For the last few weeks, I’ve been haunted by a quotation. The author is a historian who is writing about the contemporary relevance Franciscan spirituality, and in particular, its focus on poverty. At one point, she writes, “Whether it results from unjust social structures or the consequences of war or natural disasters, the plight of the poor throughout the world cannot be hidden in the age of television and the internet.” (Peta Dunstan, “The Ecumenical Appeal of Francis” in p. 284, The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi.)
The first time I read that sentence, I kept on reading. I agreed. The “plight of the poor” can’t be hidden, given the internet and all it makes possible, the 24-hour news cycle on television, and those of us who still read things printed on paper. Waiting at the bank, in the airport, or at the doctor’s office, one is likely to see, hear, and be forced to confront the news—news of disasters, news of who is dancing how in Hollywood, and news of the poor. But I don’t think that means for a minute that “poverty isn’t hidden from us,” or perhaps put differently, that we don’t hide from poverty. We do it out of fatigue, out of helplessness, out of fear… we hide, or ignore, or postpone dealing with poverty.
When Jesus tells the story of the rich man and the poor man, he is trying to get the Pharisees to stop using religion to hide from the real world. These religious elite are misinterpreting the great tradition handed down by Moses and the Prophets, and the Pharisees are using it for their own ends. It is in that context that Jesus tells them of a very rich man, a man so rich that every meal is a feast—a huge banquet. But outside the man’s house is his pest of a person named Lazarus. And Lazarus is poor.
The Lazarus in today’s story is a different person than the brother of Mary and Martha. (His name is also Lazarus.) In our story, there’s a poor man, named Lazarus, and there’s a rich man—sometimes nicknamed “Dives,” from the Latin word for rich man. These two men die. They both go off to the place that Jews and Christians in the first century believed they would go. What is named in the Gospel as Hades or Sheol brings together views of the time that understood paradise as filled with water and running streams, along with Gehenna, a place filled with fire and torment. In this story, the two become one in Hades and it is there that Dives and Lazarus find themselves.
But there in Hades, Dives is surprised. He looks over and sees Lazarus walking with Abraham—Abraham the father of the faith; Abraham, the greatest ancestor; and in this case, Abraham, certainly the most important person at the party. Dives calls out, probably hoping to put Lazarus in his place and show Abraham just how important Dives is—he calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’” But we overhear Abraham’s words: “Remember, Dives, that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”
Abraham tells Dives that there is a “great chasm.” It is a distance that keeps Dives from knowing much of anything about Lazarus or about other people like Lazarus.
Jesus tells this story not to paint a geographic picture of heaven. Nor does he offer the image even as a theologically correct picture of heaven. Jesus is not for a minute justifying a miserable life on earth by saying that one’s reward will be in heaven. Neither is he suggesting that all of those who have known blessing in this life will see a reversal in heaven. Instead, I think Jesus wants to point out the chasm, the divide, the gulf—the problem of separation, that if not dealt with here on earth, can follow us into heaven. If not dealt with here on earth, the chasm may be so deep as even to keep us from heaven.
It is the distance that is the problem. Notice that when Jesus describes the rich man on earth, he never say that the man is bad. The rich man is not evil man, nor is he especially sinful. It’s never suggested that Dives gained his wealth by dishonest means, nor are we even told that he is stingy—it seems that he was at least generous with his friends, and he remembered the poor with his leftovers.
But he keeps himself apart. He’s separated. He’s removed. And he has been content there.
We don’t know exactly what the nature of the rich man’s separation might have been. But if we think about it, we can begin to notice the distance that may separate us from others.
But as I mentioned earlier, we have the means to navigate any distance, to stretch over any distance, we have the cross.
In Saint Matthew’s passion, his story of the crucifixion, he includes a really wonderful detail about the resurrection. Sometime near the time of the resurrection, that first Easter Sunday morning, there was an earthquake. That earthquake foreshadows the power of the cross, to move us out of areas of comfort and into places of challenge; to move us from isolation into community; to move us from self-absorption into mission, and to move us from self-centeredness into the very life of God.
When we aim to follow Jesus, to be like him, to internalize his teaching, his living and his loving, we begin to make connections, to reach across the distance and to build up the kingdom of God.
Though today is Sunday all day long, it’s also the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The feast gives thanks for intermediaries, for go-betweens of every kind. As many of you know, the Hebrew word for angel is ambiguous—it can mean angel, or messenger. An angel is one who connects, who goes between, who crosses distances, who reaches across a chasm.
This week, I encourage you to do one thing that crosses a chasm and reaches towards another person. It might be to learn the name of a homeless person you pass every day. It might be to give money to a group that helps the poor. It might be to learn the particulars of an issue affecting the poor. Pray about what you can do, and do it. Reach across. May St. Michael and all the angels give us energy, compassion, and courage.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.