Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
The challenge of preparing for a homily is not to be able to find something at all to say; the challenge is to be able to find the right thing to say – or, to put it in terms of faith – to find what God wants to be said and what God wants us to hear.
This is what I faced when I first looked at the readings we have before us this evening. Each of these three readings – from Amos who speaks boldly to the leaders of his day about their luxurious way of life and their indifference to the poor; to the first Letter to Timothy reminding us to “fight the good fight of faith” with trust and integrity; and then to the Gospel story of the rich man and Lazarus – each is so very full of powerful words and images, that we could spend hours discussing them, reflecting on them, and – as every homily needs to do – asking ourselves, what they mean for us in our lives today.
Let me begin at the end by telling you that what kept coming back to me over and over again is this thought about the rich man: “He just doesn’t get it.” What the rich man fails to get – in life and surprisingly even in death – is the fundamental humanity, the worth, and the dignity of Lazarus. Even in death, the rich man fails to even acknowledge Lazarus. To him, Lazarus is merely a servant, an instrument, a tool … someone to meet his own needs or to do his bidding. “Father Abraham, send Lazarus to quench my thirst; Father Abraham send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” So, if you come away with only one thought from our liturgy, let it be this: As Christians we are called to recognize the inherent value, worth, and dignity of every human person, and to act accordingly.
Backing up just a bit, let’s look a little more closely at the story and see what Luke might be trying to tell us. In doing so, two questions come to mind:
- First, why did Lazarus go to the bosom of Abraham?
- Second, why did the rich man end up in that place of torment?
Did each end up where he did simply because of his state in this life? Is the Gospel simply telling us that the life to come will merely be a place of “role reversal,” telling us that if you’ve had it good in this life, the life to come will be one of misery? If that were the message, this would hardly be “good news” to us who, when compared with the vast majority of the rest of humanity, are pretty well-off. On the other hand, is the story telling us that the way to heaven is merely living in abject poverty in the here and now? Something tells me that there’s a little more to it than that.
The two main characters in today’s story – the rich man and Lazarus – couldn’t be more different. The lots that they’ve been handed in this life differ like night from day, even though we really don’t know much about either man. We know the rich man is rich because we’re told that he is, and because he eats well and dresses in fine clothing. We later learn that he has brothers, but we don’t know where he lived, what he does, how he came to be so wealthy – we don’t even know his name. We know even less about Lazarus. We don’t know how he came to be a beggar, or if he has family or friends. We know that he’s probably not in the best of health, as his body is covered with sores. But one significant thing we do know, however, is his name. The name “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Eleazar” which means “God is my help.” Lazarus, therefore, is not just a poor man, but a poor man who believes and trusts in God. This is why he found himself in Abraham’s bosom in Paradise — because of his faith and trust in God, not just because he was poor. This, it seems, is the key difference between the nameless rich man and the beggar at his gate. Despite his poverty and lack of earthly wealth, Lazarus is a man who is able to recognize his utter dependence on God and to place his hope in God.
In addition to the thought that the rich man “doesn’t get it,” I’ve also been reading about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was mentioned briefly in last week’s homily, as she has been in the news in recent weeks because of new revelations about her spiritual life. A new book by the director of the Mother Teresa Center and postulator of her cause for canonization tells us about the emptiness and darkness that this small woman experienced for decades after responding to a call to serve the poorest of the poor by founding the Missionaries of Charity. The book is entitled, “Come be my light – The Private Writings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta.’” When I first saw the book’s title, I presumed the title was her words; that it was a prayer of Mother Teresa, praying that Jesus would come and be her light as she tried to respond to her call to serve the poor .. the many Lazaruses on the streets of Calcutta. As I started the book, I discovered that I was wrong. The words, “come be my light” are not Mother Teresa’s words to Jesus .. but they are Jesus’ words to her … words through which she understood that God was calling her to bear the light and life of Jesus to the poorest of the poor … to the Lazaruses she met every day.
If the challenge of the gospel is that we must recognize – as Mother Teresa did – the value, dignity and worth of every person, then we are faced with the question, “Who is Lazarus among us?” [adapted from “Celebration, Oct. 2007” www.celebrationpublications.org]
- Lazarus lives in the children of this world who are dying each day from war, hunger, abuse, neglect and disease.
- Lazarus lives in poor parents here in our own cities struggling to provide the even the barest of life’s essentials for their families.
- Lazarus lives in the immigrants, refugees and other displaced persons on this earth.
- Lazarus lives in the homeless, many of whom suffer from severe and persistent mental illness.
- Lazarus also lives in those who languish in hospitals, convalescent and nursing homes – places where others rarely go.
- Lazarus lives in people everywhere who are victims of torture and genocide.
- Lazarus lives and cries out wherever people struggle for justice – from the streets of Darfur, to the streets of Iraq, to the streets of Myanmar.
- Lazarus still lives in the millions of people around the globe, many of whom are children, facing the struggles of HIV/AIDS.
- And, many of us know all too well, Lazarus lives in all those who are alienated from families, from friends, and from the Church … those for whom there is no “place at the table.”
In many ways, the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a study in contrasts, and I suspect that there’s a bit of the rich man and a bit of Lazarus in each of us. Part of us fails to recognize the humanity, dignity and worth of others … and part of us recognizes how utterly dependent on God we are for all things.
As we celebrate the living presence of Christ in this Eucharist, may become more and more like Lazarus who placed his hope and trust in God. In doing so, may we also bear the light of Christ to the Lazarus in one another and in every person we encounter each day.