My Brother Is My Life
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
“My brother is my life,” noted St. Silouan. Think about that for a moment. My brother or sister is my life. The other, my neighbor, my co-worker, my acquaintance, the person I encounter on the street or in my daily routine, is my life. As individualistic as we Americans can be, our Orthodox Christian faith runs radically counter to this autonomous spirit. We are intimately interconnected with one another, and until we realize and understand this interconnectedness, we will be denying our faith and rejecting the one we profess to love, Jesus Christ. Our Lord made this abundantly clear when he taught his followers, “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was sick and in prison – whatever you did to the LEAST of my brothers and sisters, you did to ME!
“My brother is my life.” There are numerous stories in the Gospels which highlight this fundamental lesson of faith, one of the greatest of which we heard today. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we see a concrete example of a rich man NOT seeing his brother as his life. In fact, the rich man doesn’t even notice his brother in need sitting right outside his doorstep. He ignores this brother, and thus ignores Christ Himself! Let me recap today’s Gospel story.
We hear about a Rich Man who lived a prosperous, yet isolated life, a life where he ate sumptuously, dressed exquisitely, and enjoyed each and every day in celebration and festivity. Literally outside his door, however, lay Lazarus, a pathetic figure suffering daily in his poverty.
Although Christ condemns the rich man and praises Lazarus, we must take care to note WHY Jesus condemned the rich man. The rich man’s sin was not his wealth. The Church does not see riches and prosperity as sins, although the Bible clearly warns us about the dangerous temptations riches and wealth create for anyone in their journey towards God. Why? Because wealth tempts us to no longer depend and rely on God. Riches can harden our hearts against the needs of others. Comfort and material security make us feel invincible, which causes deep rooted pride. In such circumstances, we often begin to believe that we have earned our own wealth and empire through our own abilities, forgetting that every good gift – including our talents, our abilities, our brains, our health, and our opportunities – come from God. Thus, too often we deceive ourselves into thinking that happiness and security comes with riches. Basically, wealth and riches are a dangerous temptation, because they strive to replace God in our lives.
Yet, despite this parenthetical note about riches as a dangerous temptation, today’s Gospel lesson focuses on another more insidious danger. The Gospel highlights the fact that just outside the door of the rich man laid the pathetic figure of Lazarus. Each and every day the rich man walked out his door, Lazarus was there. Each and every day the rich man returned home, Lazarus was there. The deadly sin of the rich man was his unwillingness to NOTICE the poor man’s plight right outside his house and to RESPOND to his need. Whether the rich man absentmindedly didn’t notice Lazarus, or consciously ignored the pathetic figure, he failed in one of the most basic principles of humanity. From the beginning of time, when Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responded quite bluntly, “Yes! Each one of us is our brother’s and sister’s keeper!”
In relation to this Gospel story, I have often preached about the need for us to respond to the physical needs of those suffering around us. We need to share our riches and act as good and faithful stewards of all that we have. Today, however, I want to focus on a different source of wealth we need to consciously share with the Lazaruses of the world.
Several years ago I helped to organize a conference entitled “Speaking to Secular America: How the Church Is Reaching Out to the Non-Religious of Our Society.” During the conference I heard outstanding presentations on the growing number of non-religious people in America – atheists, agnostics, and many who simply don’t identify with any religious label – and how we not only can, but how we need to reach out to them with the rich treasure of our Orthodox Christian faith.
There is a rapidly growing number of people in the US who simply have rejected faith, or who have replaced their traditional Christian faith with a form of secularism. Secularism, as Fr. Stephen Freeman noted, using a definition of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, is “a world view that holds that there is such a thing as a “neutral zone,” a sphere of life that has nothing necessarily to do with God. It is not at all the denial of the existence of God, though many secularists do deny that, but it is the contention that if God exists, He is somehow removed from the day-to-day existence of all things. In a summary: If God exists, then He should know His place and stay there.”
How many people in our society live in this neutral zone, having pushed God into a tiny corner of their lives, essentially ignoring him in their daily life. Many of these people may even call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” which often means they create an individualized spirituality that validates however they choose to live and believe.
Well, in a certain way many of these secularists, or non-religious people, can be compared to Lazarus in the Gospel of today. They are people who are deeply impoverished spiritually. They either have never heard of the immense treasure of Jesus Christ and the Good News He offers to the world, or have rejected some distorted and tepid caricature of faith, or maybe have never had the opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s presence in His Church and in a vibrant life of faith.
We who are in the Orthodox Church are a part of the unbroken “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” – the Church that Christ founded. In our Church we have received the greatest treasure of faith, the pearl of great price, and we can experience God in a mystical and full way through our faith. In a spiritual sense, we are like the rich man in the Gospel story, living spiritually wealthy lives, and outside our doorstep are the Lazaruses of the world, many who are begging for crumbs to nourish their spiritual lives. Do we notice their need, and are we consciously reaching out to share the wealth of our spiritual treasure?
We have this responsibility, just as much in a spiritual sense, as in a physical sense. Both are essential to our understanding and practice of faith.
Today, let us remember that “My brother [and sister] is my life.” And let us share the rich treasures we all possess – let us share our material wealth, but just as important, let us remember to share our faith, our spiritual treasure, with a world that is in desperate need.