In the Gospel of Luke (16: 19-31) Jesus tells a remarkable parable. It begins: “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table….” This is a timeless story and also a very timely one today. This is a story with very sharply contrasting images, and every detail is significant. There is the rich man who is obviously living in great comfort, and there is also the poor man who is not only poor but afflicted. What is important is that the wretched person is right outside the gate of the rich man, and the rich man’s “salvation” somehow is tied up with this person. What the “rich man” needs to do for his own spiritual well-being, what any person needs to do, is never far away or concealed from their sight. It is always “right outside their gate.”
This situation maps out a three-level unconcealment of what is required in our relationship to God. First of all there is the simple economic situation–and the economic question is never not-religious. Afterall it pertains to the well-being of all God’s children. In any case, this disparity between the rich and the poor is a matter of conern in this story. In fact, the whole Bible frowns upon people piling up wealth and ignoring their fellow human beings. It is a critical question in our own country today because the disparity between the rich and the poor is growing incredibly. The actual numbers are staggering, but why are the churches, including the Catholic Church so quiet about this very “unBiblical” situation? Catholics and their bishops seem to be only concerned about abortion–a worthy topic of concern but certainly NOT the only one. The rich man has this wretched person right outside his gate, but his disregard creates in effect a vast gap between himself and that poor one. That gap, which can be crossed, or better yet eliminated, in this life, will become impossible to cross when he is dead and when he will badly want to cross that gap because his true condition will be unconcealed from his own eyes. It is a gap that the rich man chooses to create, and his choice is merely affirmed in his death. One more thought along this line: our whole society and economy is amazing this way–we are directed toward “getting rich,” accumulating wealth, people living in mansions and gated communities and protected from mixing with the poor and everyone is on his own. This is a very unBiblical way of living for those of you who regard the Bible as your guide. But even without that, there is the example of the Indian billionaire who just built what may be the first “billion-dollar home.” He will never have to mix with any of India’s poor–a helicopter from his roof will wisk him away whenever he wants to go anywhere. What strikes one is how “unGandhian” this person is. Gandhi is actually the perfect example of someone who “kept the Gospel” without the words. First of all he made a point of becoming aware of his “wretched neighbor”–the millions of poor in India. Secondly, he did not create any gap between himself and them(by the way, all his personal belongings could be put in one small bag). And thirdly, most importantly, he did not leave that wretched one sitting “outside his gate,” but brought him in to his own dwelling. He crossed that gap while it was still possible to do so.
And this brings us to the second level of this parable. The Gospel implies that the rich man should have brought Lazarus in to his own home. He and Lazarus are both children of one God, but the way he chose to live denied that reality. Consider that other great parable, the Good Samaritan. There the Samaritan comes upon a man beaten and robbed–here is someone “right outside HIS gate”–and he does not leave him there–he is not one locked inside his own so-called rich reality. He pulls this poor one “into his home,” into his care and concern, into an effective action for his well-being, into a kind of oneness with him. Strikingly enough, in that parable, the “rich man” is the religious figure of the priest and the Levite, a temple official. The religious figures are too rich as it were, and they are “feasting sumptously” on their religiosity and so their religiosity is only another chasm they put between themselves and the “wretched one.” And this brings us now to the third level.
“Lazarus,” the poor afflicted one, is always “right outside our gate.” He/she may not even be a poor one in any sense. He/she may be a stranger, a close one, a someone indeed. No matter, this person is sitting outside the gate of our ego identity–perhaps even unawares of their own affliction. What is our response? And how do we open that gate and cross that gap? And what if it is the very self of God that sits outside our gate in the person of the afflicted one?