So last week I told you all how excited I was about this new year, and I still am, but we also had some unplanned excitement. We were joined at the 8am Mass by a young man, a man troubled by many things, and his behavior caused us to take measures to protect those present, especially our Church School children. It was unnerving, to say the least, but I couldn’t be more proud of how our parish responded. We both contained a threat and cared for a man who needed and needs a lot of help. In the end, that young man came to the right place, the house of God. He was lost, literally: our city’s police officers determined that he was on the Registry of Missing Persons. He was lost, but now is found.
Jesus told us a parable this week, a story about another man who was lost, or really a story about one man who appears to be lost and another who is actually lost. “In the parable, while the rich man is still alive, he is beautifully dressed and eats very well. But at his door there is always a poor man, Lazarus, who is clothed in sores and very hungry. Eventually, both the rich man and the poor man die. But the rich man goes to hell, and the poor man Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham.
“The thought of going to hell is alarming, and so we ought to ask ourselves this question: what exactly is the sin of the rich man? Once we ask this question, puzzling features of the parable leap to mind.
If the point of the parable is to give us a warning about a sin that can send a person to hell, the parable ought to tell us what that sin is. But it doesn’t.
“We might think that the sin just is the rich man’s failure to feed the poor man. But the parable doesn’t actually say whether the poor man gets any food from the rich man. Notice too that if not feeding the hungry is the sin of the rich man, then the parable could stop near its beginning, when it tells us that the poor man hung around the house of the rich man and the rich man went to hell when he died. But the parable doesn’t stop there. It continues for a good while. In hell, the rich man sees that the poor man is comforted in the bosom of Abraham, and he says to Abraham: send the poor man to bring me a little water.
“Notice that the rich man is talking to Abraham, not to the poor man; and he is asking Abraham to command the poor man. He wants Abraham to make the poor man leave the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, find his way into the flames of hell, and bring a bit of water to himself, even though he will be thirsty again almost immediately. Clearly, the rich man thinks no trouble for the poor man is too much if it brings a little something for the rich man. And now we can see the sin of the rich man, can’t we? The poor man is a human person just like the rich man, but the rich man can’t see it. The rich man doesn’t talk directly to the poor man because he doesn’t see the poor man as a person in his own right. Insofar as he thinks of the poor man at all, it is only to calculate how the poor man could be used to benefit himself.”1
Though it sounds awful, like something none of us could ever consider, the sin of dehumanization is an easy trap to fall into. Our treatment of America’s tribal peoples and American Slavery, our nation’s original sins, began with dehumanizing entire peoples. Hitler, Sanger, the Hutus, they all began with dehumanization. That sin doesn’t always end as badly as those examples, but it always begins the same way: one of us or someone like us refers to someone else, someone of a different ethnicity or gender, perhaps a poor person or an addict, (God help us these days even) a police officer, as “those people.”
What I saw here last week was, I’m proud to say, the antitheses of that. I heard no one refer to that poor young man as one of “those people.” We saw that young man for who he is, Lazarus at the gate, Lazarus begging for God and the people of God to see him, find him, to bring him home.
Did he pose a threat? Maybe, maybe even probably, and our teachers, parents, family members, and parishioners did a phenomenal job of protecting the most vulnerable on campus. Plans have been made and further planning will be needed to insure the safety of all who come through those doors. But the first test was passed: the Baptismal Rite calls it “respecting the dignity of every human being;” Jesus called it “loving thy neighbor as thyself.” The gates of hell will never prevail upon a church like ours.
1Eleanore Stump, http://liturgy.slu.edu/26OrdC092516/reflections_stump.html