Walking or driving down the road, on a route I’ve been taking regularly for over thirty years, once in a while I’ll notice something out of the ordinary. It may be only a quick glimpse as I go by or it may be something I see up ahead and take a moment to observe as I approach and move past it. Yesterday it was a red-tail hawk that flew from the bluff up onto a lamp post. Tomorrow it may be something else. When this happens, I find myself wondering how many other things I might have missed seeing as I’ve gone along my way.
Researchers say that most of what we see never consciously registers. We get used to seeing things that haven’t changed from day to day. It’s only when something changes that we notice it.
The same can be all too true of our relationships with other people, whether family members, friends, or strangers. We come to expect certain behaviors and reactions from those we know. Our interactions are pre-established and based on a long history of encounters. We think we know the other person and nothing will be any different this time around, so we don’t notice the sometimes subtle cues that a change has occurred. Similarly, when we are always with people who have known us for a long time, we don’t get a lot of chances to become different persons with them. That’s one of the great advantages of moving to a different area for college or work, especially for young people. There’s a chance to discover new things about themselves and experiment with new activities and lifestyles.
This continuity of expectations with a family or community is a common human experience. It’s part of the formation and maintenance of cultures and traditions. As a general rule, it works pretty well. But not always… Social class, societal expectations, peer pressure, fear – all can lead to a certain amount of blindness to the presence and needs of those around us.
The land of Israel in ancient times was divided into areas populated by the descendants of Jacob and his son Joseph. Those who lived in one geographic and territorial area did not always pay much attention to what was happening in another one. As a result, when the northern lands were conquered by Assyria in around 721 BC, wealthy folks in the southern territories didn’t pay much attention. The wealthy continued their lives of luxury and ease. They ate food that was normally only used for sacrificial offerings, made music, used costly oils and perfumes, and generally lived the “good life.” Not much attention was wasted with concern for the fate of folks in the northern territories or the poor of their own land. Amos, a prophet in the southland, called to them with a serious warning that this was not going to last. “They shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.” (Am 6:1a, 4-7) Needless to say, this is exactly what happened to the southern kingdom as well, on more than one occasion.
Those who saw only what they expected to see, missed the signs of coming disaster. Those who did not care for the less fortunate, found themselves joining the latter in suffering. Those who fancied themselves to be singers and composers of great songs, like David, didn’t notice the themes of David’s psalms: justice for the poor, food for the hungry, sight for the blind, freedom for captives, protection for strangers …
Another person who didn’t see what was around him was the rich man in the story Jesus told to a group of Pharisees with whom he was speaking one day. This rich man was extremely wealthy. He wore purple linen clothing. Linen is a fine fabric and was not commonly used by ordinary folk for clothing. Purple is such a hard color to produce as a dye that typically only rulers wore it. It’s commonly used today, but not in those days. This mega-millionaire/billionaire ate lavishly each day and had everything he could ever want.
Another man, named Lazarus, is also featured in the story. Lazarus, whose name means “my God helps,” is extraordinarily poor. He lies beside the door of the rich man and would happily eat the scraps that fell on the floor from the table of the rich man, but even those are never offered to him. In fact, the only ones who seem to notice him are the dogs who come and lick his sores!
The rich man does not see Lazarus in any meaningful way. To the extent that he does notice him, he doesn’t care. Lazarus is just a regular feature of the world outside his door. Nothing worth notice here …
The position of the two changes upon their deaths. Abraham welcomes Lazarus, carried to him in the arms of angels. The rich man ends up in the netherworld, suffering greatly. Adding insult to injury, the rich man can see Lazarus with Abraham. Ever the practical man, and accustomed to getting what he wants, the rich man calls out to Abraham, asking that Lazarus be sent with a drop of water to ease his sufferings.
Notice that the rich man never noticed Lazarus in life, but he sees him in death. Abraham and Lazarus can see the rich man too. They could always see him. However, there’s a chasm between the two experiences of the afterlife. No matter how much they might want to help the rich man, they cannot do so. The rich man is still thinking primarily of his own comfort. He doesn’t apologize for mistreating Lazarus in life. He just asks for help for himself and assumes Lazarus is the one to provide it.
When Abraham explains that such help is not available to the rich man, the next request is that Lazarus be sent to the five brothers of the rich man, so they can be warned and avoid the same terrible fate. This is a bit of a step forward, at least he’s thinking of someone else. However, this is not to be. Abraham reminds him that Moses and the prophets already had spoken such words of warning. The brothers should listen to those words. Still not seeing his own relationship with Lazarus as one of brotherhood in God’s family, the rich man argues that surely his brothers would change their behavior if one who returned from the dead brought them a warning. Abraham responds, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will the be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Lk 16:19-31)
This story speaks to us too. Do we believe the words of the one who rose from the dead? How do our habits of seeing and not seeing impact our relationships with those around us?
We, like Timothy of old, are called to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” (1 Tim 6:11-16) St. Paul reminds his friend and us that this is not an easy pursuit. It will take time and commitment to live this way. Opposition will arise along the way. But the Lord Jesus will return as ruler when the time is right. The way we see others and the way we live our calling will depend at least in part on the habits we form as we live out our calling as followers of Jesus.
There is much to ponder here. Is the chasm really so deep that those who do not live lives of service and compassion cannot ever cross or that those like Abraham who can see across the chasm cannot reach out and help (which would likely be their normal response)? What about God’s willingness to forgive everything? Is it possible to be excluded from that forgiveness? Do we have to do anything to get that forgiveness? It can’t be demanded as a right or bought. What hope is there?
I read a book last spring that offers an intriguing peek at some of the issues raised by these bits of Scripture. The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, takes place in medieval times. It’s easy to read, geared towards middle school level readers. A boy whose origins are unknown, accompanies a ragtag traveler through Europe to Rome, searching for and stealing relics of St. Peter along the way. The actual identity of the traveler and the boy are revealed in hints and only very gradually as they travel. Not until the very end does the complete picture come together. I highly recommend it to any who are ready to open their eyes and ears to a glimpse of a complex truth as revealed in what seem like very ordinary, somewhat disreputable, earthly actors and their interaction.
For now, let’s be careful to keep our eyes open, to notice what’s around us all the time, not just new and different things. Smile at the folks you meet on the street. You may be the only one who does all day. Give a hand when you can. Even small things can make a big difference. Welcome newcomers. Help refugees. Notice the un-housed on the street and treat them with respect. Be patient with each other at home. Play with children. Laugh with those who laugh. Be present and quiet with those who mourn.
Habits take time to establish. Here’s hoping the ones we have at the end of our lives eliminate the great chasm between us and the bosom of Abraham. Let’s open our eyes and see the Lord’s presence here with us, today and always.
Readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle CRead More