The Lazarus on Our Doorstep

Homily for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

Of all of Jesus’ parables, this is the only one in which one of the characters is named. Usually, the fact that they aren’t named is an invitation to the audience to take the place of one of the characters in the story. If the parable involves multiple characters, there are multiple options. In the parable of the prodigal son, we could take the place of the younger son, the older son, or even the father in the story. None of them are named, and so all of them are fair game.

In today’s gospel, we are given only one option: to take the place of the rich man. This is something we’d rather not do, of course. After all, the rich man is depicted as being greedy and glutinous and ultimately ends up in hell. On the other hand, it’s very hard for us to identify with the poor man. Most, if not all of us, have never been that destitute. And so, like it or not, we must take the place of the rich man.

But if we think about it, the glove fits, so to speak. By biblical standards, all of us are rich. In ancient times, to dine “sumptuously” was to have the means to eat meat at every meal. This is why in the first reading it describes the rich as “eat[ing] lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall.” For the average person, meat was something you only had on the rarest of occasions, for special feasts and celebrations. Hence, when the prodigal son returns, the fattened calf if slaughtered. For the average person, bread, not meat, was something you had every day, with fifty or seventy-five percent of your caloric intake coming from it.

But the similarity to the rich man in the gospel goes much deeper than our diet. By challenging us to take the place of the rich man, there are two questions that Jesus is inviting us to consider.

First of all: Are we, like the rich man, more focused on acquiring exterior, rather than interior, goods? Because our standard of living is so much greater than it was in biblical times, we are even at greater risk today of having a misplaced focus on exterior goods. Exterior goods are things like food, clothing, money, and possessions. These are the things which we temporarily leave behind when we leave our house, and the things which we permanently leave behind when we leave this earth. Interior goods are the virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity. These are the things which we always take with us wherever we go, and the things that can only be lost by our failure to practice them.

The more focused we are on acquiring interior goods, the less attached we are to exterior goods. The more we value our growth in virtue, less anxious we are to acquire possessions, and more willing to let them go. Had the rich man been more focused on acquiring the virtues of temperance and charity, he would have been more willing to share his possessions—food, drink, clothing, and shelter—with Lazarus.

And the same is true for us as well. I think many of us today, myself included, often want to see the poor helped without having to compromise our lavish lifestyles. We want to see the poor fed, clothed, and sheltered, without giving anything up and without the hard work of growing in virtue. That’s why we like to think of other people, the famous millionaires and billionaires, as being rich, and not ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t call us to a compromised life, or “complacent” life, to use the word from our first reading. Jesus calls us to place interior goods before exterior ones, to value virtues more than possessions. Both can’t be first. As Jesus said in our gospel last week, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

The second question which Jesus invites us to consider is this: Do we, like the rich man, see our neighbor primarily as an object or as a subject? For the rich man, Lazarus was an object—a thing, and not a person. The rich man clearly knew Lazarus’ name, but beyond that, he afforded him no dignity. He didn’t even give him a proper burial when he died but left him to rot or be eaten by the dogs.

The temptation is to think that we are above this sort of thing; that we treat our neighbor with greater dignity than the rich man did. After all, there aren’t any poor people literally lying on our doorsteps. But actually, we are at greater risk of treating our neighbor as an object today. The sick and dying are not lying on our doorsteps today; instead, they are lying in hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. And while they are certainly receiving better care than Lazarus was, it’s easier to forget about them. The rich man can certainly be accused of objectifying Lazarus, but are we really any better today? The rich man didn’t want to deal firsthand with sickness and death, but neither do we. The rich man closed his eyes to the poor; we keep our eyes open, but we keep the poor out of sight.

I know a priest who used to print off his emails from his staff every day and go and answer them in person. And if he couldn’t talk to them in person, he’d at least give them a call. This might seem silly, or wasteful of time and resources. But our modern methods of communication, although they are efficient, tend to lead us to objectify those we are communicating with. After all, it’s much easier to ignore an email or text, or send a nasty message in reply, than to ignore or be nasty with someone we are talking to in person. It’s much easier to objectify someone lying on our digital doorstep than someone lying on our physical doorstep.

If we are to avoid being the rich man in our gospel today, it’s important that we wrestle with these two questions. Are we more focused on acquiring exterior, rather than interior, goods? And do we see our neighbor primarily as an object or as a subject? To make this more concrete, these are my challenges for us this week: First, to identify one possession that we already have, or that we are seeking to acquire, that’s compromising our ability to grow in virtue. It’s time to stop pursing that possession or to give it away. Second, to identify one person, whose name we know, whom we have been objectifying. This could be a person whose text or call we have ignored. It could be a sick or dying person we haven’t visited. It could even be our spouse or our children whom we haven’t devoted time to because we’ve been too caught up in work or entertainment. Instead of texting someone, give them a call. Instead of calling them, go visit them in person. Instead of living parallel lives in the same house, have a meal or play a game together. Do something to treat someone more like a subject than an object.

Jesus invites us to take the place of the rich man in our gospel today because, more likely than not, we are that rich man. May we take this to heart and seek to take better care of the Lazarus’s in our midst. Amen.