Do We Notice Our Neighbor?
Mother Teresa told a story about a very poor family with six children, who had nothing to eat. In fact, her sisters told Mother Teresa that this family hadn’t eaten for several days. So Mother Teresa went to visit their home, and brought a big sack of rice. As soon as she gave the sack of rice to the poor family, the mother divided half of the rice and went out the door. She was gone for 10 minutes, and then returned empty-handed. Mother Teresa was surprised to see her leave right away, and asked her, “Where did you go? What did you do?” And the poor mother responded, “And they are hungry. Our neighbors are hungry too. They need food just as much as we do.”
Later, Mother Teresa commented on this incident, saying, “The greatness of this poor woman was not only that she shared the little food that she had, but, that she NOTICED that her neighbor was in need, and that she wanted to help!”
How many of us notice the poor that surround us? How man of us truly see these poor people as people who have names and families, people with unique situations, stories and struggles in their lives? How many of us look at the poor as people created in the divine image of God? And when I talk about the poor, I’m talking about not only the materially poor, but those who feel the poverty of being unloved, unwanted, uncared for; those in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, even within our own families. Do we know who they are? Where they are? And what are we doing to reach out to them?
Today’s Gospel lesson about the Rich Man and Lazarus reminds us about the sin of consciously ignoring, or even unconsciously not noticing the poor and needy people who pass through our lives every day. In the Gospel, we hear about a rich man who had many things, including a beautiful house and fine clothes. Every day he ate plenty, and filled his life with different luxuries, comforts and pleasures. Whenever he would walk out of his house, however, he would pass a poor man named Lazarus. This man had nothing. He was a beggar, with torn clothing, little to eat, and sores covering his body. Lazarus would sit outside, begging and hoping in the mercy of God, and the mercy of the people who passed by. Day after day, the rich man walked past Lazarus, without ever helping him, without ever noticing him!
Jesus concludes the Gospel by saying that Lazarus went to paradise, while the rich man went to hell.
What can we learn from these two characters?
First, we have the poor man Lazarus. Did he go to heaven only because he was poor? Of course not. Some poor people are saints, but other poor people are criminals. Lazarus’s virtue was not that he was poor, but that in his poverty, he did not try to steal or cheat. In his suffering he did blame others for his situation. In his desperate situation, he did not justify himself in judging and condemning those better off than himself. No, in his poverty and need, he placed all his hope in God and didn’t fall into despair. This is what Jesus meant in his beatitudes when he taught, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Affliction and struggle can lead a person to either draw closer to God or go farther away from God, to place your hope in Him and bless His name, or to curse God. As for the poor man, his name reveals his attitude. “Lazarus” means “God is my helper,” and Jesus used this name to show what Lazarus’ attitude was. He did not become angry at God for his difficult situation, and he did not become angry at the world around him. Instead, he placed his trust in God, hoping that something better would come.
Do we imitate Lazarus when we face unexpected or ongoing trouble, suffering, and need, understanding that God is my helper?
As for the rich man, did he go to hell because he was wealthy? Surely not. Riches are not a sin, just like poverty is not a sin. Yet, riches create dangerous temptations for us in our journey toward God. Wealth tempts us away from our dependence on God. Riches can harden our hearts against the needs of others. Comfort and material security feed our ego, which causes deep rooted pride. We begin to believe that we have earned our own wealth by our own abilities, forgetting that all good gifts – including our talents, our abilities, our brains, and our opportunities – come from God. Thus, too many people deceive themselves into thinking that happiness and security comes with riches. Basically, wealth and riches are a dangerous temptation, because they strive to replace God in our lives.
St. Paul warns: “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith.” (1 Tim 6:9,10)
He also counsels, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainties of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim 6:17-19)
So riches are a dangerous temptation, but in and of themselves, wealth did not send the rich man to hell. His main sin is that he DID NOT NOTICE the poor man right outside his door. Daily he walked out of his house, and either consciously or unconsciously passed by the poor man without even noticing him. In other words, his sin was not something that he did, but something that he did not do.
How often do we fall into the same temptation? We walk out of the church, having heard the Gospel lesson to notice and help the poor, and yet we still do not see the poor who are begging for our help. So often, we are quick to judge the poor as lazy people who don’t want to work, yet, can we say we really know their situation? Have we sincerely befriended the poor, and listened to their story?
And the poor are not only those who have material needs. The greatest poverty here in America is the poverty of loneliness, the poverty of feeling unloved, the poverty of feeling unwanted. Thus, God calls us to give of our finances for those less fortunate, but He also commands us to give of ourselves – to give our time and our attention, to give our love to those around us.
How can we remember those in need? How can we notice them in our daily lives? How can we concretely respond in Christian love to the desperate people in our neighborhoods, the lonely people at work, those who do not have shelter and food in the streets of our cities, and those who feel unloved even within their own families?
Today Christ condemns the rich man for not noticing Lazarus outside his doorstep. Let us take note! Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.” May we all leave this church, deciding to show love and kindness to the “hidden Christ” who is in each and every poor and needy person we see.
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