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"The Great Chasm"

We should help the “Lazaruses” at our gate.

If you’ve flown out of a major airport recently, you’ve seen how true this is. This may be the land where “all men (and women) are created equal,” but the airport departure lounge is not a place of equality. There are certain classes of people who get to board the plane ahead of everyone else.

First-Class passengers are lords of the departure lounge, followed by Business Class (if the plane’s big enough to have such a section). Passengers in these two categories board whenever they want. Then there are those who fit the description “anyone traveling with infants or small children, or who need extra assistance.” They get to jump to the head of the line. Nobody feels especially troubled by that; it’s just common sense.

It always used to be that, after that announcement, the departure-lounge staff would begin calling passengers by rows, beginning with the rear of the plane. A few years ago, though, the airlines introduced a category called “Elite Status.” It has nothing to do with where in the plane your seat is located. It has everything to do with the order in which passengers walk down the jetway.

Elite passengers are the frequent flyers, the road warriors, the people who cram their lives into carry-ons and go charging down the airplane aisle, laptop in front of them, rolling suitcase behind them, ready to do battle for a couple of square feet in the overhead luggage bin.

Some days, there are just a handful of these people. On some flights favored by business travelers, though, more than two-thirds of the passengers leap up when the boarding starts, flash their premium boarding passes and barrel on down the jetway ahead of everyone else.

When there are a lot of these people on a flight, boarding can be absolute chaos. Any semblance of order — the usual row-by-row boarding — is lost. It can take nearly twice as long to board a plane if most of those boarding think of themselves as Elite.

The airline marketing people know what they’re doing. There’s a universal desire in the human heart to feel like we’re just a little bit better than other people — even if the only advantage of “Elite Status” consists of cutting in line ahead of our neighbors. Back in the first grade, as we lined up at the water fountain, the teacher told us never to do that. In the modern airport departure lounge, line-cutting is not only permitted; it’s become institutionalized — though only the favored customers are allowed to do it.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a wealthy man who’s very proud of his elite status. Curiously, we never do learn his name — although somewhere along the line a church father started calling him Dives, which means “rich man.” The name stuck, even though it never appears in the biblical story.

The only character in the parable to whom Luke gives a name is Lazarus, the poor beggar who squats at the rich man’s gate, covered with sores. This is no insignificant detail. Think of the implications: The only character in the story whom Jesus — the one who intercedes for the faithful before the throne of God — knows by name is the miserable beggar!

Think of the people most of us encounter day by day, who might just as well have no name. Certain people are all but invisible to us. Yes, the ragged, wild-haired panhandler who sits on a city sidewalk, jingling his cardboard coffee cup filled with coins, is one. But there are others. There’s the stocky man from south of the border, silently riding his bicycle down the street. There’s the young woman from Eastern Europe, standing behind the supermarket cash register, moving our food purchases over the bar-code scanner. There’s the psychiatric patient down the street who’s only able to cope with life because of the pills her doctor prescribes — medicine that makes her fearful all the time, fearful even of good church folk like us.

There are others as well: neighbors who breathe the same air we do, but whom we never see because they live so far away in the Third World. A few years back, the New York Times ran a large color photograph of one of these people. It ran under the grim headline “Drugs Banned, Many of World’s Poor Suffer in Pain.”1 The photo was of a woman named Zainabu Sesay. She lives in the tiny nation of Sierra Leone, in West Africa. She’s a breast cancer patient.

Sierra Leone is not a good place to be a patient with cancer of any variety. It’s one of the poorest places on the planet, and for the past several decades, it’s been wracked by civil war. The Times article says there’s not a single CT scanner in the entire country — the entire country! As for chemotherapy, there’s only one private clinic that offers it, and you’ve got to be rich to afford that treatment — which Zainabu Sesay is not. She and her husband are sharecroppers, subsistence farmers. It’s a rare thing when they have any money at all.

By the time Zainabu makes it into a rustic clinic where there’s a nurse who can look at her, her breast cancer is so far advanced there’s nothing anyone can do for her. Even if some kindly philanthropists were to bundle her onto a plane and fly her to one of our country’s leading cancer centers, there would be very little the doctors could do for her.

When the nurse peels back the homemade dressing of a mud-and-herbs poultice bound up with leaves, he quickly concludes that one of her tumors has grown so large it’s inoperable. No breast-cancer patient in our country ever gets to that point, the article says, because even the poorest person in America gets some surgery eventually, paid for by Medicaid, to at least relieve her distress.

The photo is one that speaks the proverbial thousand words. Zainabu is lying on her side on the ground, her squinting eyes closed, her lips pursed in pain. The only thing the nurse must give her, in that rustic clinic, is generic Tylenol, combined with another weak medication called tramadol (related to codeine). There is no morphine for her — and here’s the thing that may really surprise you: There is no morphine in the entire country of Sierra Leone! The government of that war-torn country, knowing that criminal gangs would quickly seize any narcotics and sell them to addicts on the black market, has banned morphine altogether. In Sierra Leone, cancer is not only a death sentence; it’s also a sentence to unremitting, agonizing pain.

What North American or European ever faces such an ordeal? Not many. We may not dress “in purple and fine linen,” like the rich man in the parable, but we surely do “feast sumptuously every day.”

Just outside the gate of this country lies a poor African woman named Zainabu. The dogs may not come and lick her sores, as they did with Lazarus, but surely, she feels as much pain and agony and abandonment as he.

We come, now, to the most chilling words in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so.” The one who speaks those words in the parable is Father Abraham. He speaks to them to the rich man, in agony in Hades and wishing Lazarus would come down and bring him just a drop of water on his little finger to cool his parched tongue.

A curious detail of this story is that the rich man knows Lazarus by name. Lazarus has lived his starving, sore-covered life squatting on the pavement outside the rich man’s door. Maybe, as he walked into his magnificent house, the rich man would toss him a shekel now and again. But he never did a thing to lift Lazarus out of poverty: this man who lived so close to him he even knew his name!

Between us and them a great chasm has been fixed. In the parable, the chasm runs between heaven and hell. Nothing can bridge it, for the distance is simply too great. Here on this earth, the separation is not as significant. The possibilities are before us — hundreds of them every day — to simply open our eyes and see that Lazarus, squatting outside our gate, is a child of God just like anyone else.

We have promised to live our lives by the confession that Jesus Christ is our Savior. When he comes in the fullness of time to rescue us from sin, he will have no interest in our material circumstances. For each of us there will come a day — just as it happened to the rich man in the parable — when “all the vain things that charm [us] most”2 will be stripped away. Then, the only thing that will matter is that we are kneeling at the feet of our Master, imploring the Lord to forgive our foolish and shortsighted ways.

May God have mercy on us on that day!

1 Donald G. McNeil, Jr., New York Times, September 10, 2007.

2 From the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

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