The past several years have seen a flood of horrific photos from the war in Syria: starving children, wounded civilians, mourning crowds, devastated cities, the many dead. But the picture of a small child, alone, covered in blood and dust, dropped in the back of an ambulance with his feet dangling off the edge of a too-big chair; this picture has resonated with the world in a new way. He is just five years old and his name is Omran Daqneesh. Surrounded by shouting he is completely silent yet his silent stare has gripped the world.
It gripped one heart in a special way. It was that of six-year-old Alex in New York who was so moved that he wrote to President Obama offering to share his home with Omran. He asked the President to get the boy saying: “We will give him a family and he will be our brother… Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together.”
The President duly responded a few days ago by saying: “Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical or suspicious or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray.”
“We should all be more like Alex. Imagine what the world would look like if we were. Imagine the suffering we could ease and the lives we could save.”
The warm heart of Alex reaching out to Omran across the miles is the very opposite of the rich man in today’s Gospel who has no heart or compassion – not even for Lazarus at his doorstep who remains invisible to him. Dressed in linen and purple the rich man only thinks of himself as he feasts magnificently every day. It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t give him a name, suggesting that without a heart he has no identity. He is a nobody. His life, empty of compassion, is a failure. You can’t live only on banquets.
Cast down in the gateway of his mansion lies a hungry beggar, covered with sores. No one helps him. Only some dogs come close to him to lick his wounds. He possesses nothing, but he has a name and that is a beacon of hope. He’s called ‘Lazarus’, which means ‘My God is my help’.
The rich man isn’t judged for being an oppressor. Nothing is said about him being an infidel distant from the Covenant. Simply that he has enjoyed his wealth, ignoring the poor. He had a poor man right there, but he hadn’t seen him. Unlike little Alex, the rich man didn’t go out to him. The poor man was excluded from his life. His sin is indifference.
It’s the same story with Amos in the first reading. The real tragedy for Amos is that the rich are complacent. Feasting had become their way of life and they didn’t perceive the misery that was all around them. If this was a problem in biblical times, it pales into insignificance when we consider today’s world and the scale of the misery experienced by so many. We have only to reflect on the thousands of refugees and migrants or the ever widening gap between the few rich and many poor. Thus the parable of the rich man and Lazarus still retains all its force.
While there is little we can do about the refugees or the war in Syria, that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do. This parable has a moral for each of us, rich or poor, namely, we are to take care of each other. The early Church Fathers believed that each of us had two minds and two hearts. Inside each of us, they believed, is a noble, huge mind and heart. But, at the same time, inside us, there is also a petty, small mind and heart. Today Jesus is asking us which heart and mind do we want to entertain and flourish. Do we want to live a life that is good, noble and true or are we happy to slink back into life of pettiness, small-mindedness and selfishness? Jesus came that we may have life and live it to the full and that means reaching out to others – indeed to all of humanity – in love and appreciation.
Nobody is saying this is going to be a walk in the park. It’s not easy to be close to the sick, the suffering and the poor. The presence of a child begging in our path bothers us. A visit with a terminally ill friend disturbs us. We don’t know what to do or say. It’s much easier to pretend such suffering isn’t there and close ourselves off. And yet the little efforts we make to reach out to others in such circumstances liberate us and make us feel much more human and alive.
President Obama mentioned that Alex had ‘not learned to be cynical or suspicious or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray’. Cynical, suspicious and fearful; Alex hasn’t learned these negative words and I hope he never will. They don’t fit in with Jesus’ lifestyle either. For the rest of us, perhaps in varying degrees we have a bit of unlearning to do with these same words. In so doing we can follow Jesus more closely, who no doubt, will make us more sensitive to the suffering of those we meet in our daily lives. Then, as Obama says, imagine the suffering we could ease and the lives we could save.
Sunday, 25 September 2016