Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


January 18, 1999

Recently, Jean Vanier, the founder of l'Arche, delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto. Among many other things, he talked about crossing a certain abyss of fear. What is this abyss?

Vanier drew on Luke's Gospel and the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). We all know that story, how a beggar named Lazarus lived opposite the house of a rich man. Each day the rich man would dine exquisitely, while giving nothing to Lazarus who begged at his door.

Eventually both of them die. Lazarus goes to heaven while the rich man to a place of torment. There, stripped of his wealth, burning in agony, he calls to Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus with some water to cool his lips.

Abraham, however, tells him that this is impossible, that "a great gulf," an unbridgeable gap, exists between them that nobody can cross. At this point, Vanier comments that Abraham might have added: "Just as there had been an abyss between you and him during your life on earth."

In adding that phrase, Vanier captures the challenge of the story, one that is often lost through misinterpretation. Too often, we take Abraham's words about the impossibility of crossing from one side to the other as a statement about how, after death, there will be no crossing of persons from heaven to hell or vice versa.

We take the statement as teaching that death puts us forever in heaven or hell and, should we end up in the latter, no amount of regrets there are going to do us any good. It's too late.

But, in the end, the parable is not about that. This is a parable about justice for the poor and the challenge to reach out to them. The abyss, the gulf which cannot be crossed, is one that already exists, in this life. It is the gap between rich and poor, between those of us who have the good life and the poor of the world.

Already now, that gap is never bridged. Already now, there is a certain chasm that blocks people from moving from one side to the other.

Why? What prevents anyone from crossing from one side to the other? What makes the chasm between rich and poor unbridgeable?

From the side of the poor, the answer is clear. Just ask them. The rich are a closed club. Like the man in the parable, the rich are not about to share their tables with the poor, as every newscast in the world makes clear.

But what about the rich – us? Why can't we cross over? Why can't we share our tables with the poor?

For Vanier, the answer lies in one word and, interestingly, that word is neither greed nor selfishness.

The word is fear. It is fear that prevents us from crossing over: Fear that our hearts will be moved if we have direct contact with the poor, fear that if we touch the poor we might be touched in ways that make us vulnerable, and fear that, if we enter into a relationship with the poor, they will take all of our time and resources, wanting from us a place to stay, medical treatment, work and perhaps even friendship. We sense real danger in relating to the poor.

Moreover, for many of us, there is also another fear that blocks our crossing over, namely, the fear that it is practically useless to do so, that nothing really is accomplished anyway if we, like the good Samaritan, reach out to some poor Lazarus who begs outside our door.

Given the magnitude of the problem of poverty and injustice in our world, what will my reaching across the gap do? Will that change the social system? Will that change anything?

I was once at a conference given by Gustavo Gutierrez, who has sufficient credentials in this area to merit being listened to. He was asked precisely this question: "What, given the magnitude of poverty and injustice in the world, can I as an individual really do?"

His answer was something to this effect: "When you feel helpless in the face of so much poverty and injustice then at least do one thing: Have a poor person, at least one concrete poor person, as part of your life. Then at least you have done something. At least you are reaching across the line."

It is easy to find ways to rationalize the great gulf that sits between the rich and the poor in this world; perhaps we don't even see it. For all kinds of reasons, it is not easy to cross from one side to the other. But if we are able to begin to make some crossings now, in this life, then that gulf won't be so unbridgeable either, later on, on the other side.