The most awful thing about the rich man (traditionally named Dives) in this week’s gospel is not that he was rich, or decked out in lavish clothing, or even that he “dined sumptuously each day.”
Rather, the worst aspect of this story is that the starving, sore-ridden pauper lying at Dives’ door is not some anonymous street person. Dives actually knows the poor man’s name: Lazarus.
How many times had Dives quickly brushed past Lazarus lying at his gate — enough times not only to learn Lazarus’s name, but also to remember it. Here lies the real sin of Dives, the reason he ended up in “the netherworld, where he was in torment.” What was the sin of Dives? He had not ordered Lazarus to be removed from his door. He did not kick him in passing. He was not deliberately cruel to him. The sin of Dives was that he never noticed Lazarus, that he accepted him as part of the landscape, and simply thought it perfectly natural and inevitable that Lazarus should be miserable while Dives himself lived a life of luxury. It was not anything that Dives did that landed him in hell; it was what he did not do.
The sin of Dives was that he could look on suffering and need and feel no impulse to help or to show compassion. Dives looked at a fellow human being, hungry and in pain, and did nothing about it. His was the punishment of the man who never noticed.
As followers of Jesus, we are called upon to notice the pain and suffering of others and to respond with prayer, support, compassion and aid. It may have been the late John Cardinal O’Connor who was once asked why his archdiocesan charities served so many people who were not Catholic. The cardinal replied, “We don’t serve them because they are or are not Catholic; we do it because we are.” One of the hallmarks of a true disciple is the extent to which we are ready to do whatever we can to show mercy and charity to those who appear before us in need. Charity, not indifference, conforms us to Christ.
The end of the gospel passage is a stark reminder that failure to show charity when we ought to is equally as damning as actively mistreating another. The parable that Christ tells alerts us to live our lives to the fullest in virtue right now, because after death it is too late. The rich man wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family. But the Word of God Himself has already been sent and has already spoken. Salvation consists in listening to the word of God and putting that word into practice. More information helps no one without a freely chosen, faith-filled commitment to right living and right acting.
It seems hard that Dives’s request that his brothers should be warned was refused. But the plain fact is that if people possess the truth of God’s word, and if, wherever they look, there are sorrows to be comforted, pains to be relieved, needs to be cared for, and these things move them to no feeling and to no action, nothing will change them.
It is a terrible warning for all of us that the sin of Dives was not that he did wrong things, but that he did nothing.
Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)