Stories, not Labels

In our Lectionary cycle, every Sunday there is typically a thematic connection between the First Reading and the Gospel. Sometimes, the Second Reading fits in there too, but that’s simply a bonus. Today, this is important, I think, to help us understand the significance of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We hear a familiar story – one of contrasts: the rich man, dressed opulently, living well, and “dining sumptuously each day”; and Lazarus, covered in sores (where did they come from?), poor, hungry and alone.

After they die, we see the expected reversal of roles that we have come to see with regard to the Kingdom of God: Lazarus in comfort, and the rich man in torment. The easy lesson that we can draw from this is that we should be mindful of the poor and care for them.

What was the rich man’s failure? Being wealthy? Certainly not. Being rich is not a sin; it is not wrong to have wealth. Notice that we never hear that Lazarus wants to live in the man’s house, wear his clothes, or even eat at his table (he was happy just to have the scraps that fell from the table). And Jesus does not flatly praise Lazarus’ poverty here either. Certainly, Christ has a preference for the poor, but in and of itself this poverty is not praiseworthy.

Here is where the First Reading’s connection gives me a sense of what the lesson for us is. The prophet Amos begins, “Woe to the complacent in Zion!” The “complacent.” When we are complacent, we are satisfied – even self-satisfied – happy with our way of life, our opinions, our culture, our perspectives. This complacency, then, closes us off to others – even leading us to dismiss them.

That is what was so wrong with the rich man. He knew Lazarus (notice that he calls him by name in his appeal to Abraham). This guy was “that poor man who sat outside my house.” In life, even with their economic contrasts, they were very near one another. Now, there is the chasm – a chasm forged by complacency.

I think that is this the lesson for us today – especially given the social woes that we are facing in our city, nation, and world. I have heard from many people that they are tired of the “Black Loves Matter” slogans. “All lives matter,” we will protest. However, when we do that we are actually expressing an attitude of complacency that dismisses the pain and anger that “Black Lives Matter” is trying to express. There is a reason that our brothers and sisters feel a need to cry that out, and when we counter it with “All” we are dismissing their real pain and experience.

What is the remedy to this complacency – because I feel myself affected by it as well? I believe that it is understanding and dialogue. It is getting to know one another’s stories, rather than simply taking on an easy label.

Never accept a label in place of a story!

We all have them. In fact, there was a story behind each of Lazarus’ sores – behind Lazarus himself. He was more than a label – and so are we.

This week, the Smithsonian opened its newest museum in Washington: the African American History and Culture Museum. Actually, we have had one here in Baltimore for years – down where I-83 and Pratt Street meet, I think. Have you ever visited it? It’s worth the trip – as I assume the new one in Washington is. It doesn’t matter what color you are. There, you will hear and see the stories of our African American brothers and sisters. There, labels will melt away and human stories will fill the air.

This is what life is like – a story of stories. Every one of us has them, and our community is forged as these stories intersect. In our nation, we can grow closer by listening to them. “Black Lives Matter” – get over it! Muslim Lives Matter; Hispanic Immigrant Lives Matter; Republican Lives Matter; Unborn Lives Matter; and the life of that woman who is considering an abortion matters, too. There are stories in each of these lives, and we are better people for having heard them.

It’s easy to label someone and then dismiss them. That was the sin of the rich man. That is what created the vast chasm that could not be crossed. In our life here, there is no such chasm – unless we put it there. We still have the chance to listen and reach out to one another.

With attention to these stories, we can even become better evangelizers. Listen to your brothers and sisters you have fallen away. Understand their pain, their confusion, their fear. Only then can you bring Jesus’ saving love into their lives. It is He who listens to your story and makes you part of His. May we always be open to learn more about our brothers and sisters so we can see them included in this wonderful story of salvation!

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