Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Infinite Chasm of Indifference

Twenty Sixth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Nobel Prize winner, holocaust survivor and prolific writer, Elie Wiesel, made this poignant observation: “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Avoid the lengthy debate over semantics, throw away your thesaurus, and forget what common sense tells you; you have to admit that there is some truth to this statement. One would normally conclude that hatred is the opposite of love; indifference seems totally unrelated. But hatred requires effort; it requires that one actually cares enough about something to hate it. Apathy or indifference, on the other hand, is completely void of all passion, all energy, and all effort. The other just doesn’t exist, off my radar. Although other human faults, such as hatred, hostility, aggression, violence, lust, prejudice, often take the limelight; indifference maybe by far one of the most dangerous because it is silent and undetectable.

We see so many problems and evils in our society today: injustice, exploitation of migrants, violence, abortion.  Yet when asked about these things, many often show an attitude of apathy and complete indifference.  Many times, when asked people say that they have no opinion about important issues of today, or that they have not given them any thought.  Other times, they say that they are personally opposed to such evils, but they make no active effort to fight them.  An apathetic person will not exert any effort to make a difference in either direction.  He will simply sit back and watch events unfold.  In the words of the philosopher Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The horrors of Darfur, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the gas chambers of Auschwitz are part of our tragic and dark human history, because they are as much the children of apathy as they are the scion of violence.

In today’s gospel parable, we meet the ignoble character of the ‘rich man.’ Tradition names him as ‘Dives,’ which in Latin means exactly that, ‘rich man.’ There is a bit of irony in this: Lazarus is recognised by God, both in this life and the next; he has a name, he is known by God. Dives, on the other hand, is an abstraction, he is called "great wealth or riches." He is unknown to us, the readers of this story, and maybe we can say unrecognised by God. But the parable does pay attention to his lifestyle: he is described as a person who “dresses in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently everyday.” Laid outside the gate of this rich man’s house, however, was an extremely poor man named Lazarus who simply hoped to “fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.” The rich man was completely indifferent to the plight of Lazarus. Eventually, they both died. Lazarus went to heaven, and Dives went to hell. At the end of the story, the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers to repent so that they would never join him in hell. Abraham told the rich man that if his brothers did not believe in Scripture, neither would they believe a messenger, even if he came straight from heaven. Looks like man’s indifference to his neighbour is finally unmasked – it is merely a cover, a symptom of man’s indifference to God.

The parable is troubling because Dives was not a horrible person. In fact, the gospel never states that Dives mistreated Lazarus. There is no mention of him acquiring his wealth through unjust means. Then what did he do that was so horrible that he should deserve such a terrible fate. It was simply his apathy: he was enclosed in his safe little world of personal enjoyment. Irony in the story is accentuated by the mention of dogs – dumb animals seem to show greater concern and compassion than this man who wines and dines, blind to the presence of the beggar who sits at his gates. These non-human creatures display greater solidarity than a fellow human being. Lazarus, therefore, became not a part of suffering humanity but just a part of the landscape. In a word, the rich man was indifferent, and clueless: Indifferent to Lazarus’ plight, indifferent to his hunger, indifferent and clueless to his needs. They were the neighbours who never met.

The indifference which blinded Dives to the needs of Lazarus and others in this life is a foretaste of what is to come - the chasm that separates heaven from hell, a chasm wide and unbridgeable. There is no passing between the two, ever. In life, a big chasm had opened up between Dives and Lazarus due to the former’s apathy. Lazarus never showed up on Dives’ radar. In the death, this chasm has grown infinite – in the words of Father Abraham, a ‘great gulf’ separates the minions of hell from the minions of heaven. The chasm which Dives maintained through his indifference in life had ultimately set him apart from God in death. Now, it’s the rich man turn to drop off God’s radar. Indifference does not only spell human tragedy, it also means the lost of beatitude, the lost salvation.

With all the sophisticated new technology we now have, it is possible to surmise that that there would be a greater awareness and desire to help those in need. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true. During the Pope’s recent visit to the Island of Lampedusa, to remember the over 20,000 refugees who died attempting to make the crossing to Europe, he spoke of the globalisation of indifference: “Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility… We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being (comfort), that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalisation of indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.” In his final indictment, the Pope concluded that society has “forgotten how to weep.”

Finally, the parable presents us another important lesson – the answer to poverty and suffering that we face in this world. Experience teaches us that this world is broken and our desires cannot be satisfied within the walls of the world. But the Christian answer to this is that the God who lives beyond the walls of the world is living and working within it in order to save it from brokenness caused by man. These are the paradoxes of Christianity which colour our faith and bring the light hope especially in moments of darkness – there is life after death, there is healing in brokenness. We do not value the world because it is perfect: it is ours, it is broken, and we broke it. Yes, what we desire is beyond what the world can give us. But our seemingly infinite desires are not beyond the truly infinite God who entered our broken world and took the worst of our brokenness on Himself. Even now He is here, loving our world and hating it, hating the sin which had disfigured it, and constantly working to redeem it. Unlike the rich man, God sees our wounded-ness and our spiritual poverty, and God acts. If indifference blinds and petrifies us into inaction, Love sees and Love acts – Love heals, Love pardons and Love saves. God is never indifferent to our struggles and pain. God sees, He acts, He heals, He pardons and He saves.

Today, let us echo the prayer said by Pope Francis at Lampedusa: “Lord … we beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters. Father, we ask your pardon for those who are complacent and closed amid comforts which have deadened their hearts; we beg your forgiveness for those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies. Forgive us, Lord!”

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