Indifference: It’s a sin to look past those less fortunate

Father John A. Kiley

Catholics have long been taught that sin falls into various categories. There is the original sin of our first parents and the actual sins committed everyday. There are mortal sins with grave consequences and then there are venial sins of lesser implication. And then, of course, there are sins of commission and sins of omission.

Sins of commission result from the exercise of vices; sins of omission derive from the neglect of virtue. These contrary sins of doing evil or ignoring good are called to the Catholic mind daily at Mass: “… I have sinned … in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.…” The same dichotomy between evil embraced and good disregarded is mentioned in the contemporary Act of Contrition promoted nowadays: “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and in failing to do good, I have sinned….” So wickedness is not all evil deeds that are readily labeled like theft, violence, calumny and infidelity. Sometimes sin does nothing. St. James says it best of all, “He who has a chance to do good and does not do it, commits sin.”

This Sunday’s Gospel passage concerning the well-dressed and well-fed rich man at whose door the leper Lazarus sat in dire need is a lesson on sins of omission. Recall first of all the industrious farmer who had a successful harvest and built bigger silos for his grain, and whose life was demanded of him on the day of his success. This Gospel was proclaimed a couple of weeks ago. Recall that this productive farmer did nothing wrong. His wealth was not ill-gotten. He was simply a hard-worker whose diligence inclined him more towards earthly accomplishments than toward spiritual maturity. In the end, he was caught short and his accumulated wealth brought him no consolation. His sins, if any, were sins of omission, sins of spiritual neglect, sins of eternal insensitivity. The rich man in this coming Sunday’s Gospel takes neglect of the good and raises it to the Nth degree.

St. Luke informs his readership that the rich man (sometimes called “Dives” which is the Latin word for a rich man) dressed in “purple and fine linen.” Purple, of course, was the color of choice for ancient royalty since it was derived from a very select dye. For Catholics, obviously, purple continues to be a symbol of rank and prestige. The man also sported “fine linen,” a comfortable cloth much opposed to the coarse homespun that most of Jesus’ contemporaries would have worn. The evangelist also emphasizes that the rich man feasted “sumptuously” every day. Conversely, a peasant’s bill of fare in those days (and probably into the last century) would have been a monotonous diet of bread, vegetables and the rare piece of meat. Still, in spite of his affluence, the rich has yet to do anything especially wrong. And that is precisely his sin. He did not do anything. Dives was totally self-absorbed and completely apathetic toward the beggar Lazarus who sat at his door. He was not rude, abusive or cruel toward his needy neighbor. He was indifferent toward him.

St. Luke is equally concerned about the hapless Lazarus. He outlines the leper’s plight in great detail. Scripture scholars point out that Lazarus is the only person in any of Jesus’ parables that is actually given a name. St. Luke, following Jesus’ lead, will not let his readers be indifferent toward him. He does everything he can to draw attention to this man. Leprosy was certainly a great physical and social scourge in the ancient world. There was no purple or fine linen attached to his station in life. And there was no feasting either. Mongrels and curs rather feasted off his sores while Lazarus longed for a tossed off scrap of bread. Although the leper dies and goes to heaven, the parable passes no judgment on Lazarus’ virtue. Perhaps he too had his sins. But, characteristic of St. Luke, poverty alone should be enough to attract attention and consequently earn benevolence from any sensitive person.

Both love and hatred involve strong acts of the human will. They imply deep decisions regarding life’s relationships. Between them is that vast wasteland of indifference, apathy, unconcern and coldness that separates man from man, neighbor from neighbor and nation from nation. Lazarus still sits at mankind’s doorstep, too often unheeded and still longing for the scraps that fall from our festive board.


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