The compassion of dogs
September 19th, 2016
By Sister Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM
What was the rich man’s problem? That he didn’t notice Lazarus at his doorstep because the dining room wall blocked his view? That he had fallen into the habit of not noticing people like Lazarus, because there were so many of them? That he had “compassion fatigue” seeing so many poor people in the streets that his perception closed down at one more pathetic case outside his front door? That he had accepted his own lifestyle as normal, and the misery of Lazarus as routine, so that dogs licking a man’s sores didn’t jar him – it just wasn’t an emergency? That he suffered from “narrow spectrum autism,” a perceptual disability in which he could observe Lazarus suffering, but seeing it didn’t trigger any emotional response? That he was trained in Judaism’s ethical obligation to care for the “widow, orphan and stranger,” but had left his schoolboy faith behind as an adult and fallen out of the habit of remembering the poor?
What is just as regrettable is that the whole household of the rich man has the same problem – not even a servant goes to give food or attend the plight of Lazarus. Blindness to the poor can become a cultural norm. The dogs pay more attention to Lazarus than his fellow human beings.
Earlier, the prophet Amos tried to shock the complacent rich “lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches,” eating their fill of meat, drinking, enjoying physical comfort and artistic pleasures – warning them that this lifestyle will end.
Lazarus doesn’t say a word in this most elegant of “hellfire-and-damnation” warnings in the New Testament. What speaks is the visibility and proximity of the poor man’s sickness, loneliness, nakedness, hunger and homelessness.
Luke composes a comedic, almost vaudeville-like scene of a last judgment. Lazarus dies and he rises to a place of honor, consolation, healing and companionship with Abraham. The rich man dies and he drops from his comfortable dining room couch straight into the searing fires of hell. Even in hell the rich man doesn’t feel compassion or empathy for anyone else. What he feels is the torment of thirst and heat – his own physical discomfort. He sees Lazarus in comfort and bliss. Ironically, the rich man treats Abraham like a manservant. He is still giving orders to those “under” him – now to the patriarch himself in heaven above him. Abraham should send Lazarus like a lackey – to fetch some water and pour it out to cool his tongue. The mindset of the rich man itself creates the “great chasm” that separates the rich from the poor who are favored by God.
Hearers of the parable take note that the lifestyle of the rich man and his mindset were inextricably linked. He didn’t change after death. He remained a self-satisfied accumulator of personal wealth, entitled to dominate and command others, an indulgent hedonist, a garrulous bargainer, a manipulator of sympathies, a man who didn’t need to care about anything beyond his own comfort. His “generous thought” to spare his five brothers the torment of hell was merely another sign of his closed world. He imagined that a warning would save them from hell. He never understood what compassion is. Compassion is not produced by a warning from Moses and prophets, or from the risen Jesus.
In Luke’s parable, the dogs used to come to lick Lazarus’ sores. They physically approached him, and instinctively responded with tenderness to a desperate sick person. The implication? Even dogs don’t need to be warned by Moses, the prophets or the risen Jesus about what compassion is.
Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM, is a Sister of Mercy, a Ph.D. theologian, and an attorney in private practice in family law in San Jose.
From September 22, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.