Jesus was a master of the story form known as parables. One of the most memorable parables can be found in Luke: the story of Lazarus and the Rich man (Luke 16:19-31). The parable starts simply enough: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores.” Very quickly in the parable the two men die. The unnamed rich man goes to a fiery afterlife of torment while Lazarus rests in the arms of Abraham, awaiting the day when Jesus will open the gates of Heaven for the faithful.
Many a commentator has said the intrinsic sin on the part of the rich man was that he never even noticed Lazarus. He never took stock of the glaring disparity of his wealth and Lazarus’ destitution. There was no recognition of the most fundamental God-given dignity inherent in Lazarus; that to honor Lazarus was to honor God.
To recognize the dignity of a human being is a recurring theme in Scripture, e.g., the exhortation of St. Paul “to anticipate one another in showing honor.” (Rom 12:10) It is a topic that occupies the writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Francis de Sales, St. Catherine of Siena, and many of the writers and doctors of the Church. It was the life of St. Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) whose beatification will be celebrated on Sunday.
As Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton wrote in a US Bishop’s Labor Day Statement: “Every human being enjoys a basic right to be respected, not because of any title, position, prestige, or accomplishment, but first of all because we are created in the image and likeness of God.”
Labor Day is an opportunity to take stock of the way in which we honor the dignity of workers, who in their appointed activity possess that basic and intrinsic dignity – not because of what they accomplish – but because of who they are. It is in this vein that Pope Francis pointed out, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person…it gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation. How can it be said that persons honor one another when we do not notice working people?”
It is the question that St. Paul asked. It is one of the elementary questions asked by the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. It is the question that occurs even in the most simple of moments.
I suspect most of the people reading this would not see themselves as ones who live a life of extravagance, wealth, and hobnob with the rich and famous. Perhaps we even think of ourselves as unnoticed at work, at home, or within our social peer group. But one question that can be asked is do you honor one another, even in the small and simple ways?
We are all part of an increasingly service-based economy. People serve us. They bring pizzas to our homes. Think of the last time pizza was delivered – do you remember the delivery person at all? The next time you are at a restaurant, notice how many people do not even acknowledge the table server when their glass is refilled. In such moments, we fail to honor those who serve us, and we fail to see they are created in the image and likeness of God. In that instant we are akin to the rich man who never noticed Lazarus.
The temptation of every parable is to not see ourselves in the story. The transforming power of the parable is to find ourselves in the narrative.
This Labor Day be the one who honors those who work and serve.