Everybody loves a good story. Jesus, obviously, knew that for one of his favorite ways of teaching was using parables. In Luke's Gospel alone, there are twenty-four parables. The word parable comes from two Greek words that mean 'to throw alongside.' It's a way of comparing two things. This is like this. Jesus used parables to teach important truths. The power of a parable is that it draws us in and then makes us see something as applicable to us that we didn't at first see as applicable to us. We hear the story of the Prodigal Son and only well into the story do we realize that we are not only the younger son, but often we are elder son. We hear a parable; we enjoy the story and then there is a 'eureka' moment in which we realize that the story applies to us. Jesus' hope is that that 'eureka' moment will lead to change, to conversion.
We think of some of Jesus' parables: The Parable of the Good Samaritan; The Parable of the Prodigal Son; The Parable of the Sower and the Seed; the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Most of us probably remember and could even retell these stories.
Today's Gospel presents us with another one of Jesus' famous parables. It is the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Forty years ago, this Wednesday, October 2, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium. By now, thanks to Pope John Paul II, we have become accustomed to papal trips. But in 1979, just one year after this young, charismatic Polish Pope was elected, it was still a novelty.
200,000 people applied for one of the 57,000 seats in that stadium. Millions of people tuned into the celebration of that Mass. What would the Pope say? What would his message be to us? And at that Mass John Paul II chose today's parable, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, for the Gospel.
Let's unpack the parable. There are two main characters: the rich man who traditionally has been called 'Dives' from the Latin word for rich. A picture is painted of the lavish luxury in which he lived. He dressed in purple. Purple dyes at the time of Jesus were costly and only the wealthy wore purple. Dives dined on fine food, not just occasionally, but every day. Servants cared for his every need and his every whim. At the time of Jesus, as in many places of the world today,
food was eaten with the hands. In the place of napkins, pieces of bread were used to wipe the hands after each course of the meal. These pieces of bread would then be thrown on the ground. This was the bread for which Lazarus, the poor man, was waiting. But he had to fight the dogs to get that bread. The name Lazarus means 'God is my help.' Lazarus' situation is the exact opposite of Dives. He lives in abject poverty, covered with sores.
But then, suddenly, a reversal takes place. Both men die and Lazarus finds himself in glory sitting in the bosom of Abraham and Dives finds himself in a place of great torment. Just as a gulf separated them in this life, an even wider gulf separates them in eternal life.
What was it that the rich man did that landed him in a place of torment? What was it that caused that gulf between him and God that we call hell? What was his sin? As far as we know Dives wasn't responsible for Lazarus' poverty. He didn't taunt him or call him names. He didn't chase Lazarus away from his gate or scold him for eating the scraps that fell from his table. He didn't do anything to Lazarus.
In his homily in Yankee Stadium Pope John Paul II told us the rich man was condemned not because of his wealth, but because he failed to notice Lazarus at his gate. He didn't even see Lazarus.
And that's the point. He didn't do anything.
In another parable that we find in Matthew's Gospel, the Parable of the Last Judgement, Jesus tells us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to Him. And, conversely, whatever we/ ail to do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we fail to do to Jesus. People in that parable, themselves in that place of torment in which Dives finds himself in today's parable, ask the haunting question, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked, or a stranger or in prison and not minister to your needs?" And Jesus tells us whatever we fail to do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we fail to do to him.
The late Eli Weisel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, once said that the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference. This was the sin of the rich man in today's parable. He was indifferent, apathetic, to Lazarus. And he paid a terrible price for that indifference.
Parables are meant to help us see familiar things in new ways. Often time when we think of our sins, we think of our sins of commission. Sometimes people will say something like, "I'm not doing too badly. I haven't killed anyone." The bar that Jesus sets for all of us is much higher. The holiness to which we are called far exceeds simply avoiding evil as best we can. As disciples of Jesus we are called to do good - not just on occasion, but as a way of life. Our sins of omission are more numerous than our sins of commission.
The rich man in the parable failed to do the good he could have done for Lazarus and that failure landed him in a place of torment.
Who are the Lazarus' of our day? Who are the people sitting at our gate whom we don't even see? Lf we think about it, their number is legion. The elderly neighbor two doors down who can no longer get out of her house because there's no wheelchair ramp. The refugee who is forced to begin a new life in a strange and, perhaps, hostile land. The high school student who is left to sit alone at a table in a cafeteria filled with loud and boisterous teens. The parishioner who would love to participate in parish events but has no one with whom to come. The child longing to take her first breath of good air outside her mother's womb. These are some of the Lazarus' of our day and they stand at our gates.
The 'eureka' moment in the parable is that the story is not just about Dives. The story is about us!
"Am I my brother's keeper?" The question that Cain once asked and that echoes through time receives a resounding answer in today's parable. And the answer is 'yes.' We are our brother's keepers. Dives came to understand this far too late. He asked Father Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his brothers.
Father Abraham replied that they had Moses and the prophets and that even if someone would return from the dead, they would not listen. We have been told and we have been told by the One who has returned from the dead. John Paul II told us forty years ago that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus must always be present in our memory; it must form our conscience.
As we begin a new week of life, may we seek not only to avoid evil, but to do good
- much good. The Lazarus sitting at our gate is waiting.