Summary: It might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge the existence of our neighbor in need, but as Christians, if we are going to be really hospitable, we cannot just step over the person sitting at our gate as if that person does not even exist!
“We have all seen him. He lies on a pile of newspapers outside a shop doorway, covered with a rough blanket. Perhaps he has a dog with him for safety. People walk past him, or even step over him. He occasionally rattles a few coins in a tin or cup, asking for more. He wasn’t there when [we were children], but he’s there now, in all our cities, east, west, north, and south.
As I see him, I hear voices. It’s his own fault, they say. He’s chosen it. There are agencies to help him. He should go and get a job. If we give him money he’ll only spend it on drink. Stay away – he might be violent. Sometimes, in other places, the police will move him on, exporting the problem somewhere else. But he’ll be back. And even if he isn’t, there are whole societies like that. They camp in tin shacks on the edges of large, rich cities. From the door of their tiny makeshift shelters you can see the high-rise hotels and office blocks where, if they’re very lucky, one member of the family might work as a cleaner. They have been born into debt, and in debt they will stay, through the fault of someone rich and powerful who signed away their rights, their lives in effect, a generation or two ago, in return for arms, a new presidential palace, a fat Swiss bank account. And even if rich and poor don’t always live side by side so blatantly, the television brings us together.
So we all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor. Some of us may be rich, well dressed and well fed, and walk past him without even noticing; others of us may not be so rich, or so finely clothed and fed, but compared with Lazarus we’re well off. He would be glad to change places with us, and we would be horrified to share his life, even for a day.” (N.T. Wright)
Do we see Lazarus, our neighbor? We can get all uncomfortable about the thought of having to sit at the rich man’s gate and beg like Lazarus, but we can’t do that until we have simply noticed Lazarus. You see, in this parable, the rich man is not condemned because of his extravagant lifestyle, he is condemned because he did not notice the great need of the man at his doorstep; he did not address the need of his neighbor. The truth is, the rich man probably didn’t think twice about allowing Lazarus to eat the scraps from his table. But why would he? It was just bread. “In that time, there were no knives, forks, or napkins. Food was eaten with the hands and, in very wealthy houses, the hands were cleansed by wiping them on chunks of bread, which were then thrown away. That was what Lazarus was waiting for.” Of course the rich man had no trouble sharing that bread with Lazarus! And we could even safely assume that the rich man also gave generously to charity. But he did not see Lazarus. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that he did not take notice of his neighbor in need. He was too absorbed in himself to see, even to see the man sitting as near as his doorstep.
And how often have we done the same thing? I have become thoroughly convinced in recent months that sometimes all people want is to be noticed. Sometimes all we need is to know that in the midst of difficult times, somebody cares. When we are feeling lonely, there is nothing like a phone call from a friend, just to say “hello.” Or when we are feeling a little down, a simple question from a neighbor, “Are you okay?” And of course we’re not okay, but the simple fact that someone took notice of us and asked can lift our spirits. Yet, so very often we find ourselves weathering the storms of life all on our own. We’ve all been there, and we all know how wonderful it is simply to be noticed when it seems like our world is caving in all around us.
But when have we taken notice of someone else whose world is caving in? When have we called a lonely friend or checked up on a depressed neighbor? Do we offer a bottle of water to the drunkard slouched against the wall, or do we step to the other side of the street so as to avoid him? Do we see Lazarus sitting right at our gate, or do we just walk by him day in and day out, no more noticing him than the bush adorning the other side of the drive?
We even set up systems that make it easier for us to ignore our neighbor in need, even when they are right in front of us! Have you all noticed the brightly colored and beautifully painted parking meters in downtown Chattanooga? I’m sure many of you have seen them, but just in case you don’t know what they are, let me tell you. These meters were set up by the City of Chattanooga, to give people a way to make donations that will help the homeless without actually have to give money directly to the homeless. The city takes the money out of those meters and gives it to agencies that serve the homeless population. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think this is a great idea! And I would encourage you to drop your loose change in the meters whenever you are downtown. But by doing that, don’t forget that behind that need are real people who often long for simple human interaction more than any warm meal or soft bed. And if we drop the money in the meter, but ignore the people leaning against it, we are really doing them a disservice. We are no better than the rich man who brushed by Lazarus each day, on his way to more important things. To that, Jesus says, there is nothing more important than that you would notice your neighbor in need and love him.