“You is good. You is smart. You is important.” These are familiar words from the movie The Help. Many of you know this story, how it depicts the discrepancies within our history between the races, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. In this film the main character Skeeter, a young, white, female journalist, asks a significant question of the Black maids: “What is it like to leave your own children in order to raise white children knowing these children will grow up and could be your boss?” The responses that Skeeter receives are across the spectrum. Some maids have wonderful experiences with their employers, many situations could be considered like family while others grit their teeth against the injustice they endured, one particular maid even saying that she was included in an employer’s will like a piece of property such as a dresser or box of tools to be the maid of the daughter.
This film seems a portrayal of our readings for this morning in that there is an unjust system that is intentional in its nature, and there is a belief that there are individuals who are plagued by evil things and therefore are considered evil themselves. How can this happen? How can people allow such a system to exist? To answer these questions, I would like to unpack these two perspectives of our readings.
The first portion concerns the rich man who delights in his wealth. He lives without care and enjoys the rewards of his wealth. This wealth affords him the privilege of insulating himself from the pain outside of his his priorities. It is not the money that is the issue; the problem for the rich man is his attitude towards his wealth. He is given good things and as a result does not recognize the pain around him. He does not see. I do find it interesting in that the rich man is not given a name. In literary criticism this would be the “everyman,” the individual who represents the reader. Much like Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who journeys through challenges and troubles carrying the reader along to be a witness, the rich man makes his choices and suffers his consequences. His is a cautionary tale for us with the moral that implies if we pursue a goal to the detriment or even dismissal of the humanity around us, we will suffer.
The second portion concerns the man Lazarus. In order to understand his situation, we need to be reminded of Jewish culture and law. It was illegal, it was a sin, to be a leper. To be a leper, a man covered with sores, was to be an outcast, unclean, incapable to living in community. And, to be outside of the community would mean that the human did not exist, that there was no person whatsoever. Additionally, the dogs are also a component of the story. The reference to the dogs implies not only that they alleviated the sufferings of Lazarus but they also increased them. Dogs in Jewish culture were not pets but were considered unclean and outside of the communal culture. So, to have Lazarus plagued with sores and surrounded by dogs would have been a most horrific symbol in this parable.
So what do we do with these two characters in our parable? Who are they for us and what are we supposed to learn? Returning for a moment to the film The Help, I want to offer a possibility. The system in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as across the country at that time, existed because of a belief that injustice is inherent and morally right. George Orwell discussed this idea in his allegory Animal Farm with the platitude, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In other words, equality is a movable line; equality is relative. In the film, it was not until the vagueness of the line was identified and given witness by Skeeter that the steps toward change began. You and I could be the rich man, wearing blinders to the world around us because of our love for _______________. You and I are consumed by our need to be right in an argument that we verbally eviscerate our opponent. Last year, my sending church of St. Matthew’s in Enid held the annual convention. It had never been held in Enid before as most of the diocesan press is spread in either Oklahoma City or Tulsa. So, to say that we accepted the challenge of hosting an extraordinary convention was an understatement. Organizing volunteers, creating and printing bulletins and brochures, bringing in vendors and facilitating their set up and take down, coordinating the movement of events and breakout sessions and guest leadership and meals and snacks and coffee was an event nine months in the planning. When the last day’s session was underway, I and the legion of volunteers from St. Matthew’s were exhausted. There was a lady representing her parish sitting at the table with me and St. Matthew’s members. She made a salty comment about something with the vendors. Unfortunately, her comment came at the wrong time on the wrong mood with the wrong hours of sleep and rest. I snapped back a retort that was most certainly unSouthern and quite definitely unChristian. She shut up. After I calmed down and reflected on the audacity of my response, I went to her and apologized for my behavior and asked for her forgiveness. She was gracious and forgave me.
I reflect on this story because I did not see her. I saw only her words and reacted. Have you responded in this way to another person? Are there ways in which you and I are blind to the fears of others? Are there moments when you and I cannot recognize the hurt we inflict when we criticize or judge or neglect? A document from Vatican II states, “everyone should look upon his neighbour (without any exception) as another self, bearing in mind above all his life and the means necessary for living it in a dignified way lest he follow the example of the rich man who ignored Lazarus, the poor man.”
The sin for the rich man was not his wealth. His sin was his negligence. His incapacity to recognize the humanity of another. His inability to bear witness to a man amidst excruciating suffering. My prayer, my plea, is that we open our eyes. That we recognize. That we name the pain. And by doing so we will see the beggar at the gate. We will realize that the one who suffers is outside of the community and longs for someone to say, “I see you. I recognize your existence. I am here for you.”