Jesus gives us a vivid image in our Gospel today: a great chasm that opens up and separates the rich man and the poor man. The rich man has received good things in this life, but the poor man receives them in the world to come. Now in that world the rich man is in agony, and Lazarus the poor man is rewarded. Father Abraham says to the rich man, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony” (Lk. 16:7). This contrast presents us with a bleak prospect, a forbidding outlook, in a world like ours which is generally speaking far richer and far wealthier than the world was in Jesus’ time.
We might be less disturbed if we thought that this story was one of a kind, a one-off instance aimed at the rich. But that’s not the case. The version of the Beatitudes found earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel also contains this strong element of contrast. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Lk. 26:20-21). Well, that sounds good. Then the other shoe falls, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Lk. 6:24-25). The story Jesus tells in our Gospel today looks to be a narrative version of the blessings and curses that we find earlier in the sixth chapter of Luke.
Nevertheless, the Gospel story, with its chasm-like contrast of reward and punishment, is a statement of hope, even for our time. If we have a passion for justice, we cannot limit our understanding of it to this life. If we do that we run into trouble, with justice frustrated. The history of the world tells the story of injustice: the life cut short without compensation, the oppression that has no vindication, the manifest inequity that has no redress. When we look around, the poor man Lazarus has lots of company, no matter where the arc of history may ultimately bend.
God’s justice, a putting right of what’s deeply wrong with the world, has to go beyond what we can imagine in our own earthly framework. Another way of saying this is that God’s idea of justice goes way beyond our own conception of what is right. That’s part of what is disturbing about this parable: its picture of reward and punishment dwarfs our own notions of what’s just. But take heart, our parable says, whatever your circumstances: the hungry will be filled, those who mourn will laugh, the poor will receive the kingdom.
At the same time, Jesus’ story of the contrast between the eternal home of the rich man and the poor one challenges our own complacency. We are all caught up in God’s work of putting things right. Woe to those who are rich, Jesus says, to those who are full, to those who rejoice and laugh. It’s these folks, people very much like ourselves and our neighbors in the post-modern West, who most easily miss the mark. We’re the ones who are in danger of finding ourselves on the wrong side of the chasm. We’re the ones in need of the message.
I said this parable, with its picture of bracing moral clarity, provides a word of hope for us. If there is a great chasm fixed between those who are comforted and those who are in agony in the life to come, it is in the final analysis a chasm between a righteous God and an unrighteous humanity. That chasm has been overcome by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which brings the message of hope to a fallen world.
Ephrem of Edessa, a poet and preacher of the fourth century who wrote in Jesus’ own Aramaic vernacular, had something to say about this chasm. He imagined Jesus laying down his cross to bridge the chasm between God and humanity. For Ephrem, it’s the means of his own salvation! Jesus himself is the bridge that binds us together, overcoming the chasm fixed by God’s righteousness. In his mercy and love, Jesus gives himself so that this division can be overcome: our separation from God, and our separation from each other.
Our confirmands are reminding us today of God’s mercy and love. Today, they are its living embodiment. The work of reconciliation is ongoing in our midst, as Jesus shares new life with us, through prayer and the laying on of hands. The chasm has been bridged, as we receive the message of new life in the Eucharist we celebrate today. Jesus’ resurrection means new life for us, the prospect of a world reconciled to God, and a chasm overcome.