Summary: It’s not about the money. Many people hear this parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus and think that God’s got it in for rich people. But it’s not about the money. It’s about compassion.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)
It’s not about the money. Many people hear this parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus and think that God’s got it in for rich people. They seem to be a favorite target of Jesus in his parables. And it’s pretty much guaranteed thate if two guys are in a parable and one of them is described as rich, he’s not going to be the hero of the story.
But it’s not about the money. It’s about compassion. We often use or hear the word “compassion” and understand that it has something to do with caring about other people who are having a rough time. But that’s not quite all of it.
The word “compassion” entered the English language around the year A.D. 1340, from Old French, which had brought it in from Latin as a combination of the prefix “com-,” which means “together” and the root word “pati,” or “passio,” which means “to suffer.” Compassion in its most accurate connotation means to suffer together.
When you really feel the heartache that someone else endures, when tears well up in your eyes threatening to burst through the levee of your eyelids, when your lip quivers as you feel the depths of their despair, that’s compassion. Giving some guy on the street a dollar is a nice thing to do, but compassion is made of steeper stuff indeed.
The story is told of a student taking an exam, who had studied hard and knew all the material, so he breezed through the first nine questions. When he got to the last question, however, he was stuck. It read, “What is the first name of the woman who cleans this school?”
He figured it was some kind of joke. He had seen the cleaning lady lots of times around the school. He could even describe her: tall, dark-haired, in her 50s, but he had no idea what her name was.
As he handed his exam in, with the last question still blank, he asked the professor if that question really counted toward their grades.
“Absolutely,” the professor replied. “You’ll meet many people during your careers. All of them are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘hello.’”
When I worked at Naval Special Warfare, I saw a Navy captain walk up to Gilda, our cleaning lady, and talk to her for a few minutes. This was shortly before Christmas. After talking with her, he wished her well and handed her $20 when he thought no one was looking. It was an act of quiet kindness that brought a smile to Gilda’s face.
It wasn’t just the money, though; it was the few extra minutes that one of the highest ranking people in the building spent talking with her, the realization that people cared abut her, not just about their floors.
A couple months before I retired from there, someone stole money from Gilda’s purse. She had just cashed her check, and needed the money to pay bills, but it was all gone. She had no savings, since cleaning floors doesn’t really pay that much.
When she reported it to our headquarters, some of the financial bean counters and policy wonks were trying to come up with a way to give her an advance on her next paycheck without making it look like the command is responsible for the lost or stolen money. While they were moving beans and decimal points around, an email circulated among the staff explaining Gilda’s plight.
Before anyone could find and cite the particular rules and regulations forbidding us from doing it, the staff had collected enough donations among themselves to replace Gilda’s missing money and gave it to her — policy be damned.
The staff all understood the suffering Gilda was going through. How would she pay her rent? Would her landlord understand or evict her? How would she buy food? Did she even have any at home? How would she get money for gas to come to work until the next pay period?
They could have ignored her plight and continued with their busy schedules, as I did. Or they could have felt her suffering and looked for a way to help her, as many others did.
That’s not one of my finer moments, and it grieves me to remember that I stood by as my own Lazarus was in need. I didn’t deliberately not help; when I saw the first email request, I just bumped it down my list of priorities, figuring I’d get around to helping her later, maybe.