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The only insurmountable boundary

Father Lou DelFra | Wednesday, October 3, 2007

In this past Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us with the story of a rich man who lived sumptuously, all the while ignoring Lazarus, a destitute man who suffered just outside the rich man’s front door. When both men die, angels lift the poor man off to the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man descends into a pit of flames. When the rich man begs for Lazarus to come down and save him, Jesus delivers one of the harshest lines in all of his parables to the tormented rich man: “Between us and you, a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours.”

What can Jesus possibly mean? Jesus was not a man who was often held back by chasms, boundaries or taboos. He, for example, regularly trespassed a firmly entrenched boundary between those who were healthy and those who were infected by the highly contagious disease of leprosy. A similar trench separated Jews and Samaritans – and women and men. Yet, in the fourth chapter of John, we find Jesus, a Jewish man, approach, sit down next to, and converse with a Samaritan adulteress. Neither her gender, race, sexual history, nor the fact that the two of them were alone seems to have deterred him from calling her to holiness. Just for good measure, he ends by commissioning her, reputation and all, to go into the town and tell everyone about him.

What, then, to make of this absolute “chasm” that Jesus depicts separating the rich man from the poor man? If Jesus spent his life as the Gospels say he did – crossing boundaries to save those who seemed beyond saving – why place the rich and selfish beyond all hope?

Maybe because they’re so rich. So rich that they don’t need anything. At least, they don’t think so. Perhaps the main difference between the leper, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the rich man is that the rich man alone is unaware of his poverty – that is to say, his need, no matter how rich he is, for the love of God, and for a life of serving others.

Though Jesus is unconcerned with the social taboo of trespassing borders, he makes clear that there is an impenetrable boundary between those who recognize in Jesus the God whom they need for their salvation, and those – including the Pharisees, rich people, and the self-righteous – who prefer to try to “save” themselves by their own expertise, wealth, or virtue. These people fail to recognize that all humanity is born into a poverty that only God can overcome. The boundary that Jesus cannot cross, as it turns out, is not drawn by Jesus himself, but by those who understand themselves as self-sufficient. And, because of his ultimate love for our freedom, Jesus refuses to use his divinity and power to impose himself upon those who don’t see the need for him.

The Gospel of John makes explicit that Jesus came to save, not condemn, the world. There is no evidence that Jesus enjoyed telling the rich man of the uncrossable chasm. But Jesus seems to me not so much to be judging the man – “You go over there and I will build a wall between you and me as a punishment for what you’ve done” – as he is describing, in brutally honest terms, what the man has done to himself: “By declaring yourself self-sufficient, you have left no one any means of reaching you.”

It is not ignoring the harsh facts of Jesus’ words to say that there is much Good News in this parable, set as it is between the Prodigal Son and the cleansing of the 10 lepers. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ actions make clear that if there is a way to cross a boundary to reach us, Jesus will find it, no matter how great the cost, no matter how great the sin, no matter how undeserving we might believe ourselves to be. It is only when we refuse to recognize our poverty – our absolute need for God, regardless of our wealth, our intelligence, our gifts (or our weaknesses, limits or sinfulness) – that we truly isolate ourselves from God’s love. The gospel of the rich man and Lazarus makes clear that Jesus does not stop at any chasm, except a freely made refusal to recognize our need for him.

Father Lou DelFra is the director of Bible Studies in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.