I live with our seminarians in our House of Formation, which is in a low-income neighborhood in Little Rock, on the grounds of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish. In recent years there has been, locally and nationally, a sharp increase in the number of people who are homeless, and now there are beggars on many corners in our part of the city.
It is hard to stop and give them money because they are on the curb on the passenger side of the car, and I would have to lower the passenger side window and have them reach way into the car to get whatever I gave them. Moreover, there’s lots of traffic, and the light is about to turn green, and I don’t want to block the cars behind me when it’s time to go. Some of the beggars have serious physical problems — amputees sitting in wheelchairs. Others look like they’re not quite right mentally—and do I want to have them reaching into my car?
Others seem young and look OK physically. Why don’t they get a job? There are jobs available; the unemployment rate is really low. And yet they carry signs indicating that they are homeless and hungry.
No matter how they got there, they are obviously very needy. They are Lazarus at our gate, and there’s a wall between them and us. The passenger side window of our car remains firmly shut. We think this barrier will keep us safe, as if we could catch their poverty or as if their pain and want would contaminate our safe little world. These are not the kind of people we want to associate with.
In our Gospel, Jesus tells us about Lazarus. He was homeless and hungry — living on the sidewalk outside the rich man’s door and willing to eat anything, even the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. He had a serious physical problem — was covered with sores that the dogs used to come and lick, and who knows what living in those conditions might have done to his mind.
Nowhere does Jesus say that Lazarus was a sympathetic character. All we know is that he was very needy, and there was a wall between him and the rich man. The wall of blindness. The rich man no longer even noticed the poor man on the sidewalk just outside his gate.
This rich man is not really a bad person, but just a self-centered complacent one. Notice it is not his wealth that kept him from going to Abraham’s side upon death, but rather his faithless stewardship of what he had. He could have done a great deal for the poor around him, yet he was uncaring and unresponsive to their plight. Lazarus was simply invisible to him. Why? Because this man lived in his own little, narrow, social cocoon. His house is in a gated community precisely to keep people like Lazarus outside the gate, and he socializes only with his wealthy friends with whom he dined sumptuously, wearing fancy clothes every day.
He only talks to his equals and thinks he deserves everything he has; after all, he worked hard for it. And Lazarus, he thinks to himself, somehow deserves his poverty. Maybe he made some bad choices in the past, or maybe he was just born into it. In any event, now it’s just his state in life.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus came to tear down the walls that divide us, the walls between rich and poor, between black and white, between man and woman, between young and old. Only when we replace our gates of division with Jesus, the gate of life, can we become a safe place, a home where all are welcome.
So, what is the lesson for us in today’s parable? I think Jesus is asking us two questions: 1) Are there any gates (walls or barriers) in your life that are keeping you away from the poor, the homeless, the needy and the forgotten? Or maybe even people who are just emotionally needy? And 2) Are there any Lazaruses who may be lying at the door of your home or on your route to work begging for help? If so, what can you do about it?
Notice that in our Gospel, the rich man ended up in that place of eternal torment not because he broke any of the 10 Commandments and not because he failed in his acts of religious piety, but rather simply because he turned a blind eye to someone he could easily have helped.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Sept. 25.
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