The Hell of Loneliness

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

This week’s texts present the preacher with a dilemma that is perhaps all too common: How to find new life in old words: familiar admonitions in the Epistle lesson, a well-known parable in the Gospel of Luke.

Preoccupied with the problem that money presents for kingdom living, Luke begins this week’s story as he did last week’s: “There was a rich man.” The tradition has named him “Dives” (Latin for “rich man,” first used by St. Jerome in the fourth century) and his life is one of prodigal extravagance and a callous disregard for his poor neighbor, Lazarus. The suffering Lazarus, who knew no peace in his earthly existence, rests, in death, in the arms of Abraham. Dives, no surprise, is consigned to the torments of hell.

The story’s description of the “great chasm” between these two men might tempt us toward an analysis of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in today’s global economy. And we wouldn’t be wrong to see the parallels between the scene Jesus describes in the parable and the realities of our troubled world.

But that temptation can keep us at the level of abstract analysis. We find ourselves talking about “the poor” in deeply sympathetic ways, all the while realizing that we hardly know any poor people.

So what is there to say?

We know we have issues with money. Indeed, we’re so conflicted about our relationship with money, and so weary of our anxiety over our conflicted relationship with money that we’re not sure where to begin. It seems we’ve had this conversation before—in our own heads, even in our churches—and we’re as conflicted and anxious and weary as ever. (And also deeply aware that this is so quintessentially middle class of us).

Last Sunday, in a speech to unemployed workers on the island of Sardinia, Pope Francis went off-script in response to Francesco Mattana, a 45-year-old married father of three who lost his job with an alternative energy company four years ago.

Mattana, his voice trembling, told the pope that unemployment “oppresses you and wears you out to the depths of your soul.”

“I find suffering here,” said the pope. “It weakens you and robs you of hope.”

While he went on to criticize the global economy and its summons to “worship the god of money,” Pope Francis avoided abstraction and kept it real (and also intimate, in his remarkably gifted way) with almost 300,000 people in attendance. He made visible the suffering of one Mr. Mattana to a culture enamored of statistics about poverty and despair but too often blind to particular human faces, deaf to particular human stories, indifferent to the desperate human need in front of our faces.

Who are the singular faces in our own settings that bring the parable of the rich man and Lazarus alive for us in new and unsettling ways? What are their unique stories? How can we name and overcome our indifference—unintentional though it may be—to their suffering, their desperate need?

Perhaps the good news for the poor that Jesus proclaims in this parable is also good news for the rich. Rather than a prediction or description of the afterlife, the story of Lazarus and Dives can be read as a summons to worship the God of abundance. In God’s economy, the distribution of wealth is less of a concern than is the human connection that contributes to the flourishing of all. In life, Dives refused to touch Lazarus, despite their close physical proximity. In death, he longs for Lazarus to touch him.

Luke seems to suggest that the isolation created by wealth is done away with in the reign of God where we touch and are touched by those around us, where borders and barriers and all manner of divisions are broken down.

In this, the “great chasm” has already been bridged by the one who, in exposing the poverty of riches and the hell of loneliness, invites all of us into relationship and fullness of life.

4 Responses to “The Hell of Loneliness”

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  1. Paula says:

    Thank you, thank you for this. This is the most helpful thing I’ve read all week about this passage.

  2. noelene says:

    indeed this is a very good and thought provoking reflection

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