Sunday, September 26, 2010

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Bridging Gaps or Digging Graves
Picture: cc  The Infamous Gdub
Dear sisters and brothers, when we say that someone has dug his own grave we are usually referring to a person who has been seeking his own benefit but ends up causing himself greater suffering instead. I came across a good example of this on the BBC website yesterday. A man in Akron, Ohio, had been shoplifting in a Walmart. Then, to keep from getting caught, he jumped into a dumpster at the back of the store. Unfortunately for him, a garbage truck happened by just at that moment. Finding himself trapped in the truck, our shoplifter used his cellphone to contact a friend, who then called 911. Eventually, the police managed to get him out, but not before he had undergone considerable suffering. A police spokesperson had this to say about our dumpster diver: (When he was found) he was in a lot of pain. He had been compacted several times. He was just begging us to empty the truck...

The news report does not tell us what the shoplifter’s exact intentions were. But it’s likely that he stole from the store because he was looking for a more comfortable life. He then jumped into the dumpster in search of safety and security. He was trying to escape the police. He did all these things for his own benefit. But he ended up causing himself greater pain and suffering instead. What we have here is a classic case of someone who dug his own grave. Thankfully for him, people heard his cries for help and were able to come to his rescue before it was too late.

The rich man in our gospel parable is not so lucky. After his death, he finds himself trapped and undergoing great suffering. We’re told that he’s tormented by the flames in the netherworld. And, like our shoplifter, he cries out for help. Unfortunately, it’s too late for him. Abraham tells him that a great chasm has been established preventing anyone from rescuing or comforting him even if they wanted to.

And it may be helpful for us to wonder for a moment how this great chasm came to be established. Who put it there? The parable itself doesn’t tell us. And some of us might think that it is God who has done this. It is God who has dug this deep canyon in order to imprison the rich man, in order to punish him for his sins. Perhaps. But could it not also be the case that the rich man is the one responsible? Could it be that, like our shoplifter from Ohio, it is the rich man himself who has somehow dug his own grave?

In order to see this possibility, we need first to consider what the deep chasm does. Notice how it separates people into two groups. On one side, we have Lazarus and those who are comforted. On the other, we have the rich man and those who are tormented. Notice also how this separation that takes place after death corresponds to an earlier division in life -- between the rich and comfortable on one side, and the poor and afflicted on the other. The separation after death is a continuation of an earlier division in life, but with two crucial differences. First there is a reversal of experiences. After death, the one who was comfortable in life -- the rich man -- is now tormented, and the one who was suffering in life -- Lazarus -- is now comforted.

Second, there is also a change in the thing that separates them. It is only after death that their separation becomes final and irreversible. It is only after death that we find the deep chasm, which makes it impossible to cross from one side to the other. In contrast, while in life, although divided, the poor and the rich were actually very close. We’re told that Lazarus used to lie at the door of the rich man’s house. How easy it must have been for the rich man to bridge the distance between him and Lazarus while they were still alive. All the rich man had to do was to open his door to the poor. All he had to do was to show compassion. But he did not do it. Even though he could easily have done so while still alive, the rich man failed to bridge the distance between the rich and the poor. And, after death, it was too late. The rich man had already dug his own grave.

Furthermore, our readings also suggest to us a reason for the rich man’s failure. The rich man neglects to open the door of his house, because he has first closed the doors of his heart. We find an indication of this in the first reading. Here, the prophet Amos pronounces a judgment upon the rich people of his time. Woe to the complacent in Zion! he proclaims. Their only concern is with their own comfort. So focused are they on indulging their own selfish desires, and perhaps in safeguarding their own wealth, that they remain unaffected by the suffering of the masses of poor people who surround them. In the words of the prophet, these rich people are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph. Not unlike our shoplifter from Ohio, in seeking only their own comfort and security, they end up diving into the disgusting dumpster of their own complacency. And isn’t this the same complacency that then results in the great chasm imprisoning the rich man in the netherworld? Notice, for example, how complacent, how arrogant, the rich man remains even after death. Even as he is tormented by hellfire, he continues to order people about. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus first to cool his tongue and then to warn his brothers. As in life, so too in death. The rich man continues to treat the poor person -- if he notices him at all -- as nothing more than a slave. Isn’t it clear then who is the one responsible for the chasm separating him from the joys of heaven. By his own complacency, the rich man has dug his own grave.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon our own situations. Perhaps some of us might consider ourselves rich. Others might consider ourselves poor. But whether rich or poor, by virtue of our baptism, all of us here are called to be what the second reading tells us that Timothy was called to be: men and women of God, called to keep Christ’s great commandment of love, committed to rejecting complacency, so as to show compassion, determined to do what we can in this life to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.

And it is important to keep this calling of ours constantly in mind, especially as we approach this country’s midterm elections in November. During this time, when the citizens among us are being called to make crucial decisions as to who we want to represent us in government, when various candidates are campaigning for our vote, perhaps our readings today suggest to us a crucial question that we need to consider before casting our ballots: Is this candidate doing something to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? Or is s/he only continuing to help us dig our own graves?

And what about each of us, sisters and brothers? In our daily lives, are we bridging gaps or digging graves? How might each of us answer this question today?

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