Author’s Note: Three years ago this month, I posted this tribute to Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez. I share it again today with much gratitude and love to “the little priest with the accent,” as my son called him, during our years at the University Notre Dame (2003-2007). For your beautiful life and work, Fr. Gustavo, and for your ongoing commitment to theology in service of the people of God, thank you.
In one of his most vividly detailed parables, Jesus tells the story of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who lay hungry and sick outside the rich man’s door, longing for the scraps that fell from the man’s table. The rich man never once acknowledges the presence of Lazarus, not until, that is, their situation is reversed, and the once-rich man finds himself in torment. “Father Abraham, please send Lazarus from heaven, so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue from these flames.” (Lk: 16:19-31)
Abraham’s reply should send shivers through us all. Notice that the “great chasm” separating Lazarus and the rich man is not new, not a barrier established by God in the afterlife, but a yawning chasm already present “here below,” and established precisely by the rich man’s wanton indifference to his suffering brother.
My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.
Jesus, in issuing this vivid warning to the blindly comfortable, stands squarely with the prophets of Israel who never tire of reminding us of God’s preferential concern for the poor. If there is a barrier separating us from the poor, it is there by our own design, say the prophets, by our willful refusal to see and to act on their behalf. It is there by our own terrible indifference.
“Mind the gap!” say the prophets, for your brothers and sisters are suffering terribly, and one day, God forbid, you “and your kind” may suddenly find yourself in similar need.
In other words, the poverty of Lazarus and his innumerable children is our poverty. From God’s perspective, our riches are his riches too, his inheritance, since all good things come to us not by our own hand but by God’s overflowing generosity.
For those of us who, by all reasonable measures, are the “rich” in Jesus’ parable, “stretched comfortably on our couches”—see today’s first reading, Amos 6:1, 4-7—to what extent have our wealth and privilege made us stubbornly blind, and politically indifferent, to the suffering of our neighbors both near and far? Are we not like the Levite on the road to Jericho, passing by the wounded man in the ditch with our nose in the air?
When I was a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame I had the enormous privilege of studying in the orbit of Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez. I took several classes with him, including an independent study involving one-on-one meetings with him every month, usually over lunch, and once even with my newborn daughter in tow — whom Gustavo greeted with childlike joy. I watched him teach from note cards, his mind as razor sharp as his sense of humor, and patiently respond to the questions of twenty year old undergraduates, children of privilege at one of the nation’s wealthiest universities. My oldest son still remembers him as Fr. Gustavo, “the little priest with the accent” who came over to our house to celebrate “house church” with my family and fellow graduate students gathered around a coffee table in our living room. Of course like many others I revered the ground he walked on. Not so much from the cult of celebrity but rather from the sense that the “ground he walked on” was (and is) the same ground trod by Jesus, the prophet and carpenter of Nazareth.
For all of his international fame and global impact as the “father” of Latin American liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez still embodies for me the simple good news of God’s overflowing love and gratuitous mercy. Gustavo’s theology of liberation, his deep spirituality of solidarity with the least, flows first of all from his priesthood, from his experience as a pastor among the poorest of peoples in Peru. It begins in wonder and gratitude for the gift of life itself and the joy of being alive in communion with God, earth and others.
For me, a privileged person of the so-called First World, Fr. Gutierrez is not unlike “Father Abraham” in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, pleading with us, especially we citizens of North America, to wake up and see the suffering poor at our doorstep, and above all to bridge the “great chasm” that separates us and them right now, in this lifetime here on earth.
Thank you, Gustavo, for your beautiful witness as a priest and scholar in service to the poor. And thank you for your patience with students like me, for whom you have been both teacher and priest of the church, both mentor and generous friend.
That Gustavo’s theology is now being embraced at the highest levels of the Church strikes me as a cause for great joy, even while it represents a prophetic challenge, long overdue, to Catholics and Christians everywhere, especially the “rich” and privileged, like me. I’m not sure there would be a Pope Francis, riding around in a thirty-year old Renault and calling us back to Jesus’ way of simplicity, mercy, and a “culture of encounter” in our church, streets, and cities, had there not been a Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, gently and fiercely pointing the way.
May God grant them both many more years of life. And may we heed the beautiful invitation of the Gospel today.
* This post is dedicated with gratitude to Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Mark Curnutte.
Postscript: Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez (October 13, 2013)