In today’s Gospel reading, we see the key elements of our beliefs come together in a powerful parable. We discover how we can express our faith by simply showing compassion for all of God’s creation. Jesus found himself in a society and culture that tended to value legalism, appearances and superficial respectability above all else. If we place this parable into the context of the broader Gospel message, the rich man’s rejection of Lazarus, while he dines with fine food in the finest attire and mingles with the literati, epitomized a worldview where living a life of faith was tantamount to keeping a myriad of rules, and being able to appear amongst others in society as one who manages to meander through an impossible legalistic maze with both ease and success.
But believing that God is more interested in some form of earthly perfection based on our ability to abide by legislation, rather than us choosing the succinct golden rule of compassion for all, indicates an impoverished understanding of God’s grace. The real risk is that we get caught up in the details and that we fail to see the forest from the trees; we fail to see God’s creation, camouflaged as it is by the scaffolding of respectability that we wrongly think holds it all up.
Jesus’ message in today’s reading is undoubtedly direct and his depiction of the rich man perhaps even seems a little harsh. But what he’s telling us is to replace disingenuous piety, a judgmental view of others based on a legalistic understanding of salvation and to finally stop keeping a ledger of our personal good conduct and trespasses—hoping that we don’t end up with a negative balance–and focus instead on solidarity with the weakest in society. In the parable, the rich man dehumanizes Lazarus and allows his bubble of wealth to blind him to the fact that Lazarus too is created in the image of God. Jesus, however, restores his humanity, by simply calling him by his name throughout the parable. We are called to see the presence God in the weakest, the abandoned and in the forsaken and to understand that our relationship with Christ is strengthened infinitely more by living a life of compassion, than by attempting to live a life of perfect virtuous conduct and by balancing the books.
In some ways, we—as a society, living in a developed, peaceful and stable country—represent the rich man today, in a world where 10 percent of the adult population holds 85 percent of the world’s wealth. By any measure of wealth, we in the developed world resemble the rich man, rather than Lazarus. It is certainly accurate to point out that few students are wealthy and many struggle with tuition fees, the rising cost of books, exorbitant rent and impending loan repayment. But if we only consider how fortunate we are, in comparison to those in the southern hemisphere or in developing countries—who hardly have the luxury to worry about the challenges of a university education—or if we considered how fortunate we are from a historical perspective, that we live in relative peace and political stability—then we must truly consider how Jesus expects us to reach in solidarity and with compassion to the suffering.
But if we look at Jesus’ depiction of Lazarus closely, we see that we are not only called to show compassion because of his economic condition, but even more so because he is rejected and marginalized by society. Lazarus looks different, he is physically ill—possibly disabled–and probably comes from a lower class background. Jesus calls us to walk with all who are discriminated against in society and ejected from institutions or shunned by leaders, simply because they do not fit into the frameworks of “respectability,” and “propriety” that we have built. Jesus tells us that sometimes we need to think outside those confines and frameworks if we are to truly address issues of injustice in our society. We need to open the doors of our church community to people of different traditions, backgrounds and lifestyles and accept them for who they are, rather than attempting to project onto them who we think they should be.
We can and should apply this to our church, located a mere blocks from a part of downtown Ottawa that struggles with a myriad of social problems. If we are to truly live Christ’s message of compassion, then we must welcome those struggling with drug addiction, with alcoholism or involved in prostitution. Where people feel dehumanized by their condition or their environment, Jesus asks us to restore their humanity by simply showing compassion, with no strings attached.
The story of Lazarus shows us how God is often most present in times of suffering; He does not leave us to our fate, nor does God simply watch us dispassionately from a distance. One story perhaps expresses the presence of God in suffering the most poignantly is a passage in author Elie Wiesel’s largely autobiographical book Night. Wiesel was born into a Hungarian Jewish family and as a boy; he was deported along with his parents and siblings to Auschwitz in May 1944 from the Transylvanian town of Máramarossziget, in what was then eastern Hungary. Elie Wiesel’s mother, father and sister were all killed in Auschwitz; Elie’s father was actually beaten to death by the concentration camp’s officers after being marched to Buchenwald.
Wiesel, though raised in a practicing Jewish family, questioned the existence of God in his suffering and in the suffering of others around him in the death camp. Wiesel was torn, as he struggled with the feeling of abandonment by God.. “For the first time I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?” He elaborated on his crisis of faith and the grim realization that the horrors of the Holocaust were destroying his faith in God. “”Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
But little did Wiesel know that one of the most horrific moments in Auschwitz were yet to come and that it would this moment of total despair that would lead him to realize God’s real presence in suffering. On one night in the camp, Wiesel and the other prisoners witnessed the execution of three Jews—two adults and one child. As the gruesome hanging took place—and as an innocent small child was sent to a painful, horrible death, an inmate in the camp kept asking aloud where God was in all of this?
One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains— and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.
The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.
The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
“Long live liberty!” cried the two adults.
But the child was silent.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows…”
Since we are created in the image of God and we are all part of His creation, in times of suffering, God suffers with us. God suffered with Lazarus when he was rejected by all in society and God suffered alongside his creation when hatred and bigotry led to systematic murder of a people—purely due to their cultural background—just 65 years ago. God hanged there on the gallows and though Wiesel realized that God was not dead, he understood that never for a moment had He abandoned His people.
The suffering, death and depravation of the Holocaust turned Wiesel into one of the most impassioned advocates of humanism and peace; his was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, in recognition of his capacity to speak out against injustice and serve as a voice for the oppressed. Wiesel’s message is closely aligned with Christ’s message of compassion and justice and the importance of raising our voice, even if when doing so may appear to shake the foundations of our society and community. As an advocate for humanism, Wiesel wrote: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”
If Jesus’ depiction of the rich man seems harsh in today’s reading, it is because the scaffold of prosperity, comfort and respectability that we have built is obstructing our view of God and the image of God in our neighbour. Jesus’ message to us is clear, direct and straightforward: if we want to see God, it’s time to finally tear down the scaffold.
Christopher Adam teaches history at Carleton University and gave this reflection at Ottawa’s St. Joseph’s Parish, on 26 September 2010