast day after day, his mouth watering and his stomach growling all the while. His only companions were the street dogs who would approach him, and kindly lick his sores.
The scene quickly shifts. Both Lazarus and the rich man have died. We need to understand the concept of death that was prevalent at the time of Jesus to understand this scene. At his death, the rich man found himself in the netherworld. This isn’t what we would portray as hell, though the rich man speaks of being tormented in fire. The netherworld was the underground abode of the dead. Jesus often described this as the place where there was, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” It’s the place of tremendous regret. There, the rich man suffered with the memories of missed opportunities. Distracted by his wealth and daily feast- ing, he had no sympathy for the hungry and sick beggar peering into his dining room every day. And so, unlike Lazarus, he wasn’t “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” He was brought to the abode of the dead.
The heart of the parable consists of a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man looks up and, way in the distance, sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side. His self-absorption still in high gear, he calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus, like a servant, to relieve his suffering with a drop of water.
With touching compassion, Abraham addresses him as, “my child,” and explains to him that Laza- rus is being comforted for his long suffering, while he is tormented by the terrible emptiness of his life of selfishness and excess. Abraham goes on to tell him that by ignoring the suffering of others he had dug a huge chasm around himself, stranding him- self in a place of painful isolation.
The rich man suddenly thinks of his five brothers who are living the same selfish life-style. Again,
he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to alert them so that they can change their ways. But Abraham tells him that they have all they need. They have the wisdom of the Law and the prophets to direct them. The rich man immediately pro- tests telling Abraham that if Lazarus came from the dead to warn them they would repent and change their ways. Abraham responds to him with compassion and sadness. ”If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The rich man knew the wise teachings of the Law and the prophets. He didn’t take them seriously. He knew the teaching from Deuteronomy, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but never thought of reaching out to Lazarus who was suffering in the street right below his dining room. In fact, he was so self-absorbed that he didn’t even know Lazarus was there.
This parable, unlike Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t end with a joyful conversion. Jesus was portraying someone very wealthy. But wealth and extravagance wasn’t his sin, his self-absorption was. It smothered his life. He went to the abode of the dead because he was dead his entire life. He didn’t see the world around him. His narcissism created the “great chasm” that isolated him from the world, a world that was often suffer- ing.
In this parable Jesus is teaching us that, to be truly alive, we must permit ourselves to SEE and FEEL the world around us. This isn’t as easy as it may sound because, when we do so, we’ll often feel uncomfortable. When we see suffering around us it tears at our heart. Sometimes we want to DO something to help but don’t know what to do. We feel impotent. When we see homeless people on our doorstep, or the terrible violence and suffering in the Middle East, the people trapped in the starvation belts across the world, the destruction and death in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, and the families suffering in the internment camps across the country, the compassion we feel can turn into painful despair. But this shouldn’t prevent us from feeling, from mourning. We have to remember what Jesus taught us. “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.”
There’s always something we can DO, but it will often feel miniscule in comparison to the scope of the suffering we see. But we must continue to SEE it. We must continue to FEEL it. It will keep us alive – alive in spirit and truth. It will prevent the digging of the “great Chasm” around us. It will add the healing ingredient of compassion into our world. One heart at a time, it will change the world.