The Gospel According to Lazarus
The Christian Bible was, at one point, the best-selling book of all time (I’d guess it probably hasn’t been dethroned yet). The text represents the oral histories, written and rewritten original stories, anthropological snapshots, linguistic and artistic achievements, and, yes, religious beliefs of a multicultural cross-section of humanity. The Bible holds tales of love and hate, victory and defeat, violence and peace, morality and sin—the way I see it, you will get whatever you want out of this text depending on what you put in. Our Biblical interpretations are reflections of us as readers and our projections of the world we wish to create.
I was raised in the Catholic tradition, and years of weekly Mass attendance and familial theological discussions familiarized me with certain aspects of the Bible, primarily the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although I no longer consider myself a believer or a part of this faith, the Gospels are a part of me. Gospel stories of a compassionate and just Jesus depicted a way of living that is now the moral foundation of my relationships, citizenship, solidarity, and career interest in medicine. Whether I am Catholic or not, a Jesuit morality makes me who I am, and I will always be grateful for that.
In the predominantly Catholic Costa Rica, I am surrounded by reminders of the Carpenter: churches are liberally sprinkled throughout the streets of downtown San Jose, my host family prays before every meal and teaches catechism at the local church, and the clinic I am working at is funded by the religious organization, Club de Paz (Club of Peace). In the midst of all this, I have started more and more to see parallels between my work in the Hospital para los Indigentes (Hospital for the Homeless) and certain Gospel motifs.
The first parallel is feet. The washing of feet to be specific. In the Gospels, the washing of feet is a sign of humility and service; a woman washes Jesus’s feet with her tears as a sign of respect, and Jesus famously washes the feet of his disciples the night of the Last Supper. It makes sense why foot-washing was a big deal in Judea 2,000 years ago. People traveled for miles through the dusty, sandy Levant in sandals, and Jesus and the disciples were carpenters, fishermen, and workers. These were well-worn feet, and not things you wanted to be anywhere near. The feet of the homeless men and women that come to the Hospital para los Indigentes are also feet you probably do not want to be near. These people lack consistent access to changes of socks and shoes, even during the wet season (it happens to be the middle of the wet season right now in Costa Rica). Walking long distances, standing for long periods of time, and sleeping on the streets lead to a host of blisters, sores, and open wounds on patients’ legs and feet. These are the bloody, cracked, infected feet of the homeless, the wounds of immigrants, those rejected by their families, the transgender. And every day, I wash their feet and dress their wounds. The patients may confuse my scrubs and white skin with status, respectfully calling me “doctor,” but the washing of feet wipes away such illusions.
The second parallel is generosity. The Bible presents a challenging discussion on generosity, most notably questioning the motives behind generosity and charitable acts. One of my favorite passages details a poor widow’s donation of two copper coins at the Jerusalem Temple and Jesus’s praise of her gift as one of sacrifice and generosity rather than surplus. Today we cared for a woman I have seen at the clinic multiple times already even in my short time here. She often stays and talks with the staff long after her medical needs are met, so I have gotten used to her presence at the clinic. Her time at the clinic today was even more prolonged by my inability to hear her blood pressure in triage. I had eventually ceded my stethoscope to one of the other nurses and tried to brush my frustration away, but my self-exasperation apparently stuck with her. Right before closing time, she approached me. Like most of the patients that come here, her worldly possessions fit into a backpack and two shopping bags. She bent down, rustled through her backpack, and took out a crumpled brown bag of sweets, carefully withdrawing a hard candy and placing it in my palm. A gift of generosity rather than surplus.
The last parallel is resurrection. Jesus’s resurrection is undoubtedly the most prominent example of this miracle in the Gospels, but it is not the only one. John’s Gospel tells that Jesus resurrects his dear friend, Lazarus, after four days in the tomb. I interpret Lazarus’s resurrection as symbolic of second chances, a beautiful reminder of the possibility of tomorrow. I met a big, big man during my first week at the clinic. I felt like a prepubescent tween again when he stood up from his seat in the waiting room and enveloped my hand in a tight shake. Many patients try to speak English to me when we first meet, but this man actually spoke English. Surprised, I dug deeper into this man’s life story. I eventually figured out he was Tico by birth but American by identity, having moved to the U.S. at age 15, graduated from a community college, and served in the military to earn his citizenship. Multiple stints in jail for drug-dealing and domestic violence led to the stripping of his citizenship and, ultimately, his deportation back to Costa Rica. He told me he was in the sixth year of his ten-year deportation, and he could not wait for the next four years to pass so he could see his family again. This return would start a second life for him, a resurrection of sorts from the death of being separated from his loved ones. I realized as he was leaving that I’d never caught his name. When I asked, he blinked slowly and then gave a half-smile. “Lazarus.” Chills. As I said before, you get out of the Bible what you put in. Right now, I am uniquely able to “put in” my Costa Rican experiences to the Bible, but I think the value lies not in the serendipity of similarities, but in the product this new input will create. I think it’s time I approach this moral text outside of premeditated moral logic and discussion. I think it’s time I put in personal experience and see what I get out. I think it’s time we heard the Gospel according to Lazarus.