A beloved local priest once gave a one-line homily on today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His homily so struck the small group of daily Mass attendees that even people who weren’t present (including me) have heard and retold his little aphorism:
“If you neglect the poor, you will go to hell.”
And then he sat down.
There are plenty of legitimate ways to respond to today’s Gospel and just as many legitimate ways that we can serve “Lazarus” in our own daily life: do something kind for a neighbor, be patient with a co-worker, reach out to a lonely friend, go home and love your spouse and kids. To all of these, yes! There are many forms of poverty and need, and there are at least fourteen ways the Church recommends to address them. (See the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.)
But just because you’ve done a work of mercy doesn’t mean you’ve served the poor. Your neighbor, co-worker, friend, family members; they can all serve you back. They have something to give you in return. Lazarus had nothing. He was poor in the truest, plainest, most literal sense of the word, and he’s the one Jesus is talking about in today’s parable.
Like most aphorisms, my priest’s one-line homily was meant as a memorable shorthand for a universal truth, not necessarily as an inviolable or logical statement about our eventual judgment. Still, we shouldn’t take it too lightly either. Recalling the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, the Catechism says, “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren” (CCC, 1033). In other words, my priest is on to something.
The poor are ever in our midst, and our vocation as baptized Christians will always involve taking care of them in the truest, plainest, most literal ways we can. Whether the one-line homily makes your conscience smart (as it does mine) or you served in a soup kitchen yesterday, Jesus invites you to seek out the poor Lazarus who lives just beyond your door and to do something for him or her, loving them like your [eternal] life depended on it.
Stephen Barany is a designer and illustrator living in South Bend, IN. You can find out more about him and his work at stephenbarany.com.