Today’s Gospel reading at mass was the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). What I offer to you is the reflection that I gave to my brothers in formation this evening.
“I didn’t do anything.”
That’s what I said to the principal when I was called into her office in 4th grade. (I’m not entirely sure if my parents actually know about this story… so… surprise!) You see, there was a kid in my class that no one really liked. He was loud and immature, often dressed inappropriately and had bad hygiene, and was known for acting out, bullying others, and saying inappropriate things to the girls. He was a bully that no one liked… a very bad combination.
One day, things boiled over. At morning recess, he apparently touched one of the girls in our class and said something to her, and my friends didn’t like that. Enough was enough. They planned to teach him a lesson. At lunch recess, they were going to corner him and “beat him up” as they said. When lunch came, we all went out to recess, and three of the guys in my class started pushing him, calling him names. I think one of them even kicked him.
The kid didn’t sustain any major injuries, just a scraped knee and a scratch on his eye, but it was a big deal in the school. The three students who had orchestrated the whole thing were called into the principal’s office, but so was I and a few other students. “I didn’t do anything,” I said. “It was ____ and _____ and _____. They were the ones who beat him up. I did not even touch him.”
In my mind, I was innocent. My principal didn’t think so. As she saw it, I knew something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t stop it. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I intervene? Why didn’t I help him? Even though he was weird, even though he might have even brought it on himself, even though I may have suffered a bit myself for defending him, no one deserves to be treated that way. I had the power to do something, but didn’t do anything.
In our Gospel passage today, the rich man finds himself in a similar situation. No doubt shocked to find himself in a place of torment while Lazarus is in the place of honor, you can almost hear him say, “But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t make him poor. I didn’t steal from him. I didn’t make him unclean.” And maybe he didn’t. But just like me in the fourth grade, the rich man knew Lazarus. He knew that he was suffering. I mean, cmon, he was lying at his door! He probably needed to step over him to go out! Even though Lazarus was not the most desirable person in town, even though he was probably unclean and the rich man may have suffered for helping him, no one deserves to be treated that way. The rich man had the power to do something, but didn’t do anything.
I think that is what’s so powerful for us to remember today: Not doing anything is not amoral. Doing nothing does not free us from guilt; in life, there is no “pass”; we can’t just opt out of acting… even doing nothing is something. It’s why in the confiteor, the act of contrition we say at mass, we pray for God to forgive the sins of “What I have done, and what I have failed to do.” Sometimes, what we don’t do can have a tremendous effect on others, and can absolutely be sinful.
It doesn’t take much to see so in our world. When we look at the world’s problems, global epidemics of poverty, climate change, human trafficking, and so on, it’s easy for us to say, “Well I didn’t do that.” And maybe we didn’t (I think we are complicit in much more than we realize, but that’s for another post). But what we often don’t realize is that we are in a position of privilege. If you are able to read this post, it’s likely that you find yourself among the wealthiest 25% in the world. Wealth. Education. Civil liberties. Social status. Even just the knowledge that there are problems in the world that need fixing and the time to think about them is a privilege. In so many situations, we are the rich man facing Lazarus each day.
But it happens much closer to home. What about our friends and families. Here in this house as brothers. We often know what our brothers are going through. We know that they need help at times. Sometimes, it can be very easy, especially if it’s a brother that we don’t particularly like or even annoys us, to write them off and say, “He brought it on themselves” or “He’s not my responsibility,” or “I didn’t do anything.” And likely we didn’t. But that’s not what’s important here: there is a situation in which we are able to do something to build up the kingdom of God.
Because, in the end, whether it’s our brother, Lazarus, or that poor boy in my 4th grade class, it is not up to us to determine who is worthy and who is not. It is not us that grants dignity, and so it is not up to us to decide who we should care for and who we shouldn’t. We may face a lot of people in need in our life, a lot of which are very difficult to be around—you might even think about some people in this room. Who knows. One day, though, we will have to answer to Jesus for what we did and what we did not do. On that day, will we be able to say that we did something for our brothers and sisters in need, or will we be left with nothing to say except, “I didn’t do anything”?