Breath of the Spirit: The Costs of Looking Away
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing.” So goes the familiar anecdote. This aphorism suggests how easy it can be to look away from the evils that surround us so that we don’t really even see them. Jesus – and today’s reflection – however, demand that we do, in fact, notice the suffering in our midst: the human beings who have less than they need or deserve. We are reminded, and not so gently, that we are held responsible for that which (and those whom) we choose to ignore.
September 25, 2022: the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
1 Timothy 6:11-16
The Costs of Looking Away
A reflection by L. F. Ranner
A month and a half ago, I found myself with a seven-hour layover in New York City. Walking along Sixth Avenue from the Museum of Modern Art to Central Park, I felt blessed with an unexpected treasure: the afternoon on my own in a great metropolis. It was the perfect hour - still white-hot but with one side of the street entirely in shade, a breeze lifting my hair off my collar, and the sun already well on the wane. I was without bags or plans or responsibilities - really, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so free.
Waiting at a stoplight, I noticed a woman attempting to cross the avenue in the opposite direction. I say “attempting,” because she was a tiny, bent, withered person, encumbered by an enormous suitcase literally filled to bursting: it was lashed together by fraying twine. If the suitcase ever had wheels, they were broken, for she was dragging the suitcase on its side. Slung over her shoulders were a tangled multitude of bags, all stuffed as full as the suitcase or fuller; even in the July heat, she was bundled into a black overcoat that had faded to brown in places, from whose pockets spilled bits of plastic and cloth - all of her burdens, it seemed were in the process of being eviscerated before our eyes.
Her face was turned downward. Rather than look at the snarl of traffic (with or without the benefit of the stoplight), she seemed to be navigating by sound, or vibration: she would take a few tentative steps and pause just in time before an oncoming car without ever once looking in its direction. This method, and the inevitability of the traffic’s stream, meant that her progress was negligible: she would wade out, only to be washed back. She would listen to the street, and try again.
The avenue was crawling with people. The wealthy, undoubtedly, and those less so - the desperately harried and those strolling along on a summer holiday. There were people like me, just passing through on an afternoon that was going to be a mini-antidote to my hectic, overbooked life.
All of us saw her - she was impossible to miss. None of us helped.
There are a million reasons why. It’s New York, is probably the one that occurred to most of us bystanders, shorthand for: there are crazy homeless people on practically every streetcorner and if we stop to help every one then not only will we never get where we’re going but there won’t be any time or money left for ourselves.
This is what we were all murmuring under our breath, in our minds - we who looked studiously at our maps, at the sky, who carried on our conversations at the stoplight about anything but her. Of course, it is a convenient fabric of half-truths and lies. Yes, it’s New York; no, there aren’t vulnerable people assaulting you here from all sides with their existence; there is absolutely no proof that this woman is either crazy or homeless; maybe, like all the rest of us, she’s just trying to cross the street. Why weren’t we asking ourselves the fundamental question: how can it be that there are a hundred able-bodied people witnessing the distress of a fellow human being and none of us are helping her out?
The light finally, mercifully changed. I didn’t look back, and when it was time to return to my subway stop from the park, I went a different way. The last time I saw her, she was still trying to cross the street by sound, wading out in the ocean, and being washed back to shore. Would she ever make it across? It was only a matter of time until the twine unraveled and the suitcase burst. Then what? Where would it happen? In the middle of Sixth Avenue? Would traffic stop long enough for her to gather what was left of her belongings? Who would help her find a way to the other side?
My walk in the park was not what I had anticipated. I don’t remember what I saw, or where I wandered in my state of freedom; I only remember feeling relief when the hour was complete and it was time to go back to the subway. My carefree state of mind had been exchanged for my own onerous burden - the guilty whispers of a conscience, you are a fake, a fraud, and no Christian.
The parable of Dives (as he is known, “the rich man” in Latin) and Lazarus is Jesus’ meditation on the cost of indifference - of deafness and blindness to human suffering. It’s told to the Pharisees: hypocrites like me, who imagine they can go through life unburdened with other people and their problems. The issue isn’t even contempt for those less fortunate - it’s complacency. This is the sin of being perfectly content, not only with your own lot, but that of those who have less. After all, we reason: if we’re comfortable; is it our business if others are not? To merit the dubious distinction of membership in this club, you don’t have to wicked, or scheming, or ruthless, or cruel; all you have to do is not care enough to act.
Jesus is a master of constructing stories with specific listeners in mind, that are guaranteed to hit their weak spots. Here, the focus is not the burden-bearers, but the passersby who refuse to be help carry those burdens. Jesus focuses on the one thing that is bound to get a self-centered person’s attention: the self. The parable illustrates that the ultimate cost for indifference is borne not by the sufferer, but by one who looks away. For each refusal to see or hear or to be moved to action rips open the space between ourselves and the other a little wider until after a lifetime of selfishness, it’s become an unbridgeable gap - the chasm that not even Abraham can cross.
We all know how difficult it is to talk to this sort of person and convince them that they’re not all that matters - especially if that person is yourself. Jesus, however, knows exactly what approach to take: personalize the lesson. Make it real. Give it faces, a home, an unsettling familiarity. Don’t wait for the indifferent to wake up one morning and discover there’s suffering in the world: drag it right up under their noses.
An incarnational hallmark of Jesus’ ministry is the refusal to ask anything of others Jesus doesn’t require of himself; the personalization of other people’s suffering is no exception.
Is it just an accident that the unfortunate man in his story is Lazarus - a name shared with Jesus’ beloved friend? Was there a reason it popped into Jesus’ head? In trying to make this as real as possible for the audience, did Jesus understand, as all great teachers do, that it must become real in the first person? What if it were Lazarus, my Lazarus, lying there covered in sores? Ignored by the rich man? What kind of anguish and outrage would I feel?
Jesus spares us no detail: this man in the story wearing his friend’s name is a complete, unflinching portrait of human degradation. What is he doing on a doorstep - is it poverty that keeps him there, physical or mental illness, or all three? Why is he covered in sores? Why does nobody care? After all, he’s right in front of the door of Dives, where people pass him a hundred times a day. He doesn’t even beg for his fair portion; in fact, as far as we know, he doesn’t ask for anything at all. Here, Jesus shifts focus from appearance to interior life. Suddenly, we are no longer seeing Lazarus from the world’s perspective, but the world through the eyes of Lazarus. We learn that he longs only for the scraps that fall from the table: crumbs and bones.
But no one thinks to share the scraps. Perhaps they, too, end up thrown out of the door, the bits that the dogs have turned away - or perhaps rooting among the refuse is how the dogs find him. They are only living beings who pay Lazarus any attention at all. It’s a tough image, even for people in first-century Palestine who were far more inured to visceral distress than we moderns: yet Jesus forces us to see. The piles of refuse, the pitiful body tormented by sores. Sores: a word that evokes horror and disgust in any age, a nasty reminder to all of us that our decay begins long before we are dead. For some people, it’s just a little more obvious - and we don’t like to see reminders of our shared mortality. The hard truth is that nobody gives a damn about Lazarus. Or rather, only the starving mongrels mark his presence, fellow scroungers and sufferers. Maybe they recognize a discard like themselves.
Dives, meanwhile, has walls to protect him from such a dreadful sight. He’s inside, decked to the nines in the first-century equivalent of Armani and Rolex, without a care in the world. Did I mention that houses in those days had no windows? Like the objects of Amos’ imprecation, the life of the rich man is one of comfort and pleasure, where privilege serves to isolate from ugliness; maybe he only uses the back door, or maybe when he crosses the threshold, he remembers to shut his eyes. That’s it: shut out the world with thick walls, drink rich wine, and listen to the delightful murmur of the fountain. The poor - and the dogs - can’t afford walls to hide behind. The disappearance one day of Lazarus from the doorstep is unmarked by mourning; it may even have come as something of a relief.
And yet. The afterlife Jesus envisions in this parable is a complete inversion of what the Pharisees expect - which is of course their own moral universe, constructed with themselves, not God, at the center: chief architects, chief inhabitants, chief governing powers, chief beneficiaries.
By contrast, when Lazarus dies, he is carried aloft by angels to his heavenly home, where houses are built with an uninterrupted view. In heaven, everyone sees everyone. (Bringing the angels in, by the way, is Jesus’ characteristic coup de grâce: belief in angels was a Pharisee point of pride.)
This sort of imprecation, Old Testament and New, is often read as a tract against hedonism, which I think Jesus might say is missing the point. Jesus drank, partied, enjoyed intimacy with the ones he loved. None of that is the target of this arrow.
Rather, it is the person like Dives, and like myself on that Sixth-Avenue afternoon, who are so busy enjoying the good life that they can’t be bothered to temper their self-absorption the tiniest bit (Where was I going, after all? What was the hurry? Why did I look away?), who refuse to share even a scrap of what makes their life so good - that which the other, right before them, is so grievously lacking. We refuse to share the riches of our happiness, which, as creatures of free will, is our choice. But as Jesus points out, death will come to all of us, rich and bereft alike. When it does, when we have nothing of our own left to share, it’s God who will be doing the sharing - a God who has better eyes and a bigger heart than we do.
Lori Frey Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History.
Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of lecturer at Loyola New Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. She currently teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and World Religions at Ursuline Academy.
She is married and mother to three children. In her random bits of free time, she is writing one novel, editing a second, and turning a third into a podcast.