It’s hard to imagine a more countercultural message than the messages in this week’s readings. Today the values of helping those who are suffering, and being kind to all you meet, are not prioritized in our culture. Being powerful, being wealthy, putting others down to advance one’s standing, promoting and protecting one’s self at the expense of the vulnerable, and criticizing the “other” have become the norm. The idea of servant leadership – that is, seeing our resources, skills and power as opportunities to serve others – has been lost.
This week’s readings give us a very different message about what our lives should and should not be. We learn that we can’t be like those in Zion in the first reading from Amos, or the rich man in the Gospel and immerse ourselves in our own comfort and complacency when all around us—near and far--there are people suffering. Instead, as the psalm tells us, we are called to promote justice for the oppressed, give food to the hungry, set captives free, love the just and protect the stranger.
One of the ways this message gets lost is when we allow ourselves to just settle into our own lives and forget about the people who are suffering whom we may not see every day. I recently had a powerful experience of the impact of forgetting those in need. You may remember about 15 years ago when the whole world was focused on the genocide in Darfur. Every day the heartbreak of people from that region in Sudan who were desperately fleeing for their lives came into our living rooms on the evening news. But how many of us have thought lately about the people from Darfur? Our lives, and the news cycle, moved on. But all these years later, they are still struggling, living in refugee camps in eastern Chad where my organization, Jesuit Refugee Service, provides education to help the next generation have hope for a brighter future. What does it mean in light of this week’s readings that so many of us forgot them?
This week’s Gospel is one of the places where we hear the answer to that question. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is one of several very explicit messages about how our lives will be judged in the end and the cost of ignoring this message. This is reinforced in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, when he tells us the way to “lay hold of eternal life” is to “keep the commandment.” As we know from the story of the Great Commandment, it is a commandment of love – love for God and love for one another. Love for God cannot exist without love for our neighbors.
Today, our neighbors are the people in our own communities who are suffering from poverty, violence, illness and other crises. And because of the instant global communication we all have access to, they are also people who are not nearby but whose needs we are well aware of through our cell phones, tablets and televisions.
· Children whose futures are forever limited because they don’t have access to education.
· Families who suffer through droughts and changing weather patterns that leave them unable to grow food and feed their families.
· Communities hit by natural disasters facing urgent needs.
· Parents who have to make the impossible choice to take their children and abandon their homes to escape violence and other crises, not knowing whether they will be welcomed in the end or separated in the process.
But I know that when we see so many people suffering in our own communities and around the world, it can be overwhelming. What does the Gospel require of us when it feels like we can’t really make a dent in the massive need that just keeps growing?
The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man helps us answer that question. Doing nothing isn’t an option. It’s important to remember that even if each of us can’t solve the whole problem, we can all contribute. And I have seen the amazing difference we can make in our neighbors’ lives. Here in the U.S., Catholic Charities agencies and other organizations are helping people meet essential needs and rebuild their lives when they face a crisis. In my own work with refugees and other displaced people, I have seen the impressive resilience of people who were forced to flee their homes and yet, with a little help, are able to maintain hope, provide for their children and build a future for their families.
Recently, I was in Lebanon and met two colleagues who are among the more than one million Syrian refugees who have fled the war and are living in Lebanon. By law, my colleagues are actually not allowed to work, but they can receive a small stipend as volunteers. They serve as home visitors, going out into various neighborhoods and visiting other refugee families. Despite their own struggle, they are a living reflection of our central obligation to help others in need. Having lived through the trauma of being so threatened that you leave your home and everything you have ever known, imagine how difficult it must be for them to go every day to hear about similar experiences from other refugees. But they are committed to helping. With modest but essential stipend support for their families from JRS, not only are they able to send their children to school and give them hope for the future, but they are able to provide a sympathetic ear for others and respond as much as possible to the needs people have, giving hope to dozens of other displaced families.
There are truly millions of stories like this that remind us of the impact a little help from us can have in the lives of our neighbors. Even though we know that we can’t all do everything, and we can’t all do the same thing, every one of us can – and must – do something. Christ’s teachings tell us clearly that we all need to identify the “somethings” we can do to help the Lazaruses in our world.
Reflecting on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man made me think of a conversation I had several years ago with a colleague who works in higher education. He referred to another Gospel story about how we must live our lives--the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 when Christ tells us we encounter him in those in need – “when I was hungry, you helped me” he tells us. And he instructs us that, in the end, our lives will be judged by how we responded, or failed to respond, to the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers and others in need. My colleague explained, using terms understood in his academic context, “We all know what’s going to be on the final exam. The question is, are we going to be prepared to pass?” Each of us must ask ourselves that question.
Joan Rosenhauer is the Executive Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. In this role, she leads the organization’s efforts in the U.S. to fulfill its mission to accompany, serve, and advocate for refugees and displaced people. As a member of JRS’s global Senior Leadership Team, she also helps lead JRS’s global operations.
Rosenhauer is a former JRS/USA Board Member and has spent most of her career advocating for social justice and mobilizing the U.S. Catholic community to do the same. As the Executive Vice President of Catholic Relief Services, Rosenhauer led the organization’s outreach, advocacy, marketing, and communications - helping those in the United States respond to critical needs around the world. Prior to joining CRS, Rosenhauer spent 16 years with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where she served as associate director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, working with the bishops on such documents as Faithful Citizenship and the Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.
Rosenhauer has a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Iowa and a master’s degree in public policy management from the University of Maryland. She has been awarded honorary doctorates from Dominican College, St. Ambrose University and Georgetown University.
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