The phrase Its none of my business can mean more than one thing. It can be an acknowledgment that we must respect the right of others to self-determination and personal privacy. On the other hand, it can be used as an excuse for not stepping in to help when it is clear that another needs our help. The phrase has almost become a motto for a society in which individuals are so totally absorbed in their own life projects that they fail to consider the common good.
The theme of last Sundays readings, covenant responsibility of the rich for the poor, is the main focus of this Sundays texts as well. Once again the oracle proclaimed by Amos is scathing: Woe to the complacent in Zion! The prophet does not condemn the people for their wealth, but for their complacency in the face of the hardships that others are forced to endure. The description of the style of living of the wealthy rivals an episode of the old television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. They are so busy luxuriating in their opulence that they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph, a reference to the entire northern kingdom. They are completely unaware of or unconcerned about the plight of other Israelites, compatriots who are their partners in the covenant made with God.
The Gospel reading paints a picture that illustrates the same theme. At the start, the rich man is enjoying an exceptionally indulgent style of life, while poor Lazarus, covered with sores, lies at his door hoping for a few scraps from his table (a scene that is replayed far too frequently in our own cities). This is a graphic example of the rich mans utter disregard for someone in desperate need. As is so often the case in the parables of Jesus, a dramatic reversal of fortune then takes place. The one who was privileged finds himself in torment, while Lazarus, who was destitute, is safe in the embrace of Abraham.
If the prosperous man is not condemned because of his wealth, why does he suffer such a horrendous fate? The mans own dialogue with Abraham answers that question. First, since both he and Lazarus have a connection with Abraham, they must be covenant partners. He is told that his brothers should not need an extraordinary revelation from heaven to remind them of their covenant responsibilities; they have Moses and the prophets. This is a reference to their religious tradition, which is very clear about the social dimension of the covenant. To escape his fate, his brothers have only to follow the dictates of that covenant, one of which is care for those who are needy. As for the rich man, the die is cast. He did not assuage the agony of Lazarus; now it is impossible for Lazarus to provide him the comfort he seeks, for a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing from one side to the other.
This is one of the few places in the Gospels where divine judgment is described. And the judgment here is quite harsh. It seems, in fact, inappropriately harsh. After all, the rich man did not do anything wrong. He did not steal from Lazarus or physically assault him. But he had a weighty responsibility toward Lazarus, and he failed to fulfill it. This was a serious sin of omission. The severity of his punishment throws light on the gravity of this responsibility.
It is always difficult to strike the right balance between respecting the space of another and stepping in to help. When should we make someone elses life our business? The complexity of our society makes this balance even more difficult to achieve. This difficulty can be clearly seen within the family. Partners try to negotiate this balance with each other, as do parents with children and children with parents. But in the family, this negotiation is not attempted in a vacuum. It is done within the embrace of mutual love and concern.
A comparable love and concern bind covenant partners together. The absence of such dispositions is the reason why Amos castigated the wealthy Israelites, and why the rich man of the Gospel ended up in torment in the netherworld. It is the same love and concern that bind us to one another and prompt us to step into anothers life in order to offer help. Our own covenant responsibilities extend far beyond the confines of our families or our parish communities. We cannot be deaf to the cries of the needy in far-flung corners of the world. We cannot close our eyes to the plight of the victims of oppression and war. We cannot be complacent while others are collapsing as their lives are being destroyed. The die has not yet been cast for us. We still have time to be faithful to what our religious tradition teaches: The well-being of others is indeed our business.