In my 28 ½ years of being a priest, this weekend is the first time an Archbishop has told me what topic to address in my preaching on a given Sunday. So I figured I better pay attention. He did not tell me how to address it. I do not approach the issue as a politician or a sociologist or an economist or even a lawyer. (sorry to the lawyers out there.) But I am here to address it as a person of faith who takes the revelation of God in our Scriptures as something normative for my approach to life.
The question is simple: “How do we frame the immigration debate in our country?” The answers are not so simple. There is a lot of impassioned rhetoric on all sides of this debate. Fortuitously, the gospel story this Sunday provides the perfect framework. In this story of Jesus, the main character flaw of the rich man is his treatment of Lazarus. He is not a bad person because he is rich. Or dresses well. Or dines sumptuously. Nor is it because he has a cruel or unkind heart. In fact, he is genuinely concerned about the welfare of his own brothers once his own fate is sealed. He is presented as the villain simply in the fact that he does not recognize that the beggar at his door is his brother in the Lord.
That being said, his treatment of Lazarus is probably better than most. The fact that Lazarus stayed at the gate was a tribute to at least some shred of decency – he could have had the police drag him away, as we often do in our own city of St. Louis when homeless tent cities pop up. And he is on a first name basis with him – because from the abode of punishment, he asks father Abraham to “send Lazarus” to dip the tip of his finger in water…
But what he does not do, and perhaps, cannot do, is see Lazarus as HIS brother – because then he would have had to DO something about his sufferings. Instead, it appears that he thinks of Lazarus as merely a servant or a slave. “Send him to me with water to quench my thirst. Send him to my brothers.” That is not the language of equals. To the rich man, all that Lazarus will ever be, even in heaven, is a servant/celestial errand boy and NOT his brother.
If there is a framing that need to happen in our country’s immigration debate, doesn’t it start there – with the seeing of them as our brothers and sisters? If they are seen as “illegal immigrants” or “aliens” or “job stealers” or “welfare moochers” as they often are characterized, then, like the rich man, we don’t have to do much about them or for them. As long as they remain “invisible’ in my world, then I can eat of the produce of their back breaking labor in the fields, without ever having to worry about living wages or safe working conditions.
However, if they are our brothers and sisters, then everything is different. THAT, is the framing that father Abraham invited the rich man and his brothers to – what the prophetic tradition spoke of over and over again – you shall care for the stranger and widow and alien and orphan in your midst. Jesus took it a step further. As often as you did it for the least of these, MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS – YOU DID IT FOR ME. And that, I propose, is the framing that must mark our immigration debate in our country.
Minimally, a few options:
1) Erase the words: “Illegal Aliens” or “Outsiders” from your vocabulary. Under that definition, Jesus, the Son of God, is an illegal alien. As was Joseph and Mary when they fled Herod to go to Egypt. Strive, rather, to view everyone you meet as your brother and sister in the Lord. That is how Jesus sees them. There are about 6 different categories of immigrants. Use the correct one in your debates and conversations about a just path forward.
2) There is a specific action step in my pastor’s pen – involving contacting your House representative and encouraging them to work on USCCB legislation goals that provides a path to citizenship for the undocumented and that preserves family unity.
3) Finally, visit the justiceforimmigrants.org website in the days and weeks ahead, or the archstl.org website – with links to the USCCB and other websites for further information and specific action steps. Use that as a spring board for your prayer and reflection.
The most frightening thing about today’s gospel is that the rich man was not too different than you and me. He just needed a different set of glasses to see Lazarus, not as his servant or a slave, but as his brother. So, too, all who dare to approach this table and say “amen” – affirm in that simple word that EVERYONE, each person is sister and brother to us. Give us the grace, Lord, to frame every debate from there.