A Chasm Was Fixed Between Them
In the Gospel for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C, Jesus tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).
A rich man lived sumptuously, with everything money could by at his disposal. We don’t know how he came to have his money. Probably he was not a bad man. He was, however, a man who was not overly concerned with the plight of the poor of his community. We can assume this because a poor man called Lazarus lay on the doorstep of the rich man day after day, covered with sores, and the rich man did not take care of him. Even the dogs paid more attention to Lazarus than the rich man did. They came and licked his sores.
Now, in defense of the rich man, there were lots and lots of poor people around. Lots and lots of sick people. Maybe even some people who didn’t work when they could have worked to support themselves. Jesus doesn’t tell us what the rich man was thinking or why he didn’t stop to help Lazarus. He just notes that Lazarus was hungry, sick, and licked by dogs.
As Americans, the idea of having a dog lick one’s sores is not appealing, but it was even worse in those days. Dogs were not the much loved pets that they are for us. Dogs worked for a living or they were strays that fended for themselves. In many countries, dogs that were not working (tending flocks or guarding something/someone) were considered fair game as food by the poor. So here is Lazarus, lying sick and hungry at the door, having stray dogs licking his sores and unable to chase them away. Not a pretty picture.
As happens in life, Lazarus died. The angels of God swooped down, picked him up and took him to Abraham. Abraham, father of the Jewish nation, welcomer of all who came to him, welcomed Lazarus as well. He cared for Lazarus as one of his own.
As also happens in life, the rich man’s turn came to die. He died and was buried. But he did not find himself with Abraham. He was alone and in torment. He could see Abraham. He could see Lazarus with Abraham. He longed for a single drop of water to ease his pain, so he asked Abraham to send Lazarus with a drop of water for him. Note well — he didn’t ask Lazarus for forgiveness or for the gift of a drop of water. He asked Abraham to send/order Lazarus to bring the water.
Abraham reminds the rich man of the relationship that had existed in life between the two men. He also tells the rich man that there is a great chasm fixed between them, one that neither side may cross freely.
I had always wondered about that chasm. Why would a loving God set up a barrier that would keep those in His presence and company (Heaven) from reaching out and helping those who were not (Hell)? Wouldn’t those who were united with Love and in Love be so overflowing with love themselves that they’d want to help those who were separated from Love?
Our homilist this Sunday, Fr. Ken Lavarone, OFM, addressed this question. Fr. Ken pointed out that the chasm between the two men was one of lack of relationship. Lazarus could not come to the aid of the rich man because there was not a relationship between them. The rich man had always stepped over Lazarus or ignored him. Even after death, the chasm remained. The rich man spoke to Abraham, not to Lazarus.
Jesus’ story continued. The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers of the fate that awaited them – sort of like in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Abraham responded that the brothers had Moses and the prophets to warn him, as the rich man himself had had. When the rich man noted that the brothers wouldn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, Abraham retorted that those brothers would also not listen to one who returned from the dead.
These final lines of the story are of huge import for us as well. They were directed to the religious, church-going folks of Jesus time and of the early Church. Jesus returned from the dead. Affirming the message of Moses and the Prophets, Jesus said we are to care for the poor and helpless among us. How we do it will vary. Some will have monetary resources that will be shared. Others will have talents that can help make life more bearable for their less fortunate sisters and brothers. Some will only be able to offer a smile and a kind word — a recognition that the other person is also human and worthy of respect. Each of these responses is a way of entering into relationship with the other person. Each of these bridges chasms that would otherwise keep them apart.
In Jesus’ story, both men were children of Abraham due to their identity as Jews. Today, we know that we are all children/descendents of one woman who was a member of a group of people who lived in Africa around 200,000 years ago — a woman known as “Mitochondrial Eve.” We all have a responsibility to each other. We all can give the gift of a smile that raises another’s hopes and heart. We all sometimes turn away from the circle of community of God’s children. The good news is that someone did return from beyond the grave with a reminder that we can turn back at any time. We just need to remember that care of God’s little ones (the poor and the powerless) comes first when we choose our elected officials, design our social safety nets, vote for funding of community services, and allocate our personal resources of time, talents and treasure.