Ordinary 26th Sunday – BYSTANDER APATHY

Ordinary 26th Sunday

Amos 6: 1, 3-7                          1Tim. 6: 11-16                          Lk. 16: 19-31



“It is not the difference between people, that’s the difficulty.  It is the indifference.” – Lillian G. Geden.


Sin of Indifference: Then

Our attitudes are of threefold when it comes to our dealing with fellow human beings. There are those towards whom we have a positive attitude. We are able to love them, relate with them, befriend them. Secondly, there are those towards whom we have a sort of negative attitude. This negative attitude may be because of our past dealings with them, or what we have heard about them, or because of even our own temperament. This negative attitude prevents us from relating with them. Thirdly, there are people towards whom we are neutral in our attitude. We have neither any concern and love, nor any hatred and animosity towards them. We just don’t mind them. We are indifferent towards them.

We all know that the first one is good and healthy, while the second is bad and to be avoided. With regard to being indifferent towards others, we don’t feel much bad or negative. We feel that it is quite okay to be indifferent. Though we can’t avoid a certain amount of neutrality towards those around us, too much of it and cocooning ourselves within our own self-created, comfortable world is certainly an unhealthy one. The Bible is very clear that to be indifferent towards fellow human beings is as bad as hating them. In fact, it is worse than that. Bernard Shaw once said, “The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them.” In hating someone, we indirectly accept the personhood of a person. (You can hate only a human being, not a thing.) However in indifference, we don’t recognize someone as a person at all. As far as we are concerned, the person is just a ‘thing.’

Precisely this was the sin of the rich man in the gospel. He was not much against Lazarus; He did not chase him away from his gates; Neither was he the cause of Lazarus’ poverty – at least directly. He was just indifferent towards Lazarus. He considered that Lazarus was not worthy of his attention at all. He consciously or unconsciously denied/ignored the very personhood of Lazarus. Though he would have done something positive to uplift his life, he just did not do it. That was his only sin. It was also the sin of the rich in the Israel during the time of Amos. They enjoyed all sorts of comforts and conveniences, and were completely unmindful of the poor. It was this sin that Amos in sharp and strong words confronted (the first reading).

Sin of Indifference: Now

Albert Schweitzer, by the age of 30, had become a famous theologian, philosopher, writer and organist. However at the age of 30, he left behind this lucrative career and announced to go to Africa to work for the poor. It surprised many. He wrote the reason for his decision in his autobiography Out of My Life and Thought, “I gave up my position of profession in the University of Strasbourg,  my literary work and my organ playing in order to go as a doctor to Equatorial Africa. How did I do it? After hearing about the sufferings of the native Africans and the need for the great humanitarian task, I could not but think of them.  The parable of Dives and Lazarus seemed to me to have been spoken directly to us, the westerners. Just as Dives could have helped, but did not help the poor Lazarus, we also don’t think of the poor.”

Today, many so-called good Christians suffer from this sin of indifference. Quite often we hear people saying, “I don’t hate that person. I just don’t mind him/her. That’s all.” In a larger scale, we are just unmindful of what is happening to the majority of the society. Of course we can’t help everyone in the world or whomever we see. As mentioned earlier, we cannot be completely not neutral. We cannot invest our limited time and energy on all those issues and people we come across. However we can certainly do much more than what we do now in order to help those who are around us.

In social psychology, there is something called ‘Bystander effect’ or ‘bystander apathy.’ This theory claims that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. It is the reluctance of people to help the victims with the thinking that somebody else would help the victim. But the problem is that everybody thinks in that way. According to surveys, the more the bystanders, the less probabilities of helping the victim. Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Sin of Indifference: A Way Out

St. Paul, in the second reading, gives us a practical tip to get out of our comfort zone and help people. It is by deepening our faith. He instructs Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith.” Faith is directly and proportionately co-related to love. The more faith we have, the more love we possess in our lives and vice versa. If our faith does not increase our love for fellow human beings, then there is something wrong with our faith. In fact, it is not faith at all.

Elie Wiesel was a Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. He has authored about 57 books. In one of the book, he writes, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. and the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

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