THE SPIRITUAL ALZHEIMER
The parable that challenged Dr. Albert Schweitzer is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. This story Jesus told made a man with three doctoral degrees (one in medicine, one in theology, one in philosophy), leave civilization with all its culture and amenities and depart for the jungles of darkest Africa to serve as a missionary doctor for 47 years. It was this parable which induced a man, who was recognized as one of the best soloists and concert organists in all Europe, to go to a place where there were no organs to play! It was this powerful parable which so intensely motivated a man that he gave up a teaching position as university professor in Vienna, Austria to go to help people who were so deprived that they were still living in the superstitions of the dark ages, for all practical purposes. At the age of 38, he became a full-fledged medical doctor with specialization in tropical medicine. At the age of 43, he left for Africa where he opened a hospital on the edge of the jungle in what was then called Equatorial Africa. He died there in 1965 at the age of 90. The man, of course, was Dr. Albert Schweitzer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. The single parable that so radically altered his life, according to him, was our text for this morning, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar. That parable convinced Schweitzer that the rich, Europe, should share its riches with the poor, Africa, and that he should start the process.
Today’s first reading (Amos 6:1a, 4-7), is taken from the third woe (6:1-14), concerning self-indulgence, an excellent companion text for today’s Gospel. The prophet Amos laments the self-indulgence and fraternal indifference of the wealthy both in Zion and Samaria His words will always be a reminder to us of the call from God for social justice and social inclusion, for, “God takes the side of the poor and needy.”
In today’s second reading St. Paul tells us that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the Faith and pierced themselves with many pains,” The message for us is that the generous sharing of our talents and resources is the necessary response of our Christian commitment. The parable is presented as a one act play with two scenes. The opening scene presents the luxurious life of the rich man in costly dress, enjoying five course meals every day, in contrast to the miserable life of the poor and sick beggar living in the street by the rich man’s front door, competing with stray dogs for the crumbs discarded from the rich man’s dining table. The name ‘Lazarus’ means ‘God is my help.’ Despite a life of misfortune and suffering, Lazarus does not lose hope in God. As the curtain goes up for the second scene, the situation is reversed. The beggar Lazarus is enjoying Heavenly bliss as a reward for his fidelity to God in his poverty and suffering, while the rich man is thrown down into the excruciating suffering of Hell as punishment for not doing his duty of showing mercy to the poor by sharing with the beggar at his door the mercies and blessings God has given him
Why punishment for the innocent? Naturally, we are tempted to ask the question, why was the rich man punished? He continued to commit the sin of omission although he did not drive either the poor beggar or the stray dogs from in front of his door nor did he prevent either from sharing the discarded crumbs and leftovers from his table. He did not kick Lazarus. He was not cruel to him. The sin of the rich man was that he never noticed Lazarus who represents a fact of life: the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate who are always around us. He did no wrong, but he did nothing. In the Catholic teaching, that is the sin of omission (not doing what one is supposed to do). The Fathers of the Church find three culpable omissions in the rich man in the parable. He neglected the poor beggar at his door by not helping him to treat his illness or giving him a small house to live in. He ignored the scrolls of Sacred Scriptures kept on his table reminding him of Yahweh’s commandment in the book of Leviticus He led a life of luxury and self-indulgence, totally ignoring the poor people around him, with Cain’s attitude: “Am I the guardian of my brother?” It is not wrong to be rich, but it is wrong not to share our blessings with our less fortunate brothers and sisters. He forgot the truth that money is an instrument that can buy everything but happiness can purchase a ticket to every place but Heaven. Although he was greatly blessed with much by way of comfort and enjoyed a life of luxury, his response to his blessedness was serious social blindness and insensitivity to both the needs of the poor and suffering around him and to genuine justice. One third of the total world population is homeless and without food; 500 million are malnourished; 14,000 die every day because they eat nothing. Why does this happen? Because of the sins of omission of those people who selfishly monopolize God’s blessings for themselves.
This parable reminds us that eventually all of us will experience God’s justice after our death (“particular judgment”), when we are asked to give an account of our lives. It points to the Law and the Prophets (the Sacred Scriptures), as ways to learn how to practice righteousness and sacrificial sharing. It looks ahead to our resurrection (“neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead”), and the reality that the people who heed nothing and die unrepentant will suffer for it. d) God permits injustices in this life, though not in the next. Perhaps the main lesson of this parable is that supreme self-love is total moral depravity and making self-gratification one’s supreme goal in life does not merely lead to sin – it is sin. We are all rich enough to share our blessings with others. God has blessed each one of us with wealth or health or special talents or social power or political influence or a combination of many blessings. The parable invites us to share what we have been given with others in various ways, instead of using everything exclusively for selfish gains. We need to remember that sharing is the criterion of the Last Judgment: Matthew (25:31ff), tells us that all six questions to be asked of each one of us by Jesus when He comes in glory as our judge are based on how we have shared our blessings from Him (food, drink, home, mercy and compassion), in our brothers and sisters, anyone in need.
We need to treat the unborn as our brother/sister Lazarus. The Lazarus of the 21 st century is also our preborn brother and our preborn sister. These babies are brutally executed in their mother’s wombs. Their cries for a chance to live are rejected 4400 times a day in our country. This Lazarus is the person torn apart and thrown away by abortion. The rich man was condemned for not treating Lazarus as his brother. We also will be condemned for our selfishness if we do not treat the preborn as our brother and sister. “Who am I to interfere with a woman’s choice to abort?” I am a brother, a sister of that child in the womb! I am a human being who has enough decency to stand up and say “NO!” when I see another human being about to be killed. I am a person gifted with enough wisdom to realize that injustice to one human being is injustice to every human being, and that my own life is only as safe as the life of the preborn child. Finally, I am a follower of the One who said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.” This is how Pope Benedict comments on this parable in his book Jesus of Nazareth (p215). The Lord wants to lead us from foolish cleverness toward true wisdom; he wants to teach us to discern the real good. And so we have good grounds, even though it is not there in the text, to say that…the rich glutton was already an empty-hearted man in this world, and that his carousing was only an attempt to smother this interior emptiness of his. The next life brings to light the truth already present in this life.
Our choices here determine the kind of eternity we will have. It has been put this way: “Where we go hereafter depends on what we ‘go after,’ here!” Where we will arrive depends on what road we travel. We get what we choose, what we live for. We are shaping our moral character to fit in one of two places. Lazarus continues to knock at our door and so the Church has many initiatives to help the poor. How many hospitals, schools, hospices, Odyssey shelters have been founded by the Church to heed the call of Christ to care for the poor. So in the latter part of the last century the Vatican founded the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace which is an arm of the Curia to reach out to the poor Lazarus of this world. In Canada we have Catholic Missions in Canada, Pro – Life. The annual Peter’s Pence Collection is entirely given by the Pope to help the poor of the world. We have many Catholic Church aid agencies scattered throughout the world to help those in underdeveloped countries.
As individuals we also reach out in many ways. Whenever there is a natural disaster or calamity of some kind people are known for their generosity. Some people very generously tithe. In our time we could say that those who are most poor and vulnerable are the unborn. They are the Lazarus knocking on our door for protection. Governments also have many programs to give aid to developing nations but what a pity that some of these programs are tainted by supporting immorality, in particular by not being open to life or by supporting abortion programs in other countries.
What is the parable saying to us? Surely it is asking us to reflect once again on our consumption to see whether it is moderate or gone out of control. Surely it is asking us to reflect on whether we are sufficiently sensitive to the needs of those around us who are suffering in any way. What is being critiqued in the Scriptures today is when we ignore what is happening around us. Indifference to those who are in need and who are suffering is what the Scriptures put before us today as sinful. What we do to others we do to God. What we do to others we do to Jesus.
I would like to conclude my reflection with this story. A rather selfish man died and went to heaven. An angel escorted him to his house. They passed away lovely mansions and the man thought, This one must be mine.” When they came to a miserable hut, the angel told him: “This is yours.” Shocked, the man protested: “This must be a mistake, please check once again.” The angel replied: “There is no mistake; this is the best we could do with the material you sent.”
God Bless you. Have a wonderful day.
Fr. Michael Dias