In the first human family, Cain killed his brother Abel and, when confronted by God asking about his brother, he replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Although the question is not answered directly by God, apparently the answer is "Yes."
Jesus addresses the same question in a Gospel parable. He tells a story about two men who appeared very different at first, but both the same. They are beggars. Notice how God, pictured by Father Abraham in this parable, responds to each man's needs.
First, see the beggar Lazarus.
Can you imagine a man with a more pitiful life? The story describes him as a beggar. He is called "a poor man." In the original language of the Bible, the word used here means "the poorest of the poor." Most likely, Lazarus was also crippled, since he was dumped at the rich man's gate. Finally, Lazarus is described as hungry. He longs to eat even the bread that drops from the rich man's table. These crumbs are not leftovers. In those days, wealthy people used bread for napkins, and then discarded the soiled bread under the table. Lazarus is longing to eat the used "napkins" of the rich man's table.
To call Lazarus a beggar is an understatement! But there is an irony here. In all of the parables of Jesus, this is the only one that actually gives a character a name.
So our attention is drawn to the name of the beggar, not because he represents an actual historical figure, but because his name is symbolic. In the language of Jesus, the name Lazarus means, "God helps." This one, though helped by no one else, is helped by God. But even God's help does not arrive until after his death.
God's timing does not always fit our schedules. But God's reversal of Lazarus' faith is remarkably demonstrated in the text. After his death, Lazarus enjoyed eternity in the bosom of Abraham, a heavenly rest for a Jew.
This one, who was despised in life, and seemed God-forsaken, turns out to be a favored son of Abraham after all. Obviously, Jesus is calling the whole prosperity theology into question.
Poverty and illness do not necessarily indicate the punishment of God. Apparently this life does not exhaust the possibility of God's arena to bring justice to the injustices of earth.
Are you suffering? God does see you, even if you feel invisible to everyone else. God does know your heart and God does help -- even if his help seems delayed. The message for those who identify with Lazarus is trusting in God to help.
Don't give up hope.
Let's look at the rich man, who also became a beggar in the story. Throughout his life, this unnamed rich man enjoyed every pleasure of life. He not only had enough to eat, he "feasted sumptuously" every day. He not only had enough clothes to wear, he wore purple and fine linen. When he died, his funeral was fit for a Pharaoh.
And like a Pharaoh, he thought his earthly wealth would help him in the afterlife. Like the Pharaohs, he was wrong.
In the afterlife, this man is now in torment. He is not punished because he was rich, but because he allowed a poor man to die of hunger and poverty in full view of his over abundance.
He is punished because he misunderstands the purpose of a giving God who grants abundance to a person so that they may share it.
In his torment, the rich man in Jesus' parable reveals that he has learned nothing in life or in death. He still thinks he can order Lazarus to serve him, to cool his tongue. He knows Lazarus by name. He cannot plead ignorance of his plight. Abraham has to remind him that Lazarus does not run errands for him anymore.
But the rich man thinks he can always make a deal. He does not accept "No" for an answer, anymore than he did when doing business on earth.
So he begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his surviving brothers, to warn them of this fate. But again, Abraham refused and told him, "They have a bible, let your brothers listen to the bible."
Actually, it is all the help we need. God has given us the Bible. We are, indeed, our brother's keeper. We have a choice, of being blessed with many things, but unless we share them with the needy, all is for nothing.
Msgr. Frank C. Wissel, D.Min., is pastor at St. Mary Church in Greenwich and the founding director of the St. Maximilian Kolbe House of Studies for boys in Bridgeport. You can reach him at 203-869-9393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.