Today is the 108th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (celebrated yearly on this last Sunday in September).
The recent spectacle of asylum-seeking refugees from Venezuelan communism coming to New York as tragic victims of a Republican political stunt serves only to highlight the plight of the many migrants and refugees on our own borders, let alone those all over the world, as wars and the climate crisis constantly cause increasing movements of desperate people all over the world. Meanwhile, the challenging Ken Burns program The U.S. and the Holocaust has reminded us that the pathological fear and distancing of the other has a long history.
Pope Francis has made migrants and refugees one of the major public priorities of this pontificate. The Pope’s inspiring Message for this day may be accessed at:
Coincidentally this year, on this same Sunday the Church proclaims the Gospel in which Jesus tells the challenging parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). We hear that same parable every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest who has to read Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple, when he himself is, of course, conspicuously dressed in purple!
Other than his wardrobe, we know next to nothing about the rich man. He is sometimes called Dives, which is just the Latin word for “rich” – thanks to the opening words of the parable, Homo quidam erat dives (“There was a certain rich man”). In what we smugly call the “real” world, it is typically the rich whom we remember. They are the ones we look up to, admire, and cater to. In his classic work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adan Smith famously characterized the « disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, » as « the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. » And he added: « That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages. »
But, in the kingdom of God, it is the poor, weak outsiders, among whom in today’s world we may certainly number many migrants and refugees, who matter. (As Lactantius famously said: Those who are useless to men are useful to God.) Thus, in Jesus’ parable, it is the marginalized beggar whose name everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man serves as a sort of “everyman” figure. He could, of course, be almost anyone in any prosperous, capitalist society structured to serve modern liberal individualism.
In traditional, pre-capitalist societies, where the amount of surplus wealth produced is inevitably relatively low, there are usually lots of poor people – not necessarily all as poor as Lazarus, but poor enough to be close to the margin. And the danger of becoming marginal would be a very real worry for the multitude of working poor, just barely making it.
Thus, the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood the parable; and, in a society without modern notions of privacy, they could picture those they could not really avoid (as we so incessantly seek to avoid noticing the poor among us and the refugees knocking on our national door.). Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side, much as the societies from which many must migrate and the societies which they seek to enter may be next-door neighbors. Yet, the parable suggests that, for the rich man, side-by-side had become separate. That, of course, is also what border walls do.
Within his own separately constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was especially wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that he obtained his wealth dishonestly. Within the narrow-minded world which wealth creates, he was likely seen as a fine, upstanding citizen. His failing in the parable is precisely that of that narrow-minded world which wealth creates, a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus, and his consequent personal failure to bridge the great chasm his wealth and his border had created between himself and Lazarus. It is not that he was personally hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was disconnected and indifferent. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his self-constructed private world resembles the way we live in this country today.
But then the man died. In fact, they both died, as indeed we all will one day or other. It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). This is the only parable in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we now call “the particular judgment” – the once and for all judgment of each person immediately after death, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person one has become over the course of one’s life.
And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his wealth had constructed in life, the border between himself and Lazarus, is now confirmed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.
The parable ends with the rich man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. Something of that sort famously does happen in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. There, the rich man himself (the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham relies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – the teller of the parable. Knowing that is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.
So, are we listening?
Photo: Pope Francis prays at a cross on the border with El Paso, Texas, before celebrating Mass at the fairgrounds in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 17, 2017. (CNS/Paul Haring).