This Gospel presents us a story of contrasts: a contrast between two people: the rich man and Lazarus, a person of power and the powerless beggar at the gate. But then it also presents a contrast between this world and the next. The parable begins in this world, the rich man, the poor beggar, and between them a gate.
The gate kept Lazarus out and shielded the rich man. The conclusion of this parable reveals what Jesus intended to teach: That he demands a compassionate response from us toward the needy, the marginalized. Some of us are naturally responsive to such persons. Others of us, need an unsettling reminder like this.
Over the past five weeks I’ve spoken on the power in the Eucharist and our call to reverent worship before the mystery of God, and it may seem to have no connection to this demand and warning from Jesus. But there is for sure. As Mother Teresa said:
“Unless we believe and see Jesus in the appearance of bread on the altar, we will not be able to see him in the distressing disguise of the poor.” It’s the experience of Jesus in here, in his presence in the Eucharist, that enables us to truly see him in Lazarus out there.
But the opposite is also true: Whatever reverent worship we offer, our entering into this sacred mystery, it serves no purpose if we are not responsive to the Lazarus out there. St. John Chrysostom said it this way:
“Do you want to honor Christ’s body?.... Give him the honor prescribed in his law by giving your riches to the poor....Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table.
Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? ....
....I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. ..... Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all” (OOR – Saturday in the 21st Week in OT; Hom. 50:3-4: PG 58, 508-509).
Even as Catholics, we might think our reverent acts of piety as something altogether separate from our compassionate acts of service. We might regard the Eucharist before which we kneel in adoration and the many forms of human suffering that beckon us, in contrast or even in opposition to one another, as different as the Rich Man and Lazarus. But there is no separating Jesus in the Eucharist and Jesus in our response to the needy, the marginalized—they’re both Jesus, present to us.
Bearing in mind this important connection, we must heed Jesus’ warning, characterized by the fate of the rich man in the surprise twist of fate that occurs in this parable. Beyond death, he found himself desperate for relief, in what we would simply call hell. Yet he never did anything outwardly or deliberately malicious against the poor man on the other side of the gate. Instead, it was his indifference. Jesus reminds us today—as he does throughout the Gospels—that we cannot be indifferent to the needy person before us.
We’re all busy and preoccupied with life; we’re overwhelmed by an endless range of needs; we may be put off by the political maneuverings woven into the problems regarding poverty, mental illness and immigration; we may even be hardened by charlatans who have abused our compassionate responses in the past. We can make excuses and find reasons not to respond, but Jesus today tells us there are dreadful consequences to ignoring the cries of the needy. For any and all of our excuses or reasons, we must prayerfully plead to God to help us move past our obstacles.
Our experience in here, of the glorified body of Jesus in the Eucharist, should impel us to experience him in those who are hurting, lost, struggling, mourning, hungry, naked, infirm, and lonely. Let us pray that we might seem him in all these in the coming week. Let us further pray that we’ll not only see him, but also that we’ll not be indifferent or closed-minded. And not so much done as an act born out of fear—fear of hell—but instead, the purer motive, as an act of love for Jesus who said, “Whatever you did for the least of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).