Lazarus is Not a Threat, He is a Gift: A Parable for Modern American Christianity

I recently reread Pope Francis’ Lenten message for 2017 entitled “The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift”and felt personally challenged to see those around me as gifts of God, as living words of love being spoken by our Heavenly Father.  And yet as I read I realized how much we in the American Church as a whole need to hear the message of this parable.  I decided to do a cursory read of what the last few pope’s have had to tell us about this parable and its application in our lives.  This blog post is about my findings.


Pope Saint John Paul II had some powerful words to share with Americans in particular about this parable. Preaching inside Yankee stadium during mass on October 2, 1979 he told us:


“The parable of the rich man and Lazarus must always be present in our memory; it must form our conscience. Christ demands an openness that is more than benign attention, more than token actions or half-hearted efforts that leave the poor as destitute as before or even more so.. All of humanity must think of the parable of the rich man and the beggar. Humanity must translate it into contemporary terms, in terms of economy and politics, in terms of all human rights, in terms of relations between the “First”, “Second” and “Third World”.”  (Homily 7.)


God is calling us to take notice of our suffering brothers and sisters right outside our borders and those who are running to us seeking our help.  What is so beautiful is that every poor person is a gift, everyone who seeks our help is also a means of God helping us, rescuing us from worldly pursuits.  In the parable the very name Lazarus means “God helps.”  (Pope Benedict Lenten Message 2012)  If we read the message of the parable we can see that God sent the poor beggar to the rich man’s “large gate” as a way to help him.  Lazarus himself was a gift, the gift of Jesus’ own presence. And yet for probably many of the same reasons we have today the nameless richman tried to ignore him and keep him outside.  He wanted to be able to choose his neighbors, choose the when and where if ever he would respond to God’s voice.  And Lazarus was the message, he was an embodiment of Christ’s own incarnation of the father’s love. This poor outsider was the embodied presence of the God-Man.


Pope Francis says:


No messenger and no message can take the place of the poor whom we meet on the journey, because in them Jesus himself comes to meet us: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40) General Audience Wednesday May 18, 2016  


Yet how often we ignore the message of the Gospel found in the needy around us, attempting to keep ourselves safe by human means relying more on man than God.  I remember my first time living in Mexico.  How sad was the extreme poverty we saw within minutes from the US border.  How many Lazarus’ sat outside the gates of our country.  How often they are ignored or seen only as a threat to the American way of life!  And yet we know they are there.  


“Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows what is in man. He alone knows it” (John Paul II Homily)


How fearful the worldly Christian is!  Since returning to the US I have been amazed at how little biblical wisdom is used to make decisions about one’s neighbor by christians!  It all seems to be centered on a certain worldly wisdom.  I am reminded of the Worldly Wiseman in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who offers:


what you desire, only without the perils that you are certain to encounter if you follow the way ahead…for instead of dangers you will meet with much safety, friendship, and content.


How many of us have sought the crossless Christ, the Jesus without danger, a safe, friendly Jesus who made sense and fit into our box.  But this Jesus can’t help us see God because he isn’t the image of God’s love which reaches out and enters the pain of the world.  He is merely a sanitized copy lifeless and unable to give sight to our blindness.  


Pope Francis tells us that “being worldly means losing your name and having the eyes of your soul “darkened”, anesthetized, until you no longer see the people around you.”  (Homily for Thursday March 5, 2015)  It is a sickness, an affliction.  “With a worldly heart” is impossible to comprehend the necessities and needs of others. With a worldly heart you can go to Church, you can pray, you can do many things…But what did Jesus pray for at the Last Supper? “Please, Father, protect these disciples” so that “they do not fall in the world, do not fall into worldliness”. (ibid)


I remember experiencing this worldliness in some who visited us at our mission post and instead of feeling compassion for the poor and lost they felt happy that they were going home and didn’t have to live this way.  They felt “thankful” for all they had but seemed little inclined to use it to lift their brothers and sisters out of misery.  For some this led to a sense of disgust that people lived this way.  They were then much more concerned with the possibility that America could be “heading in the same direction” because of the President.  They had worldly hearts, afraid of others, afraid of suffering, afraid of the cross.  


And yet  “God’s word teaches us that only our trust in Jesus is secure: other trusts are useless, they do not save us, they do not give life, they do not give joy”. Indeed, “they bring us death and drought”…’our problem” as the Scriptures tell us, “is that our hearts are treacherous”. (ibid)


Where is our trust?  In the government?  In walls and stronger borders?  In better vetting and harsher declamations against “Islamic terrorism?”  Do these forms of trust draw us closer to Jesus in others?  


John Paul II reminds us “When we Christians make Jesus Christ the center of our feelings and thoughts, we do not turn away from people and their needs.” (Homily Yankee Stadium)  


The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ…You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in is order to help them.  And you must treat them like guests at your family table. (Ibid)


What would really make America great would be an openness to Jesus found in our neighbors. “It is in the joyful simplicity of a life inspired by the Gospel and the Gospel’s spirit of fraternal sharing that you will find the best remedy for sour criticism, paralyzing doubt and the temptation to make money the principal means and indeed the very measure of human advancement.”  (Ibid)


I understand some will see this post as judgemental and smug.  I am sorry.  I still struggle with the same issues within my own heart.  I turn away from the homeless man.  I feel put out when he or she is waiting for me at the red light of the off ramp.  Let me be the first to admit my own need of a Savior.  Let me be the first to admit my need for the poor.  I need them to bring me close to Jesus.  Nevertheless someone needs to says these things.  As Pope Benedict writes:


“Christian admonishment, for its part, is never motivated by a spirit of accusation or recrimination. It is always moved by love and mercy, and springs from genuine concern for the good of the other.” (Lenten Message 2012)  


May our Merciful Father bless you and keep you and be present to you in His poor and lost.



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