A rich man is hosting a dinner party. He and a few special friends are reclining on cushions, as platters of exquisitely prepared food are presented for his approval. Servers bow and exit; courses follow one after the other. There’s silly chit-chat, bursts of laughter, and a good deal of belching. The food is, after all, very good; and there’s lots of it. Now huddled at the door is that beggar Lazarus, he’s always in the neighborhood; he’s no trouble at all; doesn’t ever bother anyone. It’s just that he’s infected and covered with sores. Sometimes they get so itchy; he even lets dogs lick them. (And everyone knows where a dog’s tongue has been.) Keep your distance, Lazarus is definitely unclean. If anyone dares come close enough, Lazarus always extends an open hand waiting for something; truth be told he’d be happy to have a few scraps left on the floor after one of these banquets, but no one’s offered...
How the poor who followed Jesus must have loved hearing him tell this story of divine reversal, relishing the ending as the rich man gets his, burning in Hades while poor Lazarus has at last found rest, nestled in Abraham’s bosom at the heavenly banquet. You get what you deserve after all; no one fools God. Right?
Well. It’s clear that both characters in the parable are very poor and wounded, Lazarus through neglect and misfortune, but the rich man is poorest of all, blinded in his complacency. Poor Lazarus has nothing more to lose. But the rich man is frightened to death; he’s got everything to lose. And he’s so clueless that even from Hades he’s trying to get people to do things for him. Now we know that oppressors usually oppress because they themselves have been oppressed, abused, ignored. Perhaps not that long ago, the rich man in our parable was himself poor and ignored, and he knows he doesn’t want that life again. Keep it all out there, so it’s not near me, so I won’t see it; leave the pain at the door begging to be let in. But the invitation is to be brave enough to break the cycle by refusing to do unto others what’s been done to me. My poverty, the sores and wounds of my own misfortunes are not places to live; licking my wounds or lashing out because of them will lead me nowhere.
Undoubtedly in this cautionary tale, Jesus is reminding us that our actions have consequences. And something about the parable is surely meant to make us uncomfortable. Still, I don’t think Jesus is telling us this story just to scare us into being good. You know, “Be nice, or there’ll be hell to pay.” There’s something more. God’s heart is always riven by the cry of the poor. Jesus invites us to have hearts like God’s heart. He invites us not to be afraid to embrace the poor.
Now Jesus loved to eat and drink with rich tax collectors and sinners, a few of whom probably wore more than their share of purple and fine linen. He loved hanging out with them, for he knew they were poorer than they realized. Later Jesus himself will end up poor and suffering like Lazarus, crucified outside the gate, covered with “sores”- the cruel wounds of his passion. Like the rich man he too will be dressed in purple and fine linen, but it will be the purple cloak of his mockery and the linen of his shroud. Jesus is the Key to understanding this story. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Through his poverty we have become rich.
In his dying and rising Jesus, himself has crossed the “great chasm” between the place of comfort where Lazarus now finds rest and the place of anguish where the rich man is in torment. He is the Bridge. Ever disguised in the distressing face of the poor and most abandoned, Jesus is at the same time the wounded Healer, who has come back from the dead, not as avenger to zap us in the end if we mess up but as “forgiving victim,” his power expressed in the weakness of love. His own experience as the victim of his passion is not a place where he gets stuck. He neither curses his oppressors nor relishes his victimhood. He trusts that he is the beloved of the Father and so he is free to suffer because he knows it does not define him.* Now risen, he shows us that there is nothing to fear because like him we are at once poor, very wounded sinners and richly blest and most beloved.
We need not be afraid to welcome the poor one. For Lazarus isn’t the smelly, diseased other; he is me. Not other, but me. Compassion involves growth in this insight, this ease and desire to welcome the scary other and stop running away from him. Compassion leads us to union and intimacy with my very wounded inner self, the wounded neighbor who no longer needs to be avoided, and ultimately with the truly “other Other,” God most high who in Christ has become God most low, most lowly, wounded, vulnerable and always at the door, though we are so liable to miss him or close the door in his face.
How can we help but think of Saint Francis, who realizes one day that he must embrace that leper, the one from whom he had fled as the most repugnant of outcasts. Small wonder that soon after this embrace, Francis will hide in a cave and cry his heart out, grieving over all his sins. In the leper he has come too close to the trauma of bitter self-recognition, the place, the reality to be avoided at all costs, has become the scene of encounter, healing, and freedom. Jesus was right there, of all places, in his “distressing disguise.”
A drowsy complacency is always a temptation. How will I notice the poor one very near that I may find repugnant? Who is the ignored or forgotten outcast in my world, in this monastery, in my heart, in my mirror- the part of me that won’t go away, always begging to be let in even though I want to keep it at a safe distance?
We do not have to run away anymore. Christ Jesus is here at the door waiting to be let in, the sore-covered beggar, bearing the wounds of his own cruel passion, the wounds of our many passions. Each morning in the Eucharist the Divine Beggar invites us to Holy Communion with him. As we consume him, we beg that his merciful compassion may consume us more and more.