Am 6:1A, 4-7; 1TM 6:11-16; Lk 16: 19-31
26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
I began to understand the story Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus in a whole new way after I visited the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. The volcanic explosion that tragically ended the lives of some of its’ citizens and buried the city in 79A.D. also preserved its’ ruins for re-discovery in the modern world. Walking along the streets of Pompeii is almost an otherworldly experience; except for the roofs and higher stories of buildings which were destroyed in the fall of volcanic ash, the town is almost perfectly preserved, right down to the paving stones on the streets.
About mid-way through the tour our guide stopped in front of a house that once belonged to one of the wealthy citizens of the town. The guide explained that, in a cramped Roman city, the houses of the rich and poor looked the same from the street – just one simple and rather narrow doorway. But inside…….the houses of the wealthy consisted of rooms built in a rectangular pattern around an open air garden in the middle of the house, often including elaborate waterworks. Even looking at the ruins, it was easy to imagine the beauty and the peace and quiet of such a retreat in former times.
It was also easy for me to imagine, then, the sin of the rich man in the story. It’s true that the story makes no mention of the rich man ever being cruel to Lazarus or fo the rich man calling the police to cart him away. The story does not say that the rich man was in any way pesonally or directly responsible for Lazarus’s poverty. In fact, there is no indication that the rich man ever noticed Lazarus at all.
And therin lies the tragedy. If Lazarus was “lying at the rich man’s door” in an ancient city like Pompeii, a city contemporary with the time of Jesus, then the rich man would have literally had to step over Lazarus everytime he went in and out of that small, narrow street entrance. He would have had no choice. Everyday, stepping up and over the prone Lazarus. Never looking down to notice that another human being was there.
Those of us blessed to live amid the wealth and splendor of the Western world routinely step over Lazarus. We benefit from the low wages paid to laborers in sweatshops in other parts of the world as well as the cheap labor of undocumented workers in our own countries by the plethora of inexpensive goods we are able to aquire. We use up the natural resources of other parts of the planet at an unsustainable rate. (In my country, the United States of America, 5% of the world’s population use about 20% of the world’s natural resources.) We take the refuse of our glorious consumption and send it somewhere else – to landfills we don’t have to see or live next to. Slavery has been illegal in the developed world for well over a century – yet the international sex trade which exploits the daughters of the poor for the enjoyment of the wealthy, is built in large part on the backs of about twenty -seven million poor souls who are, for all intents and purposes, slaves.
At what point in our daily inattention to Lazarus do we sacrifice our own humanity? This seems to me to be a question worth pondering.
(3rd millennium pilgrim)