Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thursday in the 2nd Week of Lent
Reach Out and Touch…

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 16:19-31

Today, our readings prompted me to search YouTube for Diana Ross’ song, Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand. The search turned up a video that puts together many different photos of people holding hands. There was, for instance, a husband holding the hand of his pregnant wife, a white person holding the hand of a black person, an adult holding the hand of an infant… It was a heartwarming display. But it also served to accentuate the heartrending tragedy that is the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

This is a tragedy of the failure to reach out. Here is a story of two people who lived so close to each other, and yet never touched. What separated them? Most obviously, of course, they lived at two extremes of the social and economic spectrum. One was not just wealthy, but filthy rich. He dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously every day. And the other was not just poor, but utterly destitute. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. Even so, as far apart as they may have been socially and economically, they are presented to us as living practically side by side with each other. Jesus tells us that Lazarus was lying at the door of the rich man. We could call them next-door neighbors, if only Lazarus had a door to call his own. The point is that, at least on earth, there was a distinct possibility of their lives touching at some point. How easy it must have been for the rich man to reach out to Lazarus. But he doesn’t even seem to have noticed the poor man at all.

The tragedy of their separation becomes even more painful upon death. For now, the door that could so easily have been opened on earth becomes a deep chasm impossible to cross. And – what is probably the most surprising thing about the story – there is now a radical reversal. The destitute enjoys life, while the filthy rich is in torment.

The story itself doesn’t explain why this is so. That is not its concern. For a hint at a possible explanation, we need to consider the rest of our readings. Here, we are also presented with two different types of people. These are distinguished not so much by their material condition as by the state of their souls. The difference between them hinges on the respective resources upon which each draws. Once again, it has something to do with reaching out. Like a shrub with shallow roots, one places his trust only in human beings, and so enjoys no change of season. In contrast, the other is like a tree whose roots reach deep. Stretching out ultimately to the stream of God’s love, this one continues to trust and to hope even in difficult times.

The connection we are invited to make is clear. For isn’t it true that reliance on God often seems to come more easily to the Lazarus’s of this world, those who have no one else on whom to depend? In contrast, don’t those who have everything going their way often seem to forget their need for a higher power? Could it be that the difference between Lazarus and the rich man lies also in the depths to which their respective spiritual roots reach?

Although these depths are largely interior, there are exterior signs as well. The first reading tells us that the people who trust ultimately in God continue to bear fruit even in the year of drought. What does this mean in the concrete? Could it be that such people are able, even (or especially) when times are hard, to continue reaching out to help others in need? Could it be that, unlike the rich man in the parable, these people are continually on the lookout for those who may be lying destitute at the doors of their homes and communities and nations?

The final scene in the YouTube video we mentioned at the beginning is a photo of clouds in the shape of two hands reaching out to each other. For me, they point us to one more insight from Jesus’ parable. Not only does the story encourage us to reach out to one another, but it also reminds us of how God continually reaches out to us on this side of eternity. Whether it is the scriptures, through Moses and the prophets, or the different people and situations we encounter daily, in the mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God is continually stretching out to us his hand of love and mercy and friendship.

How are we being invited to do the same today?


  1. The Gospel passage today never fails to upset my apple cart, if you know what I mean. Living in a land of plenty, I am in danger of behaving and living like The (filthy) Rich Man.

    The Straits Times last week reported of an SIA flight attendant who claimed that the wife of a CIP (Commercially Important Passenger) allegedly slapped her after she served her husband refreshments. She filed a police report against the woman, whose husband is the Chairman of NUS' Board of Trustees. The wife claimed that the attendant paid undue attention to her husband.

    Wealth and material well-being are insidious. Slowly like a frog in a pot of boiling water, they insensitize us to everyone and everything around us until we think that we are the center of the universe. And yet, it isn't the desperately poor who are in torment; quite the contrary, it is The Rich Man, except that he doesn't realise it.

    The parable of Lazarus and The Rich Man is not about wealth per se but about attitude. Today, Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates have become the antithesis of The Rich Man in the Gospel. The danger with opulence, ostentation and obscene wealth is that, if you are in the same pot of boiling water with other frogs, you are oblivious to the impending danger.

    This week in Lent, I am challenged to re-examine my relationship with others (both rich and poor).

    Thanks for the Diana Ross YouTube video Fr Chris.