This Gospel parable is a classic case of “too little, too late.” In the end, driven to desperation, the rich man, suffering the consequences of his insensitivity to everyone but himself, makes a grand gesture. When it dawns on him that he cannot save himself, his early training takes over. He calls on Abraham to have pity on his siblings. He begs Abraham to at least give them a “heads up” about the dire cost of the repeated selfish pattern of their lives. He acknowledges it is too late to save himself. He has strayed too far from the kindness his mother had instilled in him in early childhood.
You may ask whether this is an historical account or is it a parable. Or, is there any difference? Is it the true story of two men who lived and died during the time of Christ’s earthly ministry? Or is it a story made up by Jesus to drive home a point?
You see, by definition, a parable is a true-to-life story used to illuminate a truth. This is true of the parable in the Gospel even if all of the details never occurred exactly as presented in the story. Parables are special stories that may, or may not, reflect historical events. Nevertheless, they must be true-to-life – they must be based on a real-life situation which is familiar to the hearer. In other words, the story itself must be based on events that could have happened, whether or not they ever actually did, Otherwise it would only serve to confuse people rather than provide them with spiritual light.
We can relate to the main character’s growing insensitivity. How easily we, too, can become desensitized! In some ways it’s good. We can train ourselves by cultivating the habit of “selective sensitivity”. When it comes to sight and sound, we’ve each done it to some degree. We push little annoyances into the background, so it takes a concerted effort to notice them. Think of the crunch of fresh potatoes chips, the click of heels on the hallway floor surface, the fan motor on the AC, even the persistent piercing sound of the monitoring alarm or wake-up melodies on a clock-radio or daytime tinnitus.
As a nation, as individuals we can be bombarded by many sources of media, featuring stories of horrible torture and inhumane treatment. Sustained hunger or the effects of natural disasters can overwhelm our sensitivities so deeply that emotionally we shut down. We suffer brain over-load. We hear but we don’t listen. We direct our attention to the next graphic depiction of raging violence, or the devastation wrought by climate change on the New Jersey shoreline. The images flash and the newspapers stories and pictures slip through our minds like the story in a novel or frames in a comic book. After a while we fail to separate between fact and fiction; between everyday happenings and once-a-week invented TV dramas. We pray for an end to gun violence but we invite the sounds of gun fire and fisticuffs into our living rooms, dens and bedrooms via TV and computer apps because they’re “just pretend” stories.
How does this happen? How can we continue to stay in touch with our gentler nature, our God-eyes and ears – the compassion of Christ that we promise to extend “to all those in our realm of influence”?
It takes daily prayer and practice. Our degree of dedication to be true to our corporate commitment is living proof that we are learning the lessons we hear proclaimed in the daily Scripture readings. We share in the ministry of the compassion of Jesus when we provide hope and comfort to God’s people. The essence of the message contained in the exchange in today’s Gospel is captured in Joan Chittister’s prompting: “What do we want to be caught dead doing?” (American Magazine and NCR)
~by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB
Have a pleasant week. Pray that the hurricane stays out over open waters… but if God directs it over land, please preserve people from harm.