Years ago I experienced a trying time in a crowded bathroom at a Maryland rest stop. My young daughter wanted to go in the stall by herself and shut the door by herself and put the soap on her hands by herself and rinse her hands under water by herself. Every time I tried to speed the process along, she would scream, “Myself—do it myself!” Conscious of the long line behind us, I felt mortified until one woman kindly said, “She must be two,” and many of the other women laughed. Clearly, there were other mothers in the room.
I had been worried about causing irritation and resentment but instead found support, humor and encouragement. Moments like these, peppered along the way of my parenthood journey, helped me more than I can say. The kindness of strangers, as well as the kindness of neighbors and friends, helped me rise to the challenge that is parenting.
Yet those kindnesses often came as a surprise, so constant was my self-expectation that I ought to be able to do everything by myself. While my inner two-year old still clung to independence, wanting nothing to do with helping hands, my adult self also did not expect any helping hands to be there, and also felt that I should be able to do perfectly well without them.
As a pastor I hear over and over again people express a fear of dependency: “I don’t want to depend on other people. I want to be the one helping, not the one being helped.” For most of us, being able to help others feels good, but needing to depend on others or needing to ask for help carries more troubling feelings: embarrassment, shame, guilt, frustration, and perhaps most of all, fear.
“What if someday I can’t take care of myself?” This fear influences our relationship with money. We want to have enough money so we can be secure, independent, and not have to ask others for help, and we want to feel confident that we will always have enough money to be secure, independent and not have to ask others for help.
But how much is enough? I haven’t come across that many people who feel financially secure, no matter what their circumstances. Having a well-paying job or a robust savings account may mitigate, but does not seem to do away with fear. When I’ve asked people what their biggest fear is, they often offer images like “being a bag lady,” or “being homeless on the street.” They might as well say, “I fear becoming Lazarus.”
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus exposes our fears and turns them upside down, suggesting that actually, what we should fear most is becoming like the Rich Man—that he is the one on truly treacherous ground. The parable also emphasizes the divide between the two people, the divide that somehow allows the Rich Man to ignore Lazarus’s needs on earth, and that prevents Lazarus from helping the Rich Man in the afterlife.
What happens if we heed the gospel’s warning, relinquish our fear of becoming like Lazarus, and direct our fear toward resisting the urge to be like the Rich Man? I suspect we will find our eyes more easily opened to the needs others present and find within ourselves a willingness to help. And I suspect we will also relinquish the desire for total autonomy and independence, and allow ourselves to receive help from others.
The parable spurs us to imagine what could happen if we appropriately direct our fear. Perhaps we will find ourselves moving away from extremes, to a place of more balance and centered living. Perhaps we will find ourselves comfortable with being both givers and receivers, both generous and grateful. And then perhaps we will find ourselves in a place without chasms in a neighborhood full of good neighbors—even, perhaps, a place where we can live without fear.
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