Three distinct themes were introduced to us as we entered Lent on Ash Wednesday: Prayer, Fasting, and Alms Giving. In these early days of Lent we have been looking more closely at these aspects. For example last week we had both Matthew’s instruction on how to pray and Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s prayer. And today’s gospel places before us many of the same issues we face when we give alms.
Almsgiving is a long-standing practice within the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31) Alms are money or goods given to those in need as an act of charity. The word alms comes from a Greek word meaning “pity or mercy.” In its original sense, when you give alms, you are dispensing mercy. Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is “giving to God” — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving. Almsgiving has the ability to change us. It frequently starts with seeing a need within another person. When we recognize we have the ability to help that person in need we experience compassion. Ideally, we respond to the person in need with compassion; the same compassion Jesus gave to all people. Indeed we have the ability to dispense the compassion of Christ!
We are told this parable is specifically addressed to the Pharisees. The Pharisees are not bad people. Just like us, they have a zeal and desire to please God. Just like us, they need to have their vision readjusted. Jesus challenges these Pharisees to begin seeing those who are overseen, the forgotten, the lost, the hungry, the invisible ones. Isn’t this same lesson we all need?
For most of us, the Lazaruses of life, come at very undesirable times. We’re usually quite busy about many things and to respond to someone else’s need is a major inconvenience. It’s a lot easier to overlook Lazarus. Sometimes, to quote Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, we may actually cross over to the other side of the road to avoid the ones we don’t want to see.
In every town and every community this Lazarus story is relived. Occasionally the events of the story will shift, jarring us and causing us to ask, how could this have happened? For example, last week here in Louisville amidst the sub zero temperatures, a man froze to death on the front steps of a shelter. Then people began asking, how could this have happened? It took several days for the newspapers to shift from calling him a homeless man to actually giving him a name. As long as he is named “homeless” he can remain invisible. But to use his name suddenly lifts his status and beckons people to pay more attention. The last line of the story written in Louisville’s Courier-Journal states, “He was invisible to most of us because he was homeless.” Lazarus was invisible to Jesus’ target audience.
The same newspaper last Thanksgiving recalls an event that happened forty five years earlier. The story seemed incomprehensible. The day before our entire community celebrated Thanksgiving with an abundance of food, a nine-year-old boy, Bobby Ellis, died of malnutrition. He was found in bed surrounded by his five staving sisters. How is it a child can die of starvation in this city the day before we all celebrate Thanksgiving? Bobby’s death woke people up to rally around a need most were blind to. The movement that followed led to the creation of Dare to Care food bank which last year provided 15 million meals. This NPO reaches out to especially vulnerable populations. In this area one in five children face hunger every night.
And while some may turn their head away from this reality, Jesus simply tells a story about a person who appeared invisible to the one who claimed he can see.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Louisville, Kentucky.