I have three stories about the ignored.
First story, There once was a rich young man by the name of Alexis. He was Catholic and lived in Rome during the fourth or fifth century and he lived at a time when it had just become legal to be a Catholic. People could finally practice the Christian faith out in the open. When Alexis was a teenager, he decided that he wanted to give up everything, give up his wealth and give up his place of privilege in Roman society. He wanted to live a life of poverty and prayer, and he wanted to do this all for God, but his parents had other plans for him. They had arranged for him to marry a rich young woman. And because it was their will for him he went along with it. He really listened to his parents. Yet on his wedding day when he saw his bride for the first time, he had second thoughts, and it’s not what you think☺. This woman was smart, loving, and beautiful, and she would be a great wife, but even so, he asked for her permission to leave her for God. She gave him the permission. So he left.
He made his way to Syria, where he lived the life of a beggar. Any money he received he first shared with the many poor people around him using only what was left over for himself. When he wasn’t begging he was praying in the various churches of the city. After living this way for several years people began to recognize him for his extraordinary holiness. People would come to him for advice and to ask for his prayers. They called him the living saint. And this made him very uncomfortable. So after seventeen years in Syria he made his way back to Rome and to his parents’ house. He came as a beggar to his own house where he’d grown up. His parents didn’t recognize him and so he started living under the stairs leading up to the front door. His parents allowed him to live there not knowing who he really was. And there he stayed spending his time begging for food, praying in the churches of Rome, and teaching the homeless about God. With his parents never realizing who he was, even though they passed him and looked at him every day as they went to and from their house.
Now the servants of that house were quite cruel to Alexis and though he could have ended all these sufferings just by telling his parents who he was, he chose to say nothing. Alexis lived this way for 17 years. It was a hard way of life. And one morning the servants found him dead under the stairs. But before burying him they went through his few possessions even going through the pockets of the jacket he was wearing. And in one of his pockets they found a note. The note explained to them who he was and how he had lived this life of penance and prayer from the day his wedding was supposed to take place until then, a total of thirty-four years. Writing that he did it all for the love of God. Praying and sacrificing for the people of God.
When Alexis’ mother came to look and to hold the dead body of her son she cried out, “My son, my Alexis, I have known you too late! You were there all the time and I never really saw you.” She was heartbroken. This woman had seen her son every day for seventeen years yet she didn’t really see him. She had heard her son every day for seventeen years yet she didn’t really hear him. She had invited her son into her home yet she didn’t really invite him in. He got only as far as the space beneath the stairs. It was a superficial relationship. Alexis’ parents looked at their son every day for 17 years without ever seeing him. And then it was too late.
Second story our parable in the Gospel. In our parable too the rich man ignores the man living on his steps. He totally ignores Lazarus, stepping over him every day without helping him. In no way does the parable condemn the man for being rich. Being wealthy was thought to be a blessing from God, an outward sign that God had favored a person. On the other hand, the poverty of a person like Lazarus was thought to be a curse from God. The belief at the beginning of the parable for the people listening to Jesus would have been that the rich man would have been carried off by angels to the bosom of Abraham and that Lazarus would have been the one sent to the netherworld. Our Lord’s parables usually destroy expectations, and with this parable Jesus radically reversed expectations.
The sin Jesus pointed to is the fact that not only did the rich man not assist Lazarus, the rich man completely failed to notice Lazarus. Even in death, the rich man saw Lazarus as nothing more than a servant. For God, failure to notice the suffering of a fellow human being is inexcusable and merits torment. It’s curious that the rich man is nameless while the poor man is given a name and his name Lazarus in Hebrew means, “God comes to help.” By giving him a name Jesus points to the poor man’s significance he is not just a nameless nobody.
The parable states, “When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” This mention of Angels being sent to poor Lazarus was a powerful signal. The presence of angels signaled the presence of God. The presence of angels also signaled God’s protection. The role of the angels was so important that the parable could have stopped right there with the mention of the angels and it would have had the same impact on its first century audience. The angels came for Lazarus.
Third story, Twenty eight years ago I lived in Detroit and every morning I had to walk three blocks and most every morning I passed the same gentleman sitting in a doorway with his hand extended asking for change. He wasn’t very clean, he didn’t smell too good, and he must have been injured in a fire because his face was severely scarred. I wish I could tell you that I gave him money every day but I don’t even remember if I ever did. Excuses, however, I do remember the excuses that would come into my mind, like, “Oh he’ll just use the money to buy beer or maybe drugs,” or maybe I’d think, “Why doesn’t he just get a job?” Sometimes I would walk on the other side of the street to avoid him, his presence made me uncomfortable.
Have you ever been in a similar situation? Were you uncomfortable? If you were that’s good. We should be uncomfortable. We should be uncomfortable seeing our brothers and sisters in need. Today’s Gospel is meant to bother us, to get under our skin and to maybe even irritate or sting and that’s good because like an oyster that’s irritated by a grain of sand produces out of that irritation a pearl of great value and in the same way when our conscience is stung or irritated something of great beauty can be produced in our souls.
We live in a country of great wealth, and even if we are not the wealthiest, compared to most of the world we live in abundance. And so there are two questions we can ask ourselves: Why has God permitted me this wealth, whatever level that might be? And what does he want me to do with it? Cardinal George once said, “The poor need the rich to get out of poverty, and the rich need the poor to get to Heaven.” The next time we encounter a man sitting in a doorway asking for change, look at him, really look at him, and see him. We can ask ourselves, I can ask myself, “Why has God placed him in my path.”
Let us become great Saints,
Fr. Christopher Ankley