Back in April of 2012 I had the great pleasure of visiting Palo Duro Canyon up in the panhandle of Texas. One of the things that impressed me was, as I was getting close and looking for the canyon, not seeing anything, just driving along on a flat plain like a table-top, when all of a sudden the ground gave way and down the road and I went into the massive canyon. And I never saw it coming.
Anyone here ever been to Palo Duro Canyon? Or perhaps to the Grand Canyon out in Arizona? Both are quite impressive. In nature canyons are intriguing and beautiful things. But in the spiritual life it is a whole different matter all together.
In our Gospel today we hear about a canyon, or as the Gospel calls it, a chasm. When the rich man, from the netherworld, raised up his eyes and saw Abraham and Lazarus at his side, and asked for assistance, Abraham told him this was impossible because: “between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.”
But this is not the only chasm in the Gospel. Earlier, at the very beginning of the Gospel, we see another chasm. We are told: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table.”
In truth there was in life a great chasm between these two individuals; economically, culturally, spiritually. They shared physical proximity: Lazarus lay right at the door of the rich man. Physically they were not far apart. Coming in and out of his mansion the rich man probably saw Lazarus laying there. But the chasm was great and deep none-the-less. They probably did not speak. The rich man did not reach out to help. They certainly did not socialize together. In truth there was a huge and deep chasm between them already in life. Like my experience of Palo Duro Canyon, the ric man never even saw it.
And it is important to recognize that the great and deep chasm that divided the rich man in the afterlife from Abraham and Lazarus was the exact same chasm that had been dug between them in this life.
Why do you think the rich man in the story is in torment? Why was he condemned? Why was he damned? We are never told that he did anything wrong. We are not told that he cheated on his wife, or more likely, wives.
We don’t know that he mistreated his employees, that he knowingly sold inferior goods, that he watched dirty movies, that he kicked the family dog. No.
What we do know is what he didn’t do. He did not reach out to Lazarus. He did not step across that chasm in this life when he was able to. And that is enough to understand why he was condemned.
Because it is not enough just to avoid doing evil, just to avoid breaking the commandments. That is a start. But it is not enough. In our second reading today from St. Paul to Timothy, Paul urges Timothy “Compete well for the faith.“
Now you have to do something to compete. It is active. It is not enough to simply avoid fouls. You will never win a game that way. You have to compete and strive and score. Simply avoiding fouls is a recipe for loosing. And similarly simply not breaking the commandments is a recipe for damnation.
By ignoring Lazarus laying at this doorstep the rich man was dredging a deep and impassible chasm, and working towards his own eternal doom. He dug this chasm by his indifference, by his refusal to get involved, by his lack of concern for the person hurting at his doorstep. When Congress threatened to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, the rich man did not call his congressman; he raised no protest. He never volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul or the local foodbank. He never even did the simplest of all: contribute money. He just never saw Lazarus in need there, because he never gave Lazarus a thought.
And in that way he dug a deep chasm of indifference, of lack of empathy, of isolation, of hard-heartedness. And that is the chasm he was trapped by in the afterlife. He had dug it himself.
There are many different chasms we might dig in our life. Maybe a chasm of refusal to forgive someone who hurt you, of holding on to bitterness and hurt that cuts that person off. Maybe we dig a chasm of fear of others that isolates us from “them”. Or a chasm of prejudice or stereotyping that separates us from “those people”.
Or like the rich man in the Gospel, we may dig a chasm of simple indifference, / of lack of empathy, / of an absence of basic human concern, / that creates a gulf between us and others. When we cut ourselves off from others we also cut ourselves off from Christ.
We have to do something to live as Christians. We have to “compete well for the faith” as St. Paul tells us today. We must put our faith into action. That means reaching out to others in charity, in concern, in love. Otherwise we are doing damage to ourselves. We are isolating ourselves by chasms of indifference and selfishness. And those chasms just don’t go away by themselves. They can last for eternity.
In our second reading St. Paul tells Timothy: “Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Our Gospel today is also teaching us to be pro-active in living the life of a disciple of Jesus. Lay hold of eternal life by putting your faith into action. AMEN.