Luke 16:19-31, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Well-meaning Catholics through the years have understood today’s Gospel as an authoritative description of heaven and hell. This image of heaven and hell has lasted us for centuries: that between heaven and hell yawn a dark, final chasm that God leaves un-bridged for all eternity. To a fault, we, priests, have also invoked this parable to prove that there’s really fire in hell. We even sound very sure—as though we’ve been there and back! Because look! The rich man is begging for even just a drop of water because he’s suffering torment in flames! Oh, God knows that souls are ablaze in hell, we say. But God is no longer mindful that they even exist; for hell is an eternity of God’s non-attention, of divine apathy. Souls may be alive in hell, but they are dead to God.
However, we ignore the fact that this is a parable that Jesus tells, and being a parable, the most important consideration is the overall message rather than the individual symbols that serve only as a vehicle of the message. By the way, everything I’ve said about hell so far are theologically flawed & awash with contradictions. We no longer teach the theology that way (at least, not in Loyola School of Theology). Nobody, not even the most saintly on earth, could be dead certain on what heaven and hell are like. But as it happens, we’ve since been distracted from the core message of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus…just like the rich man in today’s Gospel is distracted from helping Lazarus who happens to be the touchstone of salvation in the Lord’s story.
I spent 3 years of ministry in our school in Cebu. We had a laundrywoman there, Ghil-ghil was her name. She lived in the slums right outside our school. Deserted by her good-for-nothing husband, Ghil-ghil took care of four small children all by her lonesome. I remember she’d always bring home half her lunch, so her children could have it for supper. But boy, she did the best laundry! My clothes would come back smelling heavenly, superbly pressed, and lovingly folded. Ghil-ghil was an industrious, cheerful, dedicated woman. But she always looked very tired. It was only on my last few months there that I finally visited with her at length in the laundry room. I asked her why she seemed short of breath lately. “I know, Father,” she answered. “My cancer is back,” she answered with an ironic, helpless smile.” I never thought Ghil-ghil had cancer, that she’d been in remission for four years. “But I thank God I have this job, Father,” she said, still smiling. In fact, back when she was receiving chemotherapy, she’d rush right to work from the hospital and wash as many clothes and linen before the side-effects kicked in, whereupon she’d drag herself home and rest…until she had to get back on her feet again when her children came back from school. “Pero nagapasalamat ko, ‘Dre, kay nilahutay ko ingon-ani kadugay. Kahibaw ko nga milagro kini kay naglaba ko sa mga sinina sa mga pari.” Nagpapasalamat daw siya na tumagal siya nang gano’n. Milagro raw ito dahil naglalaba siya ng mga damit ng pari. When she said that, parang binuhusan ako ng malamig na tubig, na parang ako ang nilabhan! Had I cared to get to know Ghil-ghil sooner, she’d have taught me without her knowing so, to be less petty about my inconsequential inconveniences. I’d have been strengthened by her resolve to will herself alive for the sake of her four little ones who meant her life to her. She’d have blessed me with her simple yet deep and desperate faith in God. And I could’ve offered her a glass of water once in a while, or handed her a few pesos to tide her over, or simply offered a listening ear. Poor woman of the slums that Ghil-ghil was, she could’ve saved me from my own “hell”—the perdition of being too complacent, the perdition of always seeking satisfaction, the perdition of caring only for my own salvation.
Dear sisters and brothers, God has many, many ways of saving us. And one vital way God does this is “through” the poor. More than what heaven and hell feel like, to help the poor is the divine lesson Jesus teaches and exemplifies through today’s parable. God saves us through the ways we help save the poor. Kahit po bali-baliktarin pa natin ang gospels, kahit atras-abante pa ho nating basahin ang buhay ni Hesus, bukod-tangi po ang pag-ibig ang Diyos sa mga dukha. We cannot put it any other way, sisters & brothers. Jesus has shown that the Father loves the poor and that God wills that we help him save them—and in turn be saved ourselves. If you wish that stated negatively, in case you’re the kind who loves a challenge, then the first reading may do that for you: “Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on couches, eating lambs from the flock & calves from the stall! They drink wine…& anoint themselves with the best oils. Now they shall go into exile, their wanton revelry shall end.”
I confess that I actually pray to Ghil-ghil very often, and ask for her intercession, especially when my smugness and self-indulgence lead me astray to a deep, dark place—which in the end is my own choosing, anyway. Ghil-ghil died three years ago. Her children were “distributed” among relatives. That’s why I pray to her, because I’ve always believed that the best healers & saviors are the wounded because of great love.
So, never mind what heaven and hell look and feel like for now, sisters & brothers. God wants to save us all—especially through our helping God save our poor