Eavesdropping is impolite. But sometimes you can’t help overhearing somebody else’s conversation. Waiting for a flight from Atlanta to Chicago, I was sitting across from a man in his early twenties. He was talking on his cell phone. Loudly. About his mother.
“What a b@#ch! I’m facing jail time and all she can say to me is that I have to learn to face consequences.”
That call ended. Another followed immediately. Then another and another and another. Each call was very brief, one-sided, and littered with harsh contempt for others.
As I walked away I heard him saying, “Can you believe all these lazy bums sitting on the sidewalk begging for money! I don’t give them anything. I tell them they make me sick. To get a job.”
Settled into my new seat, I spent some time thinking about what it might be like to be in the habit of seeing people around you as less than you. As jerks, idiots, and lowlifes. As nobodies.
Christians strive to respect the dignity of every human being. That’s one of the spiritual practices at the core of being a disciple. We believe that every person is the beloved child of God. And we’re committed to doing our best, with God’s help, to act like it.
Okay, we don’t get this right every time. And when we admit that we’ve stumbled, Jesus picks us up, brushes us off, and sends us back on the path. By the way, this is another core discipleship practice: repentance. But that’s is for another day. Let’s get back to the importance of recognizing each other’s humanity.
Jesus taught us to respect the dignity of every human being. And of course that’s because God loves each of us. But it is also because each of us needs to discover ourselves as the beloved.
That’s not a truth that anybody else can just tell us. We have to have our own I-feel-seen moments. Only another somebody can see you. If you look at everybody around you as a nobody there’s nobody there to see you. In what may seem like a paradox, we most fully recognize ourselves as the beloved when we are loving toward others.
Jesus illustrates how this is in a story that commentators often call The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. You’ll also see it called The Parable of Lazarus and Dives. But that’s a misleading title. “Dives” just means “rich” in Latin. The fellow doesn’t actually have a name, and that turns out to be a crucial detail. (Luke 16:19-31)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s turn to the parable itself:
A rich man wore designer clothes and lived on a palatial estate. He ate like a king at every meal. Lazarus—homeless, starving, and covered with sores—huddled outside the rich guy’s gate.
The implication is that the rich man ignored Lazarus’ suffering entirely. His attention was fixed on his own comfort and pleasure. Lazarus, as far as the rich man was concerned, didn’t even exist. He was a nobody.
The parable’s setting then shifts to the afterlife. Lazarus goes to heaven. The rich man lands in hell. Crucially, Lazarus has a name in the hereafter. The rich man remains the nameless guy.
In the afterlife, we get a God’s eye view of things. On earth, Lazarus had no possessions, no status, no power. None of that stuff matters. He is God’s beloved because, well, God. And Lazarus realizes it.
The rich guy is nameless. He does not and cannot see himself as God’s beloved.
That’s because he has never learned to recognize anyone else as God’s beloved. He’s loved things. And strictly speaking, loving things as things is fine. But he’s never loved people as people. As vulnerable, tender, fragile beings who need love and offer love.
God sees us all. Not with eyes of judgment and wrath. But with eyes of love. We all need, we all yearn, to say, “I feel seen.” And that’s why Jesus told to love one another as he loves us.