In the Gospels, we have the famous parable of the rich man who ignores the poor man at his doorstep, dies, and ends up in hell, while the poor man, Lazarus, whom he had ignored, is now in heaven, comforted in the bosom of Abraham.

Ron Rolheiser, OMI

From his torment in hell, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with some water, but Abraham replies that there is an unbridgeable gap between heaven and hell, and no one can cross from one side to the other.

That text has led to the common misconception that there is a point of no return, that once in hell, it is too late to repent.

But that’s not what this text, nor Jesus’ warning on the urgency of repentance, teaches. The “unbridgeable gap” here refers, among other things, to a gap that remains forever unbridged here in this world between the rich and the poor. And it remains unbridged because of our failure to change heart, our lack of contrition, not because God runs out of patience and says: “Enough! No more chances!” It remains unbridged because, habitually, we become so set in our ways that we are incapable of change and genuine repentance.

This parable draws upon an ancient Jewish parable that illustrates this intransigence. In the parallel Jewish parable, God does hear the rich man’s plea from hell for a second chance and grants it to him. The rich man, now full of new resolutions, returns to life, goes immediately to the market loads his cart with food, and, as he is driving home, meets Lazarus on the road. Lazarus asks for a loaf of bread. The rich man jumps off his cart to give it to him, but as he pulls a huge loaf of bread from his cart, his old self starts to reassert itself. He begins to think: “This man doesn’t need a whole loaf! Why not just give him a part! And why should he have a fresh loaf, I’ll give him some of the stale bread!” Immediately he finds himself back in hell!

He still cannot bridge the gap.

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