John Chrysostom is one of the most voluminous of the writers of the early church. He preached in the great Hagia Sophia cathedral before the rulers of Byzantium and his work is both subtle and amazing. It is also very pointed because in his reflection on this story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Chrysostom is quite ready to condemn the rich man. It is not however his wealth that causes Chrysostom’s diapprobation, it is that the man had wealth, saw this man in need, and ignored him day after day, month after month, year after year. Chrysostom in fact, calls him cruel but rather than explain it, I’ll quote:
“For if he had no pity on the man continually laid at his gate, and placed before his eyes, whom every day, once or twice, or oftentimes, as he went in and out, he was obliged to see; (for the man was not placed in a by-way, nor in a hidden and narrow place, but in a spot where the rich man, in his continual coming-in and going-out, was obliged, even if unwilling, to look upon him;) if, therefore, the rich man did not pity him lying there in such suffering, and living in such distress, (and, rather, all his life long in misery because of sickness, and that of the most grievous kind), would he ever have been moved with compassion towards any of the afflicted whom he might casually meet?”
And there’s the sharp point that catches us today. The wealth of the rich man was the power he had to do good. His cruelty was having the power but deciding not to use it for good. The power he had required an open heart and a willing spirit to give life to this man lying at the gate, but he would not. Perhaps he was afraid to get involved or worried about having anything left over if he tried to help. Maybe he was overwhelmed at the very thought of how much would need to be done or he promised himself to do something important later. Maybe he was just too busy to stop. Maybe he just didn’t see anymore.
It’s that last notion that has snagged me all week and (truth to tell) for a lot longer even before that. This is because there are a lot of things in the world which I do not see and a bunch of other things that don’t directly impinge on my life so I ignore them. But doing this, not-seeing and thus ignoring, makes me cruel like the rich man in this parable. My first impulse is to say “that’s not who I am, I’m not like that” but theologically… yep, that’s me.
When a person gets caught being cruel to others, the temptation is to say “that’s not what I’m about” when in point of fact, yes it is because you did it. We try to distance ourselves from our own actions as if they were done by aliens who took over our body. We say things like “I don’t know what came over me” and hope that will be OK. But it isn’t.
In the same way, when we do not see the broken body, the hurt heart in front of us, we’re a lot more like the rich man in this story than we may want to be. When we brush off our African-American sisters and brothers and their legitimate concern for their safety when stopped by the police, we’re like that rich man. When our sisters’ real concern about unequal treatment and the reality of a culture that diminishes rape as “twenty minutes of action” and dismisses accusations with “was she a stripper,” we’re like that rich man. When we meet the concerns of people who worked hard, paid their taxes, and now find themselves with battered bodies and no pension when the mill closed, by telling them ‘tough luck,’ and ‘that was dumb,’ you know what that makes us.
So then, this text invites us to ask our eyes to look again at the people around us. It asks us to consider that there are people in our blind spots. There are the lonely, the addict, and the hundreds of other kinds of people we see each day but may not really “see.”
The rich man knew Lazarus well enough to ask for him by name. We too may know our own Lazarus at the gate, our own people over whom we have been nearly tripping for years but never noticed. So now it is time to start looking, to start seeing who we might be missing. And when we’ve done that work, when we’re sure we’ve seen everyone, that we are actually paying attention to them all, it’s time to pick up “Moses and the Prophets” and look again just to be sure. After all, there are few things as mortifying as having to say “oops, I didn’t see you there.”