Archive for September 26th, 2016

{Today’s post was delivered as a sermon to members of the Order of Malta on 24 September, 2016}

imageLazarus and the Rich Man:  Who Is My Neighbor?

One of the great issues that Jesus dealt with was the answer to a very basic question:  “Who is my neighbor?  It’s one with deep cultural roots in all peoples, and in the Old Testament it’s one that the prophets framed in moral overtones.  On the answer depended a lot.

Though Jesus may have answered the question, it’s one that Christian preachers and missionaries have struggled with ever since.  And as a historian I’ve found it fascinating to examine its impact on various cultures, as those preachers pushed both the question as well as the envelop of those who answered very narrowly.

For example, in the 8th century as missionaries sought to transform nominal Christians in the Carolingian Empire into authentic Christians, this was a question that made scarcely any sense at all to the inhabitants of many a German village.  In their settlements the word neighbor extended to the limits of the village; but people in the next village definitely did not qualify as neighbors.  So it was that generations of preachers pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a neighbor.  It was tough enough to get people to accept as their neighbor the people in the adjacent village.  It was tougher still to include people who spoke a different dialect altogether.  And it was an enormous stretch to embrace the total stranger as neighbor.

In Christian parlance, as Jesus taught, our neighbor is any fellow human being whom God or chance sends into our lives.  No matter how different they might be from us, they are our neighbor and even our kin, because God has created them — just like us — in his image.  They too bear the face of Christ.

imageGiven all that as background, we can better appreciate the role that Jesus assigns to the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.  The rich man had lived well, and he lived well in a household that extended hospitality only to a tight circle of relatives and friends.  Ironically, the rich man knew who Lazarus was, because he saw him every time he stepped through his front door.  He even knew the name of this poor suffering man, but Lazarus was no neighbor to him.  And so, when he called from his perch in hell for Lazarus to bring a drop of water, he considered Lazarus to be a servant, at best.

But the rich man sealed his fate when he asked Abraham to send a warning to his brothers.  “Save my brothers, so that they don’t end up like me,” was his plea.  As caring and thoughtful as that might seem, it is in fact the narrowest definition of neighbor.  He cared little for anyone else, because his family alone fell into the category of neighbor.  No one else mattered; no one else was his neighbor and he scarcely had a thought for anyone else.

Can it be that the rich man has given us a glimpse of what hell is really all about?  In hell there is no personal growth.  In hell there’s no desire to mature in wisdom and understanding.  In hell people never seem to get it, because all their lives they never really got it.  And just as likely, their sojourn in hell began on this side of the great divide.

imageIn his first letter to Timothy St. Paul writes about the “noble confession” of faith which we all make as Christsians.  What’s important to realize is that your vocation and mine is to translate this “noble confession” of faith into some sort of lived reality.  Paul suggests what that might mean when he includes righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

When Paul does this, it occurs to me that there are at least a couple of things that we should keep in mind.  First, Paul doesn’t say that our profession of faith should be used as a yardstick to measure how other people are living out their faith.  It’s not our mission or vocation to spend time condemning others for the absence of righteousness or devotion or love or patience or gentleness.  And that brings us to the second point.  This is one of those  very rare instances in life in which it truly is “all about us.”  Our confession of faith is noble, but not when we devote ourselves to chipping away at others for their lack of nobility.  It’s only noble when we daily examine our own progress on the road to righteousness and devotion and all the rest.

imageWe might conclude with one last reference to the business of who might be my neighbor.  As members of the Order of Malta we act in the conviction that always and everywhere we see the face of Christ in our lords the sick and the poor.  They are our neighbors, whether we know their names or not.  They are, in fact, gifts of God to us, just as surely as the dying men and women in the streets of Calcutta were gifts to Mother Theresa.  For her, and for us, these people are the face of God, standing right in front of us.

But this vision does not stop there.  If we cannot transform ourselves into Chrsitian visionaries, then our own personal hell begins now, just as surely as did the rich man’s long before he ever crossed to the place of torment.  And so, like him, we have the chance to translate into practice the noble confession of faith of which St. Paul writes.  And in that profession we vow to be the hands of Christ, lifting up the sick and the poor.  We vow to be the voice of Christ, speaking to those who are depressed or lonely.  We vow to be the face of Christ for those who always wondered what Jesus looked like.

Happily, the answer to that last part is wonderfully simple.  On a good day, the face of Christ can look a lot like your face and mine.


+On September 19th I presided at the monthly Mass for members of the Order of Malta in San Francisco.

+On the evening of September 20th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at The University of Saint Joseph in Hartford, CT.

+I rounded out a very busy week by attending the annual orientation for provisional members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, held on September 24-25 at a hotel at the Los Angeles International Airport.  At that gathering I gave two talks and celebrated the Sunday Mass.  Thankfully, the airlines did their work well this week, and I did not miss anything.

+Today’s post is in fact the sermon that I gave to members of the Order of Malta in Los Angeles this weekend.

+The photos in today’s post all depict items in the V & A in London.  The first is an altarpiece by Andrea Ferrucci, ca. 1526, Tuscany.  Next is an 18th-century wrought iron screen, made in Germany.  The post concludes with an altarpiece and tabernacle from Santa Chiara in Florence, ca. 1400.

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