Today’s Gospel passage inspired Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who had three doctoral degrees (one in medicine, one in theology, one in philosophy) to leave civilization with all its culture and amenities and depart for the jungles of darkest Africa to serve as a missionary doctor for 47 years. It was this parable which induced a man, who was recognized as one of the best musicians and concert organists in all Europe, to go to a place where there were no organs to play. It was this powerful parable which so intensely motivated a man that he gave up a teaching position as university professor in Vienna, Austria to go to help people who were so deprived that they were still living in the superstitions of the dark ages, for all practical purposes. At the age of 38, Dr. Albert became a full-fledged medical doctor with specialization in tropical medicine. At the age of 43, he left for Africa where he opened a hospital on the edge of the jungle in what was then called Equatorial Africa. He died there in 1965 at the age of 90. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. The single parable that so radically changed his life is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a warning, pointing to the destiny of the rich man who neglected his duty to show mercy to poor Lazarus. The rich man was punished, not for having riches, but for neglecting the Scriptures and what they taught on sharing his blessings with the poor.
Jesus told this parable to correct three Jewish misconceptions. 1) Material prosperity in this life is God’s reward for moral uprightness, while poverty and illness are God’s punishment for sins. Hence, there is no need to help the poor and the sick for they have been cursed by God.
2) Since wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, the best way of thanking God is to enjoy it by leading a life of luxury and self-indulgence in dress, eating and drinking, of course, after giving God His portion as tithe.
3) The parable also addresses the false doctrine of the Sadducees denial of the soul’s survival after death.
The name ‘Lazarus’ means ‘God is my help.’ Despite a life of misfortune and suffering, Lazarus does not lose hope in God. He is enjoying Heavenly bliss as a reward for his fidelity to God in his poverty and suffering.
Why the rich man is punished? He did not kick Lazarus. He was not cruel to him. It is because he never noticed Lazarus who represents a fact of life: the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate who are always around us. He did no wrong, but he did nothing. In the Catholic teaching, that is the sin of omission, not doing what one is supposed to do.
Pope Saint John Paul II in Yankee Stadium in New York in 1979, during his first visit as Pope to the United States said that this parable “must always be present in our memory; it must form our conscience.” “We cannot stand idly by, enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazarus of the twentieth century stands at our doors.”
We are all rich enough to share our blessings with others. God has blessed each one of us with wealth or health or special talents or social power or political influence or a combination of many blessings. The parable invites us to share what we have been given with others in various ways instead of using everything exclusively for selfish gains.
We need to treat the unborn as our brother and sister Lazarus. Lazarus in the 21st century is also our pre-born brother and sister. Many of these babies are brutally executed in their mother’s wombs. Their cries for a chance to live are rejected 4400 times a day in our country. The rich man was condemned for not treating Lazarus as his brother. We also will be condemned for our selfishness if we do not treat the preborn as our brothers and sisters.
The parish church was badly in need of repair. So the pastor called a special meeting inside the Church to raise funds. At the assembly the pastor explained the need of an emergency fund for plastering the roof and supporting pillars and the other areas which needed repair. He invited pledge of contributions. After a brief pause the richest man in the parish, volunteered 50 dollars. Just as he sat down, a piece of plaster fell from the ceiling on the head of this rich man. He jumped up looking terribly corrected himself: “I meant to say 500 dollars.” The congregation stood silent and surprised. Then a single voice cried out: “Oh Lord, hit him again!”