Though I often have a slice of Scripture in mind whenever writing these pieces, seldom have I conscientiously included a text as I wish to do here, for these words ascribed to Jesus underlie what follows:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21).

It is a small drama — trite even and liable to cheap emotion; still, Jesus uses its threadbare plot so convincingly that the story settles into our consciences like an unwanted skin blemish. Jesus had taken note of the contrasts of wealth and poverty. Then with frightening realism, he fused faith and social situation. One of the dangers of the Christian religion is its tendency to separate faith and works. When that happens, our religion becomes spiritualized … gets disconnected from communal life.

Admittedly, few pastors are sufficiently equipped to speak authoritatively respecting all the problematic issues of our culture and society. Still, the parade of life goes by all our doors and a God-loving people dare not look away. Thoughtful folk know how the fond ideals and hopes of one’s faith get smashed beneath the wheels of social, cultural, economic and political realities “scheming” our lives. So pastor and pew view Jesus’ words as having social import. So welcome to Lazarus at the gate!

JACOB MARLEY, whose values were foisted upon our attention in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” speaking from the House of Death, sadly spoke of the business profits which had absorbed him in life:

“Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”

Likewise, in Jesus’ small story, the rich man shortsightedly failed to recognize that the true good things of life were “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence.” He chose a life focused upon himself and his own comfort. Jesus taught that too much comfort and too much security falsify and screen us from seeing life whole: Life is laced with nuance, chance, bad luck and injustices.

A good many years ago I heard the late theologian Paul Tillich speaking on the subject “The Riddle of Inequality.” He allowed that we do not understand why so much is given to some in terms of “external goods, friends, intellectual gifts, and even a comparatively high morality on which to base their actions.” Why should there be such disparity of talents in body, mind and heritage — differences created by our freedom and destiny? Why are some better able to use what life has given them than others? How does a rational and healthy society compensate for inequalities which grow out of our political, class, racial and national situations?

It is true, Tillich said, that people sometimes lose what has been given them because they did not use rightly those gifts and resources, squandering them upon trivialities and self-serving ventures. That happens … but we know that this is not the whole story. Often negative influences in one’s surroundings drive some to lives of crime, precipitating and compounding various miseries. We are not wholly positioned to judge these folk, particularly when we realize that quite possibly their heritage and/or life settings played them false. With uneasy conscience we then must ask, “Why them and not us?” Tillich concluded that the “riddle of inequality” can only be resolved by recovering our sense of oneness with one another.

IT IS IMPERATIVE that we keep in mind that we share in a social order that has in one way or another become the source of our neighbor’s misery. Unwittingly, many of us benefit from the governing complex economic arrangements that result in the misery of others. There is nothing that you and I have in the way of resources, talents, skills, and happy circumstance that we have not received. That I am able to write reasonably well and so not offend you my reader with unacceptable grammar speaks to my indebtedness to the teacher from whom I learned about relative pronouns and subjunctive clauses.

The discerning person knows that it takes only a malfunctioning gene, or perhaps being born in another family, or race, religion or nation, to set the stage for another kind of life than what one has. A compassionate and justice-seeking society elects to remember that we live as receivers and that we have our common life under God. The rich man in Jesus’ small story may have been safe and comfortable; but he was only half alive — incomplete and thoroughly incompetent in matters of the heart. The man’s sin lay in his having quenched the spirit of charity and compassion. He let life’s “good things” blind him from seeing his neighbor’s need. He may have said, “Business is business!” He might better have said, “My real business is mankind!”

Whoever knows himself as a receiver of bounties often undeserved will remember Lazarus at the gate.

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is a member of First Parish Church in Saco.