It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how many times I’ve heard a particular Bible passage, if I spend quality time reflecting on it, a new perspective or dimension emerges. This past Sunday’s Gospel reading about the rich man and Lazarus (LK 16:19-31) is only the most recent example.
The rich man, suffering torment after death, asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers to forewarn them about their potential fate. At first my thoughts were curious as to why the man does not ask that he be sent back, but rather Lazarus, a poor beggar, that the man never acknowledged during his lifetime. Who is Lazarus that the man’s brothers would believe him? Perhaps the man realized that his lack of compassion towards Lazarus played a role in his eternal circumstances, and understood that his brothers would be headed for the same torment since they, too, behaved similarly toward Lazarus. What does the man expect that Lazarus can convey by appearing to his brothers that he cannot himself do? The only explanation I can come up with is that it would be beyond the ordinary or explainable and thus would make a deep impression on the brothers that could prompt a change in their behavior.
Basically, the man is asking that his brothers have an experience of faith. Abraham refers to the many encounters with God in the Old Testament and states that if the brothers were not moved by all of these, then they will not be moved by a dead person (who they ignored his whole life) coming to visit them. This way of thinking is not limited to the Jews, as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that even the Greeks have trouble believing. “For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor 1:22-24) Faith can be a challenge to the logic of the intellect. We ask for signs and symbols and yet explain away wondrous gifts from God, perhaps because we want them to be ordinary and explainable. We want them to be in our realm so that we can understand them, perhaps even feel a sense of control over them.
Think about within your own life; have you shared how you have encountered God? If you do have an opportunity to exchange a faith moment, how difficult is it to describe? Sometimes words are not available to convey the feelings, impressions, emotions, and reflections of the instance. For example, if we perceive a message or answer has been given to us by God many questions surface. How do you know it’s from Him? How did it happen? Was the voice audible? Trying to describe it even to oneself can provoke feelings of uncertainty and make us question our lucidity. And when words fail, it can even prompt the beginning of a new word. The Catholic Church created a word to describe the miracle that takes place at every consecration of the Eucharist: transubstantiation. Look that word up in the dictionary and there is only one meaning, which is the miraculous change by which according to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dogma the eucharistic elements at their consecration become the body and blood of Christ while keeping only the appearances of bread and wine. Most words have a history or etymology and while meanings can evolve over many years, there is usually a simple root word from another language from which the word is derived. There are plenty of words to describe emotions and philosophies, but fewer to explain the spiritual realm. Thus, we can struggle to adequately depict our experience to another.
Faith is not ordinary and it is not easily explainable. Faith goes beyond words because it goes beyond the constructs of time and space, of the world, and of what we know. Yet who has not been touched by the miracle of a newborn baby, or a rainbow after a thunderstorm? We may “know” how these come about, but the circumstances have to be just right in order to create them — it’s not a given. And just like matters of faith, we cannot force others to experience the divine if they are not open to the Lord. However, we can strive to provide signs and symbols for those currently open to encounters of faith. Let our actions reflect the compassion and the unconditional love of Jesus which transcends natural human behavior.