VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ pastoral heart came out in his Lenten message this year, focusing, in what could be a lengthy homily, on the importance of recognizing others as a gift, with an in-depth reflection on the word of God.
“A right relationship with people consists in gratefully recognizing their value. Even the poor person at the door of the rich is not a nuisance, but summons to conversion and to change,” the Pope said in this year’s Lenten message.
“Each person is a gift, whether it be our neighbor or an anonymous pauper,” he said, adding that Lent “is a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ.”
Released Feb. 7, the Pope’s message is titled, “The Word Is a Gift. Other Persons Are a Gift” and centers on the passage in the Gospel of Luke recounting the relation between the poor man Lazarus and the rich man who rejects him, a topic to which he often returns.
In the message, Francis said Lent is a key time to vamp up our spiritual life through the Church’s traditional practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. However, “at the basis of everything is the word of God,” he said, and offered an in-depth reflection on the parable.
Francis noted how the parable begins by presenting the two main characters, with the poor man described in more detail than the rich man. Lazarus is depicted as lying in front of the rich man’s door eating the crumbs that fall from his table, with dogs coming to lick the sores that cover his body.
“The picture is one of great misery; it portrays a man disgraced and pitiful,” the Pope said, noting the contrast between the image of the poor man provided and his name, Lazarus, which means “God helps,” indicating a promise.
Although Lazarus is invisible to the rich man, “we see and know him as someone familiar. He becomes a face, and as such, a gift, priceless treasure, a human being whom God loves and cares for, despite his concrete condition as an outcast,” Francis said.
Lazarus, therefore, teaches us that “other persons are a gift,” he said, adding that good relationships among people consist of recognizing each other’s value.
By setting the scene as it does, the parable first invites us to open our hearts to others and to recognize them as a gift, “whether it be our neighbor or an anonymous pauper,” he said, adding that each life we encounter “is a gift deserving acceptance, respect and love.”
The word of God helps us “to open our eyes to welcome and love life, especially when it is weak and vulnerable,” he said, but stressed that, in order to do this, “we have to take seriously what the Gospel tells us about the rich man.”
Francis then turned to the image of the rich man himself, who, unlike Lazarus, doesn’t have a name and is described as wearing extravagant and expensive robes, flaunting his wealth in a “clearly ostentatious” way.
Turning to St. Paul’s declaration in his First Letter to Timothy — “the love of money is the root of all evil” — the Pope noted that money is the primary source of envy, conflict and suspicion.
Money, he said, “can come to dominate us, even to the point of becoming a tyrannical idol. Instead of being an instrument at our service, for doing good and showing solidarity toward others, money can chain us and the entire world to a selfish logic that leaves no room for love and hinders peace.”
However, while the rich man in the parable becomes vain out of greed, his appearances mask “an internal emptiness,” making him a prisoner of his sin.
For those corrupted by love of money, “nothing exists beyond their own ego. Those around them do not come into their line of sight,” the Pope said, explaining that the result of this attachment “is a sort of blindness. The rich man does not see the poor man who is starving, hurting, lying at his door.”
Reflecting on this passage is “a good preparation” for Easter, Pope Francis said, explaining that Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is similar to what is described in the passage, particularly with the administration of the ashes, which serves as a symbol of the end of our earthly lives.
In the passage, both the rich man and Lazarus died, realizing that “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
The parable also offers a message for all Christians, he said, noting how the rich man wants to warn his brothers about what he is suffering. However, Abraham rejects the request, telling him that if his brothers didn’t listen to Moses or the prophets, then they won’t listen, “even if someone should rise from the dead.”
He said the rich man’s real problem, then, is that he failed to heed God’s word, and because of this, he lost his love for God and began to despise his neighbor.
“The word of God is alive and powerful, capable of converting hearts and leading them back to God,” he said, adding that “when we close our heart to the gift of God’s word, we end up closing our heart to the gift of our brothers and sisters.”
Lent, he said, “is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor.”
“May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need,” he said.
Pope Francis closed his message by encouraging the faithful to pray for one another “so that, by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and poor. Then we will be able to experience and share the full the joy of Easter.”