By Hedwig Lewis SJ
The Lenten Message of Pope Francis, known for his typically concise and challenging speeches and writings, is presented in the backdrop of the provocative parable of Jesus, The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
The document is entitled: “The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift.” One would consider it odd to think of “gifts” for the Lenten season of prayer ad prayer, but it is not as paradoxical as it seems, Christmas and festive occasions are for “giving,” Lent is a time for “receiving.”
We discipline our bodies to receive an abundance of God’s gifts or “grace.” We condition our minds to receive God’s Words spoken through scripture and in prayer. We open our hearts to welcome – as “gifts” – friends and enemies, neighbors and strangers, through love and reconciliation.
In Jesus’ parable, the Rich Man fails on all three counts of “receiving.” The story starkly dramatizes his egoistic attitudes. He dresses himself to the teeth in the most expensive fashion. He has an inner craving to impress the world with his wealth and success, through his self-indulgence and sumptuous banquets. He knew the teachings of the “holy Book” but failed to apply them to life. He was too self-centered to care for others, let alone Lazarus, the despicable beggar, horribly disfigured by sores, dressed in rags, starving, and struggling for survival.
The Rich Man is not described as evil, one who exploited, or despised, or ill-treated the poor. But what is obvious is that he is inhuman, insensitive, with a heart of stone. He has an opportunity for service to suffering humanity within his reach and without any risk of damaging his abundance, but he does not walk across the door to it. He has zero compassion. He is undoubtedly cognizant of the beggar’s existence, for he cannot help but pass by Lazarus every time he moves in and out the gate, but he turns a blind eye to him. Lazarus fades into the landscape and becomes “invisible.”
The Rich Man thus ignores God’s gift lying right at his doorstep; consequently, he misses the message attached to it. “The poor person at the door of the rich [is] a summons to conversion and to change,” said Pope Francis.
“The parable first invites us to open the doors of our heart to others because each person is a gift, whether it be our neighbor or an anonymous pauper,” noted Pope Francis. “Lazarus teaches us that other persons are a gift… Lent is a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ. Each of us meets people like this every day. Each life that we encounter is a gift deserving acceptance, respect and love.”
The key to opening the doors of the heart is Compassion. Compassion itself is a grace, or God-gift, – a divine empowerment. Compassion does not rest in feeling sorry for the plight of the poor, saying a prayer for their well-being; or even in sending a cheque to a charity organization.
Compassion is a dynamic virtue that demands eye-contact and hands-on relationships with our less fortunate brothers and sisters in the human family Jesus showed compassion when he touched the deaf, the blind, the sick, and the leprous. He expressed his concern and care through contact. Jesus dealt with persons as gifts: he received them graciously, he unwrapped them enthusiastically, he appreciated their value and thanked the Giver.
The most challenging part of compassion, therefore, is physical contact. Our streets are milling with poor and needy people, some lounging at the curb seeking alms; others scantily or shabbily dressed making their way to or from hard labor, weak, undernourished children, the blind, the lame and those bent with age.
Do we actually “see” them? Or, through compassion deficit or compassion overload or compassion fatigue (in modern jargon), are they merely fuzzy figures, faceless, or perhaps “invisible” because we are too self-preoccupied? Do we feel “related” to them, or are we simply disconnected?
Most of us keep our distance from the poor, the needy, the sick, the disabled, because of fear, ignorance or indifference. Grace enables us to be courageous enough to make genuine, actual, even physical contact with suffering, miserable people. Oftentimes, a simple gesture can reveal a compassionate mindset.
Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, tells of the time he was walking down the street and passed a beggar. Tolstoy reached into his pocket to give the beggar some money, but his pocket was empty. Tolstoy turned to the man and said, “I’m sorry, my brother, but I have nothing to give.” The beggar brightened and said, “You have given me more than I asked for – you have called me brother.”
In the final chapters of Matthew’s gospel we find three significant statements of Jesus. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Taken to heart, they will serve as our inspiration and motivation to effectually connect to other persons as God’s gifts to us. We must constantly remind ourselves: “Each life that we encounter is a gift deserving acceptance, respect and love.”
(Fr Hedwig Lewis of Gujarat Province of the Society of Jesus is an author of international repute. The 71-year-old priest joined St Xavier’s College at Ahmedabad as lecturer in English after his ordination in 1977. He became its principal in 1991. He now edits “Navajuni” a quarterly publication of the Jesuit Parivar (family) in Gujarat. He is well-known in the English and Spanish speaking world as a popular author especially in spirituality and counselling. His first book “At Home With God” (1991) has run into several editions including nine editions in Spanish. His books “Fun With Words” and “How to Study” are popular especially among school and university students. He has 19 books to his credit and many of them fetched good reviews in many Church newspapers and periodicals.)