I was reflecting on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It began like this:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21). The story continues where both the rich man and Lazarus die. The rich man goes to hell and Lazarus goes to heaven.
There are many fruitful reflections we can gain from this story, but I wanted to focus on these first three verses. What I find so fascinating and terrifying about these sentences is that it sets up why the rich man is condemned. Notice that it does not say that the rich man beat Lazarus or mocked him. It does not even imply that the rich man stole from Lazarus or commit any other kind of harm to him.
The rich man goes to hell because he ignores Lazarus.
We could enter into a discussion about charity and taking care of the poor, but I think we should examine the broader implications. I wonder if the rich man had any idea of how he was failing to live up to his responsibilities towards his fellow man? I wonder if we are often in the same boat.
One of the ways we can do an internal gut check is to ask ourselves about our level of casual cruelty.
In this case, I am not talking about overt acts of cruelty to others. These are hard to mistake in your life. If you go out of your way to injure another person simply because of some animosity you carry, then this reflection is not for you. If you get a thrill of victory and triumph when you drag others down, then you have a different set of problems than those addressed here. I am often amazed at how some people go out of their way to injure others. In the men’s room at my school, I will often see pencils, gum, and even bottles in the urinals. Someone went out of their way to make the life of the custodian that much more frustrating. I find it hard to comprehend someone seeking joy in this kind of pain. Or if you dig through someone’s social media posts just to find ways to hurt or condemn or cancel them, then these words are not addressed to you.
What I want to talk about are the ways in which we are cruel and may not know it.
One of the most basic social concepts is that of in-group/out-group. We are constantly wanting to be on the inside of a social group and not on the outside. Inside that group we have a circle of people to whom we attach. Once in the group, we fear being placed outside.
CS Lewis wrote about this in-group, he called “the inner ring.” Lewis stated:
“There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline.”
We constantly desire to be on the inside. As a result, we often seek to differentiate ourselves from those outside. It becomes incredibly easy to casually cast aspersions on people outside the group, to focus on their flaws, or to gossip about them. How often have you and your friends found yourselves bonding over the foibles of those outside of the group. Sometimes we justify it by couching it in legitimate grievances. For example, someone at work may be short with his fellow co-workers, so you and others begin to make fun of him behind his back. It is amazing how quickly talking about legitimate issues that need to be addressed can devolve into petty meanness. But we have to be careful about this.
And very often we don’t see how we are being cruel because our cruelty falls on those outside the group.
Sometimes our cruelty is like the rich man’s in that we become blind to the needs of others. Every day I interact with hundreds of people. It is difficult to be strongly attuned to every person’s need. And yet I often fail to notice things that I should. As a teacher, one of my biggest failings is not giving attention to the students who shrink away in class. My focus is often on those who are either highly engaged or highly disruptive. But to the quiet student who needs the positive attention of a teacher, I often fail to reach out. And ignoring someone who is in need, like Lazarus, is a type of cruelty.
The problem with these types cruelties is that they often escape our notice. And like any disease that is left unchecked, it can grow and become malignant, as it did in the case of the rich man.
So what are we to do?