Break the Bystander Effect
by Rev. Richard A. Miserendino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Jesus said to the Pharisees: "There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.' Abraham replied, 'My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.' He said, 'Then I beg you, father, send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.' But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen them.' He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"
During a recent training at our parish, we were shown a video illustrating "the bystander effect." It's a common phenomenon where people will notice another person in need, but then choose to ignore them and pass them by instead of helping. the video documented a person lying hurt in the gutter outside a busy London train station. Though the person called out for help, it took a full 20minutes before any commuters chose to stop and render aid. Literally, hundreds of people walked right past. No doubt they all had rationalizations, but for almost half an hour, those rationalizations blinded commuters to the image of God in their neighbor.
This brings to mind our Gospel today, the famed parable of "the Rich Man and Lazarus." The rich man lives the high life here and now, physically stepping over poor Lazarus, whose living situation is the very opposite of luxury. Every day, the bystander effect plays out on the rich man's front porch. When it comes to the next life, though, the tables turn. While the rich man is buried and descends to hell, Lazarus is escorted to heaven by angels. Too late, the rich man realizes that his fate could have been wildly different had he only made a few adjustments to his daily routine.
The parable is literally self-explanatory; our actions and lifestyle in time have profound consequences for what we hope to inherit in eternity. Salvation is through grace by faith in Christ, but it must always bear fruit in works of mercy. We can't afford to be bystanders.
Yet the meaning also tracks with the bystander effect in another hopeful way. While the downside of the bystander effect is that crowds of people pass by someone in need, the upside is that once an individual chooses to recognize the person in need, then the invisible wall is broken and others quickly follow suit to help. All it takes is one person to set the example, take notice, and render what help they can. They may not be a doctor. but sooner or later, with the help of a growing crowd, one is usually found. A little courage goes a long way.
our baptism, we are all commissioned as little Christs in the world. This
means that not only are we promised an inheritance of divine life, but also that
wee are the body of Christ, his hands and feet. To attain the former, we
must live as the latter. Which means that we ought to be conscious of
those we might be tempted to "step over" and rationalize away, instead notice
them, and hold ourselves accountable to help. Who do we step over in
our lives? The poor? Or perhaps even those who have never heard of Jesus or the Church?
The hopeful side of the bystander effect is true here, too. We might not have all the answers or be able to help the poor or those who need faith all on our own, but by taking the initiative, we set the example and start a trend. Noticing and doing what we can leaves the door open for God to do the rest through others who are also little Christs in the world.
Brilliantly, our diocese is blessed with many charities that show this teaching in action. Mary's Shelter, Stella Marina Ministries and Paul Stefan House spring to mind, though there are others as well. For each, ordinary Christians just like us took note of those in need and chose not to be bystanders. They offered what simple things they could. Then, the Holy Spirit used those moments to start trends and ministries that have brought Christ's healing to countless souls. There is nothing stopping us from doing likewise. Our Gospel challenges us this week to look around, notice those in need and make what adjustments we can to minister to them in grace as members of the body of Christ.