To many scholars this story is the climax to how the author of Luke presents the good news or gospel
of Jesus. Luke's primary emphasis is on bringing justice to human life and our capacity as human participants to foster more just environments. His thesis Luke 1:52 says, “God hath put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek.”
This story also illustrates that the really deep questions of life are actually the most down to earth and practical issues, ones that any of us can become fully conscious of and involved in. When I was once deep in the preparation of a sermon my wife brought me me down to earth by saying. “ Jim, you ponder the really deep questions of life don't you? ' Who am I?' , 'Where am I going?' And most often, 'Where are my keys.?'
This story is truly a living symbol in that it has the capacity to grip ones whole mind and heart in a way that mere word descriptions could ever do. That is how Sacred texts are intended to work. It is the image of the 'deep pit' 'a bottomless chasm' which causes a permanent separation of persons who should be together, connected, united in life. But through negligence a pit so deep and wide has formed there is no hope of crossing it in either direction. A startling image of the potential of huge permanent losses and regrets. And this horror, keep in mind, is caused by human carelessness. This pit was allowed to grow deeper, not by cruel intention but by neglect, by carelessness, unthoughtfulness. It fits with Jesus' teaching, we truly can ' have eyes but not see, ears but not hear.' The rich man just simply 'cared less' than a human is allowed to, and get by with it. This story alerts us to our carelessness toward those around us right now in this life and the irretrievable harm it can do to our soul. We risk losing our essential humanity when we 'care less.'
One day I was careless with a skunk. Visiting my uncle's farm I was shown how to check my cousins traps and told how to handle the live animals caught. I was shown how to handle a skunk so it did not spray its stink on me. Sure enough, a skunk was in the trap the next morning. Carefully I managed to handle it , keeping it tails down. I headed to the house holding it by its tail. As I got near I began to yell, ' I've got a skunk, I've got a skunk'. I was already hearing fantasizing the praise coming from everyone about my achievement. Nearing the house in my exuberance I became 'careless' , the skunk got too close to my body, pulled itself up and sprayed me down good. The skunk got a way, my mother sent me to the barn, told me to hand out my clothes to be burned and instructed me I'd be sleeping in the barn until I was fit for human company. I had a moment's carelessness.
This story is about six well off brothers and a sick beggar man. Like most natural families the brothers care for each other but the sad thing is their care pretty much stops with their own circle. One of the brother's died. He is described as very wealthy compared to most. Lazarus is the only figure in all of Luke's parables that he gives a name. He names him Lazarus, 'God comforts.' Thus seeming to say, 'you had best take a good look at the Lazarus figures in our world' for our attitude about them shapes the person we will be forever. At first Lazarus is just a sick sore-infected beggar man. But when the two die suddenly they are both the same, both fully claimed by their human mortality. Both with no more control over earthly situations. They left behind only the aroma of how they had lived. The one who was so favored by this life is now pictured in much suffering and the one so cursed in this life experiences great joy.
The rich man and the poor man are in stark contrast to each other. They live side by side. The see each other come and go. All that separates them is the front door of the rich man's home. But they never connect because the rich man does not let his gaze, his attention, his care go toward the poor beggar. Because of his position and power the rich man had a greater obligation to close this gap, to cross the deepening pit, than did the poor beggar. But by not looking, by pretending the beggar and his suffering did not exist he turns away from him. Luke is showing us that it is here, in this life now, that the most serious chasms or pits exists It is the pits between us and our fellow humans in this life that need our attention, that we need to cross time and again. These are the chasms we can and must do something about. Luke is saying that any eternal pit of separation only exists because we have allowed pits and chasms to grow beyond measure right now in this life. The wealthy man could have easily behaved in a way that the pit between him and Lazarus could have been kept crossable. He could have crossed it by giving Lazarus opportunity and responsibility to do the same. He could have offered conversation to Lazarus. He could have kept face to face open eyed contact. He could have taken interest in his suffering and sought some ways to relieve it.
My skunk carelessness was real but not the serious moral and ethical carelessness this story is warning us about. All our close relationships.... family, children, spouses, friends, colleagues at work, friends at church have some measure of a pit separating us all the time. When we notice that someone is behaving differently, is withdrawing from normal interaction... that is our cue to step across the pit now. Don't ignore, don't wait and let it grow. Also, we are to learn that we have obligation to those groups and individuals in our culture who are different than us and maybe from the social norm. The ones we'd first prefer to turn away from. We either allow those differences to separate or we are earnestly cross the pits that otherwise become ones we can never cross. When others are struggling against being ignored in our social order or denied their rightful place, we need to offer our word and hand in support, cross that pit now. How thoughtfully we relate and gently cross such pits with honest communications and up-building words and deeds is all that prevents them from becoming eternal separations. Crossing these pits in our present lives is what our human experience here is most about. We are reminded, this kind of carelessness with life brings the greatest regrets imaginable. So our charge and warning is to keep crossing those potential pits in this life or else they will succeed in becoming separations that can never be crossed. Jim H.