THE SIN OF OMISSION
Amos 6:1, 4-7 1 Timothy 6:11-16 Luke 16:19-31
In the gospel of this 26th Sunday, Jesus talks about a rich man (Dives) and a poor man (Lazarus). They live in two different worlds. The rich man is “dressed in purple and fine linen;” he feasts sumptuously every day, while Lazarus covered with sores, begs, hoping to eat from the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. Both the rich man and Lazarus die. Their fortunes are completely reversed. Lazarus is now enjoying the higher position – he is in the “bosom of Abraham” – while the rich man is suffering in torment, symbolized by the eternal torment in Hades (hell).
If God would have to hold modern man accountable on judgment day for only one grievous sin, then it will be the sin of omission. The story is told of a man who, after his death stood before the gates of Simon Peter. On seeing him approach heaven, Peter quickly and securely locked the gates against him, indicating the way to hell instead. This man began protesting: “Please Peter, you wouldn’t do this to me! You know I did nothing on earth. I never cheated anyone. I was always about my duties, and minded my business. My moral records are up to date. I do not remember doing anything to anyone to merit this treatment.” Peter replied: “That is precisely the reason why there is no place for you here. Heaven has no room for those who did nothing while on earth.”
Today’s Liturgy is full of contrasts. The issue at stake is a very burning one. It hovers around the scandalous experiences which we encounter in the world today, which render the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is about the indifference, the coldness, the hardheartedness of the rich who fail to take any notice of the poor or even use them for their sport and profit, ridiculing them, as it were, with new and more subtle philosophies and socio-political strategies.
- WHY DID THE RICH MAN GO TO HELL?
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has left Bible readers wondering why the rich man had to go to hell. We are not told he acquired his wealth by foul means. We are not told he was responsible for the poverty and misery of Lazarus. In fact, we are not even told that Lazarus begged from him and he refused to help. We are not told he committed any crime or evil deed. He did not order his men that they remove Lazarus from the gate of his house. He did not make any objection to his receiving the leftover that fell from his table. He did not even kick him. He was not cruel with him. He is too well mannered. In fact, this rich man could have been awarded a certificate of good moral character and conduct without any reservation. He could receive recognition from his neighbours as an honourable and respectable man. He had a clean record and he could claim to be a model citizen and God-fearing man. All we are told is that he was feeding and clothing well as any other successful human being has a right to do. Why then did he go to hell?
The problem we have pinpointing the reason why the rich man went to hell has a lot to do with what we think sin is. We often think that we sin only by thought, word and deed. We forget a fourth and very important way through which we sin, namely, by omission. In the “I Confess” we say these words: “I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” Yet how readily we forget the sin of omission. Today’s parable reminds us that the sin of omission can land someone in hell. This is what happens to the rich man.
The poor man Lazarus was lying at his gate. And the rich man simply could not care less. He probably said to himself, “Whatever happens to him there outside the gate is none of my business. I mind my business. People should mind theirs.” In the meantime, dogs went and licked Lazarus’ wounds. And the poor man died. And the City came and picked his body and buried it in an unmarked grave. And the rich man went in and had another cup of coffee. Of course he did nothing against Lazarus. But he failed to do a good deed. He never noticed Lazarus who represents a fact of life: the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate who are always around us. He failed to reach out and share a little of his blessings with someone in need. His sin is that of omission, and for that he was going to roast in hell.
- WHY DID LAZARUS GO TO HEAVEN?
Another problem we have with this parable is why Lazarus went to heaven. After all we are not told that he was a man of God or that he did a single good deed. Yes, we are. In biblical stories of this nature, names are very significant because they often convey the person’s basic character or personality. In fact, this is the only parable of Jesus where the character in the story has a name. So the name must be significant for interpreting the parable.
The name “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Eleazar” which means “God is my help.” Lazarus, therefore, is not just a poor man, but a poor man who believes and trusts in God. This must be why he found himself in Abraham’s bosom in Paradise — because of his faith and trust in God, not just because he was poor. Failing to grasp the significance of Lazarus’ name in the interpretation of the parable, some people have suggested that in the next life there will be an automatic reversal of status: the rich will become poor and the poor will become rich. But this is not the point of the parable. Rich people who use their wealth to serve God in their fellow human beings will still be blessed in the next life. Poor people who spend their lives in bitterness and envy, refusing to believe and trust in God as Lazarus did may yet again suffer in the next life.
Lazarus also represents those people in our world and in our neighbourhood who are sad, hungry, thirsty, homeless, disabled, sick, prisoner, poor, weak and powerless, hopeless, confused, lack of self-confidence, lonely, rejected, depressed, insecure, scared. All of them need understanding and care (Luke 4:18-19; Matt 25:31-40). Our failure to attend to, and care for, such destitute persons (sin of omission) may earn us eternal damnation, as Jesus says: “Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mtt 25:38-41).
What should one do, therefore, in order to avoid sins of omission? The answer lies in doing “works of mercy”. We have once heard of “the CORPORAL WORKS of mercy and the SPIRITUAL WORKS of mercy”. The corporal works of mercy include what Jesus lists in his parable found in Luke 4:18-19; Matt 25:31-40, that is, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and burying the dead. Meanwhile, the spiritual works of mercy are: correcting the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing the wrongs patiently, forgiving others and praying for the living and the dead. We commit a sin of omission whenever God wants us to do one of these good things and we say, “No!”.
- THE MEANING OF GOD’S GIFTS TO HUMAN BEINGS
It is good to not that the rich man did not go to hell simply because he was “rich”. Actually, there is nothing wrong with riches and possessions, for by themselves they are neither good nor bad. Sin only comes in depending on what we do with our riches. Sin come in when one lets him/herself be blinded by riches to the extent that nothing else matters. When money becomes our god, then people become our tools to make money; and God has no place in our hearts. Possessions can also be obstacles to true discipleship. The ideal is that material wealth, time, talents and treasure should be shared with those who are less fortunate.
Indeed, God’s gifts to us are meant to be shared in order to be enjoyed. That we are given the gift of compassion is because someone, somewhere out there, is hurting. That we are given the gift of speech is because someone, somewhere, is dying for the lack of a kind word. That we are given the gift of forgiveness is because someone, somewhere, is cloistering in wrongdoing and guilt. None of these gifts is for hoarding. They are given freely; they are to be given freely also. There are times when our innocence is our crime. In the face of evil, in the face of suffering, there is no neutrality. You are either with the victim or with the perpetrator.
- A LIFE AFTER DEATH
The last part of this parable teaches us that heaven and hell are real. “Now it happened that the poor man died and was carried away by the angels into Abraham’s embrace. The rich man also died and was buried. ‘In his torment in Hades he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his embrace.” (Lk 16: 22-23). Both men died. We are only told that the rich man was buried. It is likely that Lazarus was simply brought out to the city garbage dump. However, at the moment of death Lazarus was greeted by angels who carried him to Abraham’s side. This is an image of Heaven. Abraham was considered the Father of the Faithful. Since this is before the resurrection of Jesus, this may have been considered the holding place of the believing dead until Christ opened the door of Heaven to those who put their trust in Him. In this scene, there are some things we can safely conclude about eternity.
- Heaven and Hell are real places
- Those who go there will be aware of where they are: heaven or hell.
- Hell will not be a place of partying with friends; it will be a place of great torment. The blessing of God will be removed and all joy, happiness, friendship, laughter, and delight will be absent. We will not want friends of family to be there.
- A person’s final destination is not determined by his/her status in the world.
This however is not the end of the story. It is interesting that the rich man does not say, “That’s not fair”. He has no protest. He seems to grasp the righteous nature of the judgment. He knows that God has given him exactly what he deserves and has chosen. Thus, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to go and alert his brothers about the pains of hell. He figured that if someone from the dead (like the beggar Lazarus) could come back from the dead, his brothers would realize that they were headed in the wrong direction and would repent. Jesus said they have “Moses and the Prophets”, in other words, they have the Bible (in this case the Old Testament). The rich man thinks they need something more. Jesus says pretty clearly, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”
This very truth was illustrated in the resurrection of another Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha (Jn 11). Jesus brought him back from the dead and rather than become followers of Christ, the leaders became all the more determined to kill Jesus AND Lazarus! God has revealed Himself clearly and fully in the Word of God. If people will not read the stories and see the character of God and submit to His commands; if they will not respond to the Son of God who healed the lepers, cast out demons, cared for the sick, and taught with authority, no great miracle will change their heart. These people will always find some way to explain away the work of God.
First, it is clear that things are not always what they seem. We cannot be sure of what is going to happen in a person’s life until that life is actually lived. We cannot determine who will win the contest until the contest is completed. In the same way we should not draw conclusions about the destiny of an individual based on his/her circumstances in this world. Secondly, we must remind ourselves that our eternal destiny is decided by the choices we make now. People act as if to say that everyone must go to Heaven. Many people believe the only thing you need to do in order to go to Heaven is TO DIE. No! Our choices and deed here on earth determine our eternity. We pray that we may make the right choices in the here and now.