by Father Mike Stubbs
Back in the 1970s, life for an American living in Italy was truly “la dolce vita,” or “the sweet life.” I know, because I was a seminarian in Rome then.
The American dollar enjoyed a very favorable rate of exchange to the Italian lira. One dollar would buy between 600 to 800 lire, as I remember it. That meant that almost everyone in Italy was a millionaire. But the inflated value of the lira was deceptive. One lira would buy absolutely nothing. One thousand lire would buy a Coke.
The number of millionaires in this country continues to rise, due more to the rate of inflation rather than to an overall increase in prosperity. We do have some extremely wealthy individuals. And we have the poor.
At the same time, most people in this country fall somewhere in between the two. We have a large middle class. And in our country, the lines between the social classes are not rigidly drawn. Someone belonging to the middle class can strike it lucky and end up a wealthy person. Conversely, someone can meet with catastrophic illness or unemployment and fall into poverty.
In contrast, at the time of Jesus, most people were either extremely wealthy or extremely poor. There was almost no middle class. Over 80 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty, peasant farmers eking out a living as sharecroppers. A poor harvest could push them over the edge, into hopeless debt or starvation.
On the other hand, the wealthy elite lived in the cities, where they enjoyed every luxury. The wealthy could also afford a good education, while the poor could not. After all, there were no public schools. As a result, only about two to three percent of the population in rural areas could read and write.
This difference in upbringing created a huge divide between the wealthy class and the poor class, over and beyond the difference in material wealth. It was nearly impossible to cross over from one to the other.
“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.”
Abraham is speaking above to the wealthy man in Sunday’s Gospel story, Lk 16:19-31. While they are both in the afterworld, Abraham is in heaven and the rich man is in hell. A great chasm separates them, just as when the rich man was alive on earth, a chasm separated him from the poor man Lazarus. The rigid lines between social classes prevented any contact. Lazarus stayed outside the door of the rich man’s house, presumably to beg. But he could never enter. Lazarus’ low social status would always keep him out.
Lazarus and the rich man were as separate in life as they would be in death. Some things never change.
While he was living, Lazarus suffered from squalid poverty. On the other hand, the rich man enjoyed every luxury. Now that they have died, their fortunes have reversed. Lazarus shares in the bliss of heaven, in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man suffers in hell. But still a chasm separates the two. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
On the other hand, the Gospel story wishes to change the hearts of those who hear it. Just as the rich man wanted to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers about their responsibilities to the poor, the Gospel itself serves as a warning to us. It calls us to repent, to cross over the lines that would separate us from the less fortunate in society.