Madonna House

Musings for the New Year

by Fr. David May

How did it ever come to this? Have you ever found yourself asking this question?

I did when preaching a while back on the Gospel of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31). How did the rich man get to the point where he never even noticed the poor man Lazarus at his gate—hungry, covered with sores, and tormented by dogs?

Is such cold-hearted blindness to the suffering of one’s neighbor really possible? Apparently so! How does a person get so locked into himself that he is locked away in hell forever, with no way out?

To look at it from another perspective: what was Lazarus’ secret? There he is resting peacefully on the bosom of Abraham, with nary a trace of bitterness about his life, nor, as far as we can tell, during his life.

How did he do it? How did he end up so peaceful, so forgiving? Was he not even a tiny bit angry at God for allowing him to have such a miserable earthly life?

Apparently not. Did heaven with father Abraham make it all worthwhile? What was his secret?

Then another question comes: what will shake up the rich man in me? What will jolt me out of my spiritual torpor, my old habits, my fixated ways of thinking, my resentments, and the rest of it?

Prayer? Fasting? Giving alms? More severe mortifications? Reading Moses and the prophets and what they have to say about ignoring or taking advantage of widows and orphans? Poring over the gospels once again?

Yes, while there’s still time, I had better do something. But what is the secret of a transformed heart, a changed heart, a heart of stone becoming a heart of flesh?

Or along another line: how well do I accept being Lazarus in my life? You know: wounded in ways far worse than physical. On the outs from the ones in the know (and maybe at the banquet). Unnoticed, or at least not noticed as much as I think I deserve, or as appreciated.

How quickly I can become resentful over trivialities! How would I ever manage a lifetime of that and much worse, a life like that of Lazarus left to languish at the gate?

Of course, the punch line to this parable is as sobering as any line in the Gospels. The rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers, so that they don’t end up with the same fate as himself. (Evidently, they are living a lifestyle similar to that of their now deceased brother.)

To which, Abraham replies: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

End of story. End of dialogue between heaven and hell. End of hope.

Or is it?

Of course, if one is listening to Moses and the prophets … If one is listening to what they teach about helping the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, and about practicing justice towards the poor, then this parable’s warnings do not have such a dour relevance.

Without falling into presumption or complacency, one has a reasonable assurance that one’s eternal destiny will not be unhappy, for “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Plus there is that other gospel passage about the final judgment and caring for Christ in the least of our brethren.

But isn’t it our Catholic understanding of the Scriptures that it is the risen Lord who speaks to us through Moses, the Law, and the prophets? In other words, it is the risen Lord we encounter in the entire Word of God, and not only in the New Testament.

It is the Risen Lord who is referred to at the end of the story, and not simply someone who “goes to them from the dead,” as Lazarus would have done if the rich man’s request had been granted.

Is not the Lord expanding our notion here of resurrection to something beyond resuscitation? Admittedly, resuscitation is impressive if you ever witness it! But Resurrection is so much more. Here is what I mean:

What hope is there for the rich man in me, for the rich of this world, unless they meet the Risen Lord? What lasting change of heart is even conceivable unless He is still alive and with us, the One who was divine but did not cling to his equality with God?

Rather, he emptied himself to take the form of a slave, and being in the form of a slave, was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. Therefore, God highly exalted him… (cf. Phil 2: 6ff).

What hope does the rich man have unless he encounters this One in whom is vindicated every faltering and stumbling human effort to better the fate of the poor; unless he sees, at last, the beauty of this outpouring and the futility of holding back?

And more, what hope has he for a changed heart unless Christ risen from the dead shows him just how poor, how terribly, pathetically, and permanently poor he is? Unless the One bearing all the spiritual treasures in the heavens comes down to save him, slay him (so to speak, but really!) and then raise him up anew?

Has Christ ever come to you ensconced in the apparent abundance of your wealth (in the literal sense, not likely for most readers of this paper!), your gifts, your position in society … and shown you just how poor you are in his eyes?

What a devastatingly beautiful gift was being offered you, if he did.

He once came to me in the form of a handicapped child, one who had trouble walking and speaking, but was so rich in kindness, honesty, and simplicity. I never felt so poor, so stuck in the “wealth” of my pride. Yet, here on offer before my eyes, was another kind of wealth entirely!

Yes, yes. I can still say no to Him, in whatever form he comes; I have his word for it in this Gospel story. But what hope is there of saying yes without the One who comes to show me the truth of my poverty and of what true riches are all about: namely, himself?

And the poor man in me, Lazarus, lying helpless outside the gate, also needs the One who rises from the dead.

Christ, like Lazarus, is covered with wounds, but now these wounds are instruments of glory and healing for the whole human race.

For when we allow Christ’s wounds to touch our own—when we discover what such an idea even means—we discover that his wounds overflow not with bitterness and regret but with infinite compassion and yes, the joy and promise of Resurrection.

Has Our Lord ever come to you in this way—his eyes piercing your own with such tender compassion, with a suffering fully shared, yet also radiant with a depth of peace and promise of victory, despite the shattered condition of the present moment?

The Lord has ways of doing this, for he is risen, after all. He is alive. He does care for us with an infinite compassion. So why shouldn’t he go through the walls and locked doors of time, space, hardened hearts and broken ones to bring gifts of grace?

It is then that we begin to realize that the suffering we have been called to bear and still must bear, is united to his and can even become a kind of prayer and offering.

Suffering united to love has a great power to transform our world. It’s as if Christ himself gazes upon it again, shares its anguish, and calls it to a vision of hope going far beyond this present earthly dwelling.

Yes, even to this I am free to say no and to go my way. Suffering wears us down in many ways, and we want to be done with it.

Many today see no meaning in it at all. But a Lazarus who knows he is loved by the risen Christ is the most powerful argument against a culture of death and its exercises in futility.

If this coming year is to be remembered as one which saw a victory of hope in the face of all its problems and contradictions, it will be because, in some way or other, both the rich man and Lazarus met the Risen Lord, caught a glimpse of him passing by, and said yes to what he was offering.

Could it ever come to this? Because Jesus is risen, the answer is…yes! His presence in the hearts of believers is still the world’s best hope, and in the end, its only one.