Brian Gleeson ends his commentary today with the very personal question directed at himself, and us (his readers): do we really and truly live out the message Jesus gives us in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? Dr Gleeson is essentially exploring the question "what sort of Church are we? How do we respond to the poor in our midst today?"
What did Jesus do when he was on earth?
"What did Jesus do when he was on earth?" This is a question that is often asked. The usual answer is that he preached, that he taught, and that he healed. What is often overlooked is that, more than anything else, Jesus mixed with people. He listened to them, talked with them, and shared their lives. Often he ate and drank with them. Meals, in fact, were one of the main ways Jesus loved and served people. They still are, for Sunday by Sunday he continues to meet and feed us at our sacred meal of bread and wine.
We live in a time of 'fast foods', an age of 'take away'. Too often meals are reduced to a kind of 'bun on the run' taken in front of the TV, a kind of 'gobble and go'. We may therefore forget the truth that there is more to a meal in the best sense of the word, than mere feeding. Ideally, a meal is meant to be something sacred, a sharing not only of food but also of lives, a sharing that includes welcome, hospitality, and conversation. Ideally, a meal is a sacrament, i.e. a sign and source of God's love, a love shared among people who welcome and treat one another as brothers and sisters, and not simply as objects.
The Rich Man and Lazarus — a sharp criticism...
The story which Jesus told about an unnamed rich man feasting lavishly every day, and about a poor, hungry, broken-down beggar called Lazarus, who lay at the rich man's gate, is a sharp criticism. It's a sharp criticism of those attitudes and behaviour which not only destroy the meaning of a meal, but also deeply offend God. For our God is a God who intends that we should share with those in need all the good things that God has shared with us.
At the time of Jesus, Jewish people were taught that any land and any other possessions they had were not completely theirs, to do with as they pleased. They were expected to regard them as on loan from God, and to pay God rent for them, so to speak, by sharing their wealth with the poor and needy persons around them. Unless we realize this, we might be tempted to go easier on the rich man than did Jesus. We might be inclined to see him as just another victim of conspicuous consumption or as a kind of harmless playboy getting his kicks from a good table.
So we must engage in a bit of 'unpacking' the evil that Jesus saw in the rich man and the good that he saw in the poor one. Although he kids himself that his wealth is a sign that he is pleasing to God, his real god is pleasure. When it comes to food especially, he is one of those who 'shop 'til you drop'. He lives for one thing only — to dress up in the finest clothes and to dine daily on the best dishes, the choicest cocktails, and the finest wines, that money can buy. For money and pleasure are his god, his be-all and end-all.
The flip side of his selfishness and self-indulgence is his behaviour towards Lazarus. It's not that he is actively brutal and cruel to the poor man. It's not that he actually kicks the poor man away from his gate. The problem is with his complete indifference to and complete neglect of, Lazarus. So engrossed is the rich man in his own world of self-indulgence, that he does not even notice Lazarus, broken down at his gate. He does not notice that Lazarus is hungry for even a few scraps of the bread that his rich guests use to mop up their plates. In short, the rich man totally ignores the poor man outside.
Lazarus, on the other hand, accepts the bitterness and pain of his situation, without one word of complaint against God, and without one word of resentment and hate for the rich man. He does not let his sufferings drive him away from God, nor dim his hope that someday in some real way things are going to get better.
There is a wise saying: "As one lives, so one dies; and as one dies, so one stays". It's not that God sends anyone to hell. It's just that those who live loveless lives find themselves at the end without love, and without God the source of love. That's what hell is — a totally selfish and loveless existence.
So it is with the rich man. He who has lived quite independently and never needing to ask anyone for anything, now experiences such misery that he has to beg for help, if only a drop of water for his parched throat. And he has to beg it from Lazarus, the suffering beggar man whom he ignored. On the other hand, Lazarus is now enjoying the company of true and faithful believers. He is enjoying the happiness promised by Jesus to the poor and needy who never lose their trust in God: 'Happy are you poor; the kingdom of God is yours' (Lk 6:10)
Lessons for today...
Where does this powerful story leave you and me? For a start it's a story that goes to the heart of one of our deepest longings, the longing to belong. The inspired writer, Henri Nouwen, often spoke of the value of hospitality, which he defined as making enough space for the stranger in our midst to come into our lives and become our friend. So the story Jesus told raises the question: 'To whom do we belong?' Are the only people in our lives that matter to us, our friends, our family, and our other relatives? Or does our sense of hospitality take us further?
The story Jesus told raises a somewhat connected question: 'Who is my neighbour?' Are we honestly convinced of the truth that at any time my neighbour is the person who needs me now, the person at my door, the person who needs me right here, right now? Is my neighbour, in fact, the Lazarus I would rather not notice, the Lazarus I would even like to shoo out of my life, because I find her or him a waste of space, a pain, a nuisance, a burden? Does our neighbour include those desperate asylum seekers now knocking on the door of our rich nation for deliverance from the oppression, persecution, and death-threats in their own lands?
This powerful story of the Rich Man and Lazarus raises yet another question, this one to us as a group, as a 'church': What kind of church community are we? Do we especially welcome among us those who are in any way poor, wounded, crippled, blind or lame? Are we good news people to them? Do we give them meaning, hope, and a sense of belonging? At our shared table of the Lord, do we help them feel wanted, loved, cared for, supported, helped and healed? Or do we perhaps just come and go, and simply ignore who, what, and where they are?
Do you and I do this? Really and truly, do we?
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Brian Gleeson CP