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Note to self: don’t be like the rich man

Kate Barrett | Thursday, September 23, 2010

Today marks the autumnal equinox, which for the northern hemisphere marks the official end of summer and the beginning of fall. Here, that inexplicably means a forecasted high of 90 very un-fall-like degrees. What’s wonderful about living in South Bend is that (say what you will about our humid summers, the much-maligned “permacloud” of winter, the way spring seems to consist of about three days that sneak in between slushy brown snow and sweaty heat) we’re really, really lucky to have four actual seasons here.

I can’t imagine living in a season-less climate, a place where you might fail to appreciate a warm sunny day because every day is already warm and sunny. Here we have to grab hold of the beautiful days and squeeze every last moment of clear-blue-75-degree-wonderfulness out of them. We have the opportunity to celebrate each new color that appears on the vast array of campus trees (check out the maple behind Lyons Hall on the grass near the volleyball court, a tree I have especially loved every fall for years).

Unfortunately, whether it’s the weather or other more or less significant aspects of our day-to-day life, we fail to notice or appreciate much of what’s going on all around us. Remember the gospel story of the rich man who walked right by Lazarus every day, not even noticing his sores, his hunger, his need for human contact? Even the dogs noticed Lazarus more than that rich man did. Clothed in fine linen, he dined “sumptuously,” probably on fare that would make a cardiologist cringe, and the fact that Lazarus lacked the ability to meet even the most minimal of needs completely escaped the rich man’s attention.

But that part was just a flashback – the bulk of the story, as Jesus tells it, takes place after both the rich man and Lazarus have died. The rich man, tormented in the fiery flames which await those who thoughtlessly consume prodigious amounts of everything while surrounded by suffering and need, at last notices Lazarus. In a manner of speaking. When the man finally focuses on Lazarus, does he think “A brother!” or “A fellow human being!” or “A faithful follower of God’s covenant!”? Not a chance. The rich man looks at Lazarus, who at long last rests in comfort, and thinks, “Errand boy!”

“Send Lazarus to take care of a few things,” the rich man asks Abraham in the story. “I’d really love a drink, and he needs to take a message to my brothers for me.” Abraham replies, “Sorry, but clearly you haven’t been paying attention.”

The rich man did not “see” in two ways: he failed to observe Lazarus’ need even though he confronted it every day, and perhaps even worse, he failed to perceive Lazarus as a creature equal to himself in God’s eyes, deserving of respect, not just directions.

How often do we neglect to live attentively? Do we miss a chance to be grateful for the gift of a perfectly beautiful day or the way a maple turns twenty shades of red in the fall? More importantly, do we ever overlook other people, or see them only through the lens of what they can do for us?

In the weeks and months to come, we will come to appreciate more and more the warm and sunny days, the likes of which we won’t see again until next April or May. Between now and then, as these changing days remind us to stay alert, we ought to strive to live more attentively, observant of the beauty, the uniqueness, and often the variety of needs present within each person we encounter.

This week’s article is written by Kate Barrett, director of the Emmaus Program. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.