Some years back when I was a newly-ordained priest teaching at an all-boys Catholic high school in New Orleans, my students would confront me on occasion with outrageous statements of disbelief. “You’re a priest. You can’t do that.” “And what exactly am I not supposed to do?” I would ask. “That,” they would say as they make indeterminate hand gestures. “What? Ride a bike? Play the guitar? Wear shorts and a T-shirt? Visit the French Quarter during Mardi Gras?” (I was with my parents at the time.) “Uh-huh.” “And why not?” “Priests just don’t do that stuff.” “They don’t? And does it say that in the manual? Can I borrow your copy when you’re done, because I didn’t get one?” They thought their expectations were perfectly reasonable. Now, I have since revised my response, the one I should have given then, which happens when I’m not quick on the uptake, which is most of the time. It goes like this. “I’m sorry that I am probably not like most priests you have known. Give me time. I’ll get there one day, just not yet.” And I know some of you think I’m well on my way.
We’ve all come across ridiculous expectations of some kind or other along the way. “You gave me a D in Algebra, which just cost me a college academic scholarship to an Ivy League University, and a career in International Finance.” “Um, you earned an F. I gave you a D because I thought you could do better.” “Can I raise my final grade if I did some extra credit work?” “You don’t understand. Extra credit only works if you do the regular work first.” “My parents told me I can’t play football/baseball/basketball if I don’t get better than C’s.” “Well then, you’ve got your work cut out, don’t you?”
It is safe to think we all have reasonable expectations of ourselves and of others. For instance, the Golden Rule is a much highly-regarded standard. “If you want to be treated with respect, you need to treat others with respect. So if you are disrespectful, people will more than likely be disrespectful back.” Most professional fields have a code of ethical behavior, sometimes clearly articulated, sometimes implied. “You get to work on time, dress appropriately, behave responsibly, and don’t steal, cheat, or lie. You give your employer an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. You treat your customers with kindness always.” Now some popular standards may not always apply, but we get the reason why we have them. For instance, “The customer is always right.” But what do you do if the customer is under the influence, abusive, or violent? You can call the manager. But that is not always an option. It all comes down to reasonable expectations. De-escalate. Don’t get confrontational. And after things settle down, review what happened and learn something useful for next time.
Reasonable expectations are not always widely regarded. Like common sense, reasonable expectations are often not common at all. But today’s scripture readings challenge us to an even higher standard still. The prophet Amos unloads upon the complacent “lying on beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with being rich, until Amos points out that “they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!” He is referring to the hungry and the destitute that surround the decadent and wasteful who squander their resources on brazen displays of extravagance and overindulgence. These are the people who will lead the procession into exile. Their sin was their complacency and indifference, being oblivious and unresponsive to the needs of their neighbor.
Jesus revisits the lesson of the prophet Amos with a parable. There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen, and dined sumptuously each day. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that, unless illegal or immoral activity is involved, which it seems is not. But Jesus points out that the rich man’s fault was his failure to be moved by the needs of Lazarus who sat at his door probably for weeks and months, hungry and covered with sores. He could have done something, but he didn’t. And when the rich man in torment sought relief from Abraham by asking that he send Lazarus “to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue,” he couldn’t see how his lack of compassion toward Lazarus had any bearing on his request. “Have pity on me,” he says to Abraham, when he himself failed to help Lazarus. “Can’t,” Abraham tells him.
“Then send him to my father’s house to warn my brothers, lest they too come to this place of torment.” Suddenly he is concerned for his loved ones, who he knows share his disregard for the poor and the hungry. I am inclined to think this complacency and indifference is learned behavior. So the opposite must also be true, that compassion and genuine care for the welfare of one’s neighbor is behavior that can be taught. Are we concerned about what our young people are learning? We teach them by our word and example to love and value the principles, ideals, and morals we love and value. So if they are learning instead principles, ideals, and morals that are contrary to ours or less than Christian, either we are teaching them wrong, or someone else is.
Now when we look around, there also seems to be an overabundance of hungry and poor people, and we only have so much to give. But Jesus doesn’t require us to give some specific amount or percentage of our resources. And in his second letter to the Corinthians 9: 7 St. Paul writes that God loves a cheerful giver. Helping people in need even under duress may not be ideal, but it is still preferable to indifference and complacency. We can’t help everyone, but we can help some. We might not be able to physically assist those far away from us geographically. Some of us can. But the rest of us can support organizations that do. And we can certainly help those who are near—the homeless, the hungry, the suffering, those who sit at our door, like Lazarus who sat at the rich man’s door. Some of us will be moved to give money or write a check. Most of us do that well. Some will be inspired to hold a fundraiser or set up a foundation. Then some are in a position to pass legislation or mobilize the global community. We are not all millionaires or members of Congress. We can’t do everything. But each of us can do something. Will we have any trouble asking God to have compassion on us while we were unwilling to show compassion to our neighbor in need?
At the Leaders Summit on Refugees at the United Nations this past week, the President shared a letter from 6-year old Alex who wrote: “Dear President Obama, remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? … We will be waiting … with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.” Little Alex may have a few things to teach us. Lazarus sits at our door. What will it take for us to notice?
Rolo B Castillo © 2016