Across the great gulf

Published on 25 Sep 2019

The apparition of Lazarus won’t convert the family of the rich man, while another Lazarus, the one raised from the dead by Jesus, provoked faith. How do both these new lives inspire amendments? Peter Gallagher SJ reflects.

They will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead (Luke 16.30). The rich man suffering in Hades is concerned about his family. He hopes they might repent of their sins and amend their lives so as to avoid sharing his fate in eternity. If Lazarus were to return from the dead, the rich man supposes, those who are living wicked lives would be persuaded to change. We are not told precisely in what consisted the wickedness of the rich man and his siblings. Much more heinous than wallowing in luxury is the deliberate neglect of Lazarus and others in need. Even the dogs were kinder to the poor man than those at whose gate he languished. Abraham is gloomy about the prospects for amendment. The wrongdoers flout the weighty obligations of their religion. Why, he wonders, would such stubbornly irreligious sinners be persuaded to change their ways by a Lazarus, returned from the dead?

The new life of Lazarus and Lazarus

Another Lazarus was, in fact, raised from dead. Jesus called out of the grave his friend, also called Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary (John 11.1-43). This miracle provoked faith: many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what he did, believed in him (John 11.45). The resurrection at Bethany alarmed the enemies of Jesus: then the chief priests decided to kill Lazarus as well since it was on his account that many…. were leaving them and believing in Jesus (John 12.11). Was father Abraham, then, being unduly pessimistic when he ruled that Lazarus, who once was poor, returning from the dead would not convert people who until then had paid no attention to the word of God?

Abraham’s first reason for impeding his Lazarus from a mission of mercy was that it was simply not possible. Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours (Luke 16.26). The great gulf is between the blessed and the damned. The new life of both Lazaruses is happy: one is consoled in the bosom of Abraham and the other enjoys at Bethany the company of Jesus, most welcome of guests. Lazarus who once was poor and Lazarus the friend foreshadow the new life offered to us by Jesus Christ. Lazarus and Lazarus foreshadow the Jesus who would leap across great gulfs, who would go to the most dangerous places (the Apostles’ Creed asserts: he descended into hell), and who would offer friendship and life to those who might otherwise have drifted into death as enemies of God.

Jesus bridges the gap

A Lazarus-Christ is foreshadowed. Jesus rises from the dead. Jesus is he who once was poor on Calvary. The Father judged that if the Son were sent into the world, were to die and were to rise from the dead, those who came to believe in him would allow themselves to be rescued both from their evil-doing and from punishment for their sins. Across the gulf between the human and divine comes the God-man, Jesus Christ. He suffers, dies, rises again and shares divine life with many. To imitate him is to do all that is set out in the scriptures, especially regarding the care of those in need. In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me (Matthew 25.45).

Jesus has not only risen from the dead, he will return in glory as judge. Abraham was right that the poor man Lazarus could not be sent back either to give comfort or to issue warnings.  Jesus Christ however can bridge any gap and abolish any separation. Martha of Bethany contemplated the abyss. She did so in grief but also with faith. Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said: ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ (John 11.23-26). There is no isolation which the Lord cannot pierce and transform. He rescues, he consoles and he enlightens. The Lord will come again. Meanwhile we are not left in uncertainty.

On a journey for amendment

The scriptures allow us to go in imagination on a journey to the underworld and back. Lazarus, who once was poor, and Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, are our guides. One of them encourages us in our present difficulties with a vision of eternal happiness in a paradise with Abraham and all whom the Son has saved. The other reassures us that we too are the companions of a Jesus who weeps over us and will one day call us out of the grave into new life with God.

There will come a moment of truth and judgement. Our imagining what will happen to us in eternity can prompt conversion and the making of amends. However in reality there are some roads along which we can only travel once. In the real Hades there is now no longer scope for amendment. For us who are still in the midst of our journey (Dante Inferno canto 1.1) there is time for change and grace to achieve it. We have received an insight into the suffering of those who, like the rich man, find themselves irretrievably excluded from happiness. Converted by our glimpse of such isolation, we are encouraged by our faith in Christ who heals, enlightens and unites. The rising from the dead of Jesus and his promise of our own resurrection carry us forward joyfully.

Peter Gallagher SJ