the chasm that divides

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is an intriguing one for while what we would surmise of it as important and true, we seldom gaze upon the jewel hidden behind its more obvious facade. On the face of it, the message sings a common song, of rich and poor and the chasm that divides one from the other. What is to be made of this? What moral connotations may we discern which through countless episodes have yet to learn?  What have we never heard before? Let us venture toward the new by first beginning with the old.

The Chasm That Divides

The Chasm That Divides

We have heard the stories and been admonished many times and in many ways: those who have must give to those who have not, in order to see God.

Jesus spoke of this many times. He said to the rich young man who asked what he lacked in order to gain eternal life:

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me. When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.1

Another time Jesus spoke of a rich man who tore down his barns and built larger ones in order to store all that he had; he then congratulated himself for having so many good things stored up for many years to come and was ready to sit back, rest, eat, drink and be merry.

But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.2

We can recount many such parables. We have heard them many times before as we have heard of the inherent dangers that wealth and the desire for it can impose upon our immortal souls. Likewise we have been subjected to stern admonishments to give a portion of what we have to meet the needs of the poor. And it is truly right and just that we do so. It is indeed our duty and responsibility to do as Jesus commanded us: to love our neighbor as our self.

But in a larger sense this parable is not about the rich and the poor nor is it about helping those in need. No doubt it would appear to be just that, and more often than not the message we will hear is one that follows what Jesus tells us will be said to those on his left at the final judgment:

Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me. Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.3

Yet there is a richer vein, a larger nugget to be gleaned from this parable, one which holds a greater truth for us to discover.

In their earthly lives, the rich man is well dressed and lives a life of ease and comfort, eating and drinking lavishly, enjoying the good life that his possessions provide him; the poor man is in rags, covered with sores which the dogs lick, and emaciated from hunger. When they die, the rich man goes to hell and the poor man to heaven. But we must ask ourselves: Why? What did either man do to get to where they end up? Certainly there must be more to the story than one of wealth and poverty? If that were the case then wouldn’t we all be clamoring to be among the poorest of the poor?

What is missing from the parable is … sin. What terrible sin or sins did the rich man commit to earn him eternal damnation? What good did the poor man do, outside of poverty—is poverty a good—to earn him his eternal reward with God? The parable doesn’t tell us; on these matters it is silent.

Of course we could surmise that perhaps it was the rich man’s failure to feed the poor man that earned him the trip to hell but the parable doesn’t say whether the poor man ever asked for food nor does it say whether the rich man refused to give him any. So where is the sin? Again, the parable is silent.

So, what are we to make of this? What lesson is Jesus teaching that we can’t see? Let’s dig a little deeper.

After the rich man died and was buried,

from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus by his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”

Notice how the rich man speaks to Father Abraham, not to the poor man, Lazarus. Abraham is a revered ancestor, the poor man not worthy of a single thought. Even in death and torment, the rich man wants Abraham to make the poor man leave the comfort of his side, find his way into the flames of hell, and bring a bit of water to himself. The rich man clearly thinks it no trouble for the poor man to do something for the rich man.

When Abraham refuses his request, the rich man asks for another, to send the poor man to his brothers, to warn them. And again, he speaks to Abraham, not to the poor man. He thinks of him only in how he can make use of him.

He was not asking for help for the people he had neglected during his life, but only for himself. He couldn’t see nor understand that in hoarding his wealth while on earth he came to be possessed by it to the point where it became his god.

Now we can begin to see what the sin of the rich man must be. The poor man is a human being, a person just like the rich man. Both are creatures of God, unique individuals but with the same humanity, the same personhood.

The rich man’s sin is that he can’t see it; he doesn’t see the poor man as a person in his own right. Insofar as he thinks of the poor man at all, it is only to calculate how the poor man can be used for his own benefit.

It would not have mattered in the least if the rich man had in fact fed the poor man when they were both living. His sin was his failure to ever think “He is a man just like me.”

Pope Paul VI pointed this out in Populorum Progressio when he wrote:

It is not simply a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not enough to combat destitution, urgent and necessary as this is. The point at issue is the establishment of a human society in which everyone, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, can live a truly human life free from bondage imposed by men and the forces of nature not sufficiently mastered, a society in which freedom is not an empty word, and where Lazarus the poor man can sit at the same table as the rich man.4

Ron Rolheiser writes:

Wealth that is hoarded always corrupts those who possess it. Any gift that is not shared turns sour. If we are not generous with our gifts we will be bitterly envied and will eventually turn bitter and envious ourselves. We know from experience that when we give of ourselves to others we experience a certain joy in our lives, just as when we selfishly hoard or protect what is ours we grow anxious and paranoid. Once our wealth reaches a certain point we need to begin to give some of it away—not because others need it but because our own health and happiness will begin to deteriorate if we hoard all of those possessions ourselves.5

We are challenged to give to the poor—not because they need our charity, though they do—but because our giving to them is the only way we can stay healthy.  Amen.


Homily # 088
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time — Cycle C
Amos 6:1A, 4-7 1
Timothy 6:11-16
Luke 16:19-31


1 Mt 19:21-24.
2 Lk 12:16-21.
3 Lk 25:41-43, 45.
4 Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Populorum Progressio, 1967:47.
5 Ron Rolheiser, OMI, In Exile: Our need to share our riches with the poor, The Sunday Website of St. Louis University.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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