In today’s gospel, Jesus asks us to consider something shocking. How could a man who has everything allow a man, whose only possessions were the sores covering his body, to die right before his eyes? How could a man who feasts fabulously everyday not budge to share even the scraps from his table with the starving neighbor sitting at his gate?
It seems absolutely unthinkable—and irreparably scandalous—but we know it happens all the time. Like the rich man in the gospel story, we can use wealth and luxury to insulate us from the intolerable sufferings of others. We can become so accustomed to making self-satisfying pleasures the driving desire of our lives that we become comfortably oblivious to the afflicted and destitute among us, the many who, like Lazarus, are so grievously deprived of what any human being needs to survive that they die a little more each day.
Of course, there is a fatal misperception at the core of the rich man’s life. Nestled in the plump security of his life, he fails to see that he, not Lazarus, is the one truly in trouble. He is so stupendously deceived that he is genuinely surprised when death takes him not to the comforting bosom of Abraham, but to the “abode of the dead” where he, who had tortured Lazarus by his casual indifference, is now “tortured in these flames.” There, in the kingdom of the dead, no love can reach him, no mercy can soothe him, because, as Jesus sternly declares, there is now an unbridgeable abyss between the rich man in his torment and Lazarus who, upon dying, was “carried by the angels to the bosom of Abraham.”
Parables carry a punch. This parable’s punch is to show us that when we fail to help a neighbor in need, intentionally distancing ourselves from them, we likewise distance ourselves from God. After a while, that distance becomes an abyss. As the rich man belatedly discovered, this truth may surprise us, but it will also condemn us.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist Family.