Sunday, September 29, 2013

From Grave-Diggers to Gulf-Bridgers (Rerun)


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Rusty Clark

Sisters and brothers, you’ve probably heard the expression digging your own grave, right? When we say that someone is digging his own grave we don’t usually mean it literally. What we mean is that that person is doing something intending to benefit himself, but then ends up causing himself greater suffering instead. I came across a rather amusing example of this in a BBC news report some years ago. A man in the United States had been stealing from a local department store. Shoplifting. Then, to avoid getting caught, he jumped into a dumpster–a huge rubbish bin–at the back of the store. Unfortunately for him, the garbage collectors happened by just at that very moment. And the guy found himself trapped in the garbage truck. Luckily he had his cellphone with him. Which he used to contact a friend. Who then called the police. Eventually, they managed to get him out of the truck. But not before he had undergone a considerable amount of suffering. A police spokesperson had this to say about our dumpster diver: (When we found him) 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. And he then jumped into the dumpster in search of safety and security. He was trying to evade the police. To escape arrest. He did all these things for his own benefit. But he ended up causing himself greater pain and suffering instead. What we have here, sisters and brothers, is a classic case of someone who unwittingly dug his own grave. Thankfully for him, people were able to come to his rescue before it was too late.

The rich man in our gospel parable today is not so lucky. After his death, he finds himself trapped and undergoing great suffering. Not in a garbage truck, but in the fires of Hell. And, like our shoplifter, he cries out for help. Unfortunately for him, it’s too late for anyone to do anything anymore. Abraham tells him that a great gulf 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 gulf 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 gaping hole in order to imprison the rich man. In order to punish him for his sins. Maybe. But could it be the rich man himself is blame? Could it be that, like our shoplifter from the US, it is the rich man who has somehow dug his own grave?

In order to see this possibility, we need first to consider what the deep gulf does. Notice how it separates people into two groups. On one side, we have Lazarus and those who are being comforted. On the other, we have the rich man and those who are being 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 positions. An exchange of experiences. After death, the one who was comfortable in life now suffers terribly. And the one who was in deep distress in life is now tenderly comforted.

Second, not only is there a reversal of roles, there is also a change in the thing that separates them. While they were still alive, although the poor Lazarus and the rich man were divided by their material circumstances, they actually lived very close to each other. We’re told that Lazarus used to lie at the gate 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? It would not have taken much effort for the rich man to reach out and share something with the pitiful person lying in front of his house. All he had to do was to allow himself to be affected by the plight of the poor. And then to express his compassion in some practical way. But he never did. Even though he could easily have done so, while still alive, the rich man failed to bridge the distance between himself and Lazarus. Between the rich and the poor. And, after death, it becomes too late. The separation between rich and poor becomes final and irreversible. The gulf between them is now too great to cross. And the rich man is on the wrong side of that gulf. The side of suffering and pain. He has put himself there. He has dug his own grave.

But why, we may wonder, did the rich man not try to bridge the gap between rich and poor when he still had a chance? Why did he not do anything to reach out to Lazarus? Was he preoccupied with other pressing problems? Did he have one or more children doing the PSLE? Our readings suggest to us one possible reason. We find an indication of this in the first reading. Here, the prophet Amos pronounces a severe judgment upon the rich people of his time. Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion, and to those who feel so safe on the mountain of Samaria, proclaims the prophet. Their only concern is with their own comfort. So focused are they on indulging their own selfish desires, and 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 do not care at all about the ruin of Joseph. They feel nothing for the suffering of the oppressed. Perhaps they don’t even notice it. Just as the rich man never really noticed the plight of Lazarus. Here then is our answer. The rich man neglects to open the gate of his house to the poor, because he has already closed the door of his heart.

Quite clearly, the rich people in the first reading and the gospel are not unlike that unfortunate shoplifter in the US. Concerning themselves only with their own comfort and security, they end up diving into a garbage bin. The disgusting dumpster of their own arrogance and apathy. And isn’t this the same arrogance and apathy that then results in the great gulf that imprisons the rich man in Hell? Notice, for example, how arrogant the rich man remains even after his death. Even while he is being tormented by hellfire, he continues to order people about. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue. And then to go and warn his brothers. As in life, so too in death. The rich man continues to treat the poor as nothing more than slaves. Once again, it becomes clear to us who is the one responsible for the unbridgeable gulf separating the rich man from the joys of heaven. By his own arrogance and apathy, the rich man has dug his own grave.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon our own situation today. Perhaps some of us might consider ourselves rich. Some might consider ourselves poor. Or maybe somewhere in the middle. 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 dedicated to God. Living lives no longer for ourselves, but for God. Called to keep Christ’s great commandment of love. Committed to continue struggling against our own arrogance and apathy. So as to show compassion for those most in need. Determined to do what we can in this life to bridge the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor. A gulf that is quite plainly seen even here in Singapore. If only we have to eyes to look. If only we are ready to open the doors of our hearts.

My dear sisters and brothers, faced with a situation such as this, where a great distance continues to separate rich and poor, what should our response be? How are we being called to move from being grave-diggers to being gulf-bridgers today?

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