Stories of the ongoing misery in Haiti after last January’s earthquake continue to appear in the news. The New York Times recently told of Alourds Grandoit, age 70, who lost 10 family members when her house collapsed on them. Left with next to nothing, a plastic barrel full of clothing, toiletries and food is wending its way to her from her cousin, Gislaine Vieux, in Queens, N.Y., Gislaine left Haiti 41 years ago in search of work in the United States to be able to help support her family in Haiti. For 30 years income from her hospital job has helped sustain her struggling relatives. Now, she and her husband are also helping coordinate their parish’s response of monetary aid and relief missions to her homeland.
The gap between Gislaine’s modest home in Queens and the unspeakable conditions in which many live in Port-au-Prince might at first appear unbridgeable, but ties of family and loving commitment to one another forge bonds unbroken by geographical and socioeconomic distance. By contrast, in today’s Gospel Jesus tells a story of a rich man who steps over a destitute brother who is lying at his doorstep. The rich man pays no attention to the poor man, Lazarus, until he needs something from him. From his tormented place in the afterlife, the rich man wants Lazarus to bring him the relief of cool water. When Abraham replies that this is impossible, then the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers.
The rich man was not able during his earthly life, nor afterward, to perceive the poor man as one of his brothers, even when he sees Lazarus intimately embraced (literally “in his bosom,” v. 23) as one of Abraham’s own. The rich man calls Abraham his own father in order to claim what he thinks is his privileged inheritance. He has not shared his wealth as Abraham did when he was wealthy (Gn 24:35), nor does he claim the rest of Abraham’s children as his brothers and sisters. He sees Lazarus only as his servant and messenger.
Abraham does not grant the rich man either request. The vast differences between him and Lazarus could have been bridged during the rich man’s lifetime, but he chose not to respond to his brother. Now the consequences of those repeated choices cannot be reversed. He had everything he needed from Moses and the prophets to know what to do. So do his rich brothers. It is not enough to claim kinship with Abraham.
As John the Baptist had warned the crowds who came to be baptized, it is also necessary to “produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance” (Lk 3:8). Jesus’ practice of recognizing people who were marginalized as sisters and brothers, children of Abraham—like the woman bent double for 18 years (Lk 13:16) and Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Lk 19:9)—also shows the way. Ironically, the rich man asks for Lazarus to “warn” his brothers, using the verb diamartyromai, one that occurs nine times in the Acts of the Apostles to refer to “bearing witness” to the risen Jesus. Even testimony about the risen Jesus will not turn the hearts of the rich brothers.
Moses, the prophets and Jesus have given us all we need to know in order to bridge the chasm between rich and poor in this life. We begin by recognizing those made poor, not as an abstraction but as real persons who have names, most of whom are women and children, who are sister and brother to us, and to whom we are bound in covenantal love. From there, the gap is bridgeable.