The true character of a person can be measured by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. Poor Lazarus could do nothing for the rich man who thought he already had everything. The rich man was living a lavish life of extravagance. Living only for himself, he was oblivious to the suffering of those around him. His five brothers were living the same way. Another example of a family where the parents ruin their children by giving them everything they want, rather than the basic moral teachings they need.
The parable draws a sharp contrast between the lifestyles of the rich man and the poor beggar. We are first presented with a rich man wearing purple garments (most expensive), fine linens and gluttonous dining. Gluttony is one of the deadly sins. Next, we are the presented with a poor man, suffering from hunger, open sores, loneliness and despair. The parable uses the gluttonous rich man to warn us of the consequences of our choices in this life, and the poor man to reveal the reversal of fortunes in the afterlife. In the afterlife, we are shown who is truly rich and who has nothing. Even though the rich man appeared to have everything he could possibly want in this life, in reality he had nothing that really matters.
But don’t use this Gospel to denounce all who are wealthy. The parable does not teach that all the poor go to Heaven and all the rich go to hell. The rich are not condemned for their wealth, but for their refusal to share it; the powerful are not condemned for their power, but for their indifference to the poor and those suffering at their doorstep. The rich man in the parable condemns himself, not for what he did, but for what he failed to do. His indifference to Lazarus got him in big trouble; we might say, eternal trouble, because he died unrepentful to the Sin of Omission.
The Sin of Omission is failing to do something that one can and ought to do. Neglecting to act when circumstances require that we do. Every civilized society has laws that hold people accountable when we fail to act when we should. If we witness the commission of a felony, we have a legal duty to report to the authorities. Failure to do so is a crime. If we are involved in an accident, we can’t just leave. Failure to do so is a crime. If we know of a dangerous condition at work or at home, we have a duty to warn or make it safe. Failure to do so is negligence and we can be held legally responsible if someone gets hurt. These kinds of laws are derived from the Sin of Omission.
The Gospel calls us to examine our own personal lives to see if we are falling into the same trap as the rich man. Though written 2,000 years ago, the parable speaks to the heart of modern culture. When we are comfortable, it’s easy to become complacent. Indifferent. Even apathetic to the needs of others. We face a crisis of complacency and indifference to the plight of the poor and suffering. Too often, those living well, even those who believe they are righteous, have hearts that have turned cold, especially towards those can do nothing for us.
The gap is widening between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the righteous and the sinners. How many of us fall into the first group? Most of us have good jobs. Decent pay. We have a roof over our head and dependable transportation. We probably consider ourselves productive citizens and good Catholics. At least decent Catholics. We like our lifestyles and avoid anything that may threaten our comfort and security.
We focus on the positive things going on in our community. McAllen is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Our retails stores and restaurants are among the best performing in the United States. McAllen is ranked as one of the best places to live. Our real estate market outperforms most of the other markets around the country. These headlines make us feel good, more secure. Bigger paychecks are just around the corner.
But lurking behind those headlines are the stories we want to ignore. The Rio Grande Valley has one of the highest poverty rates in the country with more than a third of our families living below the poverty line. Less than 8% of our children pursue higher education. We have immigrants dying of thirst and exposure as they cross our lands in search of a better life. We still have families living in colonias without basic services. Dirt floors. Only water source is a garden hose from the next door neighbor.
We would rather not know about these things. A voice whispers “you have your own problems to deal with. Don’t worry about others." But, Lazarus is right there, knocking on our door. When we see him, do we have pity? Do we act? Do we do anything to relieve his suffering? Or, when we see him, do we go out of our way to avoid him? Are we so wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t even notice him? The homeless beggar on the street corner is not the only Lazarus near us. Many others are suffering all around us. In our families. Our work places. Our neighborhood. In different ways. Financially. Illness. Loneliness. Depression. Despair. Do we see them? What is our response?
Our shared humanity requires us to respect and defend the dignity of every human life. That new life in Christ each of us received in baptism requires us to love and serve our neighbor. Not just the ones we like. Not just the ones who can return the favor. All we encounter, especially the poor and the marginalized. The parable in today’s Gospel warns us that the distance we put between ourselves and the suffering in this life, may very well be the distance we put between ourselves and God in the next life.
Here's the question: are I coming to Church on Sundays, singing “Here I am Lord”, only to walk out the door and continue living only for myself? So preoccupied with my own comfort and security that I am blind and indifferent to the suffering around me?
All of us here are good men and women. But the only thing evil needs to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.