Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Rich Man and Lazarus

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today our epistle and gospel lessons [1 Corinthians 12:27-13:8; Luke 16:19-31] combine to reveal the preeminent importance of love, not only in this life, but in the life to come.

The very heart of the Christian revelation and the core truth that gives meaning to all the rest, is that God is love. This was best summed up by the holy apostle and theologian John, and indicates to us that every action of God toward creation is motivated by love and is an expression of His love. God acts in no other way except in love, because God is love.

By the love of God, the invisible hosts of heaven are spoken into existence, as is the material world, full of beauty and harmony. Man is created in the image of God to share eternally in the communion of love with his Creator. Love is the single greatest force of all, infinitely greater than even the forces of sin and death which man introduced into the world by his prideful turning away from God’s love. Indeed as love is the source of all life, the turning away from love is the cause of all death, both temporal and eternal. Out of love, God even allows mankind and all the material world to experience death and suffering as the natural consequences of that turning away from love, in the hope that man will turn back and find life once again.

In his pastoral letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul sought to remind the often struggling Christians there of the preeminence of love. We’re all familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 because it is read at nearly every wedding we’ve ever attended. But the message that without love we are nothing should not be restricted to newlyweds only. We all need to remember that love is the most important pursuit of a person’s life; that love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude. Oh, how our lives and our relationships with others could be bettered if we remembered that love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, and does not rejoice over evil, but over what is good. How we need to choose the love of God in our lives that we might bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. How we need a love that does not end, further, that does not weary of doing what is good, that never tires of seeking truth, beauty, and goodness.

St. Justin Martyr, in describing the early Church, wrote to his pagan audience that Christians were characterized by their sacrificial love for one another. If some were hungry, others would go hungry, in order to supply their own food to those who were in need. What a contrast this is with the rich man in today’s gospel lesson. This man had more than enough food available to him. He could have easily sent a measly ration of bread and olives to poor Lazarus at his gate each day without missing a single calorie from his own sumptuous meals. Yet he did not possess even this much love or concern for his humble brother. Out of love, God send poor Lazarus to the gate of the rich man that the latter might discover compassion, and acting upon it, find his salvation. But the rich man refused this kindness of God, and hardened his heart against his needy brother, remaining indifferent to him.

This self-centered attitude, this concern only for himself and his own, imprinted itself indelibly on the rich man’s soul, and became his orientation even after death. Finding himself in torment, he called out to Father Abraham to cast Lazarus out of Paradise that the poor man might attend to his needs as a servant, now that he was suffering in Hades. There’s a considerate fellow for you! “I wouldn’t lift a finger to help Lazarus, even when it would cost me nothing. But now send him into these flames with me that he might dip his finger in water and cool my tongue”.

Father Abraham responded that he could not do that, since Lazarus was now being comforted for his sufferings in life, while the rich man was suffering for his stubborn refusal to share his comforts. In addition to this, Abraham noted that “a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us”.

What is this great chasm, and who fixed it in place? Some, who see Hades and Paradise as literal, geographical locations, assume that God fixed the chasm to prevent sinners from escaping His eternal wrath. But Orthodox saints have tended to take a different view. They have tended to see Hades and Paradise, and for that matter, heaven and hell, less as literal places than as states or conditions of the soul. This view is informed by what they understood as the one constant in the universe, the love of God.

If God is love, and His only action toward mankind is love, then the torment of Hades can only be the love of God refused by those who despise it. Have you ever been loved by someone you just didn’t love, and found their attention annoying, even harassing? Imagine that feeling amplified infinitely if the love you reject is God’s. Think of Satan, whom God still loves, yet his rejection of God’s love is so complete and thorough, that to even be reminded of it torments every fiber of his wicked being.

The flames of Hades in this parable cannot be material fire, for the rich man did not possess a material body to experience physical pain. It is the souls of those in Hades which experience torment. And that torment is the love of God which burns them like fire, as they still stubbornly reject it. Even after the resurrection, when all souls are reunited to their bodies once again, the “lake of fire” spoken of by Jesus cannot possibly be a literal place, for this would mean that God has specifically created a dark and hideous chamber where He can cease to act out of love, and show nothing but endless, sadistic malice.

It is man who is capable of both love and cruelty simultaneously, not God. Medieval concepts of hell as a literal place of eternal wrath do not tell us the truth about God. They are inconsistent with the revelation of God as love, yet they have crept into contemporary Christendom and have become a part of the way that many people understand God.

If anyone insists on taking a literal view of Hades and hell as actual places that God has created to torment sinners, then he must answer a difficult question. Would not a sinner, awaking from the delusion of this life and finding himself in Hades, become sincerely repentant and beg God for mercy? Are we to expect that God would only shrug at this and reply, “Go cry, deep fry; you had your chance”? Isn’t this kind of callous indifference exactly what destroyed the rich man, and yet we imagine God is capable of the same sin?

On the other hand, if Hades and hell are states or conditions of the soul which cause a person to remain unrepentant and defiant of God’s love, then can’t we see that it is not God who is hard-hearted, but the sinner himself?

Returning to our gospel lesson, we can see that the rich man remained unrepentant even in torment. Some might argue that he showed a smidgen of love by wanting Lazarus to be sent to his brothers to warn them. But once again what he demonstrates is that he was only concerned for his own. What about his countrymen, what about the rest of Israel? Could the rich man show no concern for them? God in truth did show concern for these and for all the world, by not only raising another Lazarus from the dead, but even His own Son. Yet as Abraham gravely predicted, even this proof was rejected by many, and is still rejected today.

Our Orthodox saints teach that not only are heaven and hell states of the soul, but they are states that each person is living in right now. Each of us is living either in a progression toward full communion with God’s love, or in an utter rejection of it. Each of us is experiencing either the renunciation of self-love and the freedom to love and give of ourselves to others, or we are becoming more selfish, more sinful, more alienated from the love of God.

God is not to be blamed for any who may find themselves in hell, for even there, the love of God is to be found. Hell is not a place of God’s absence as some teach, for this would mean that God is not omnipresent, and therefore not truly God. God is “everywhere present and fillest all things,” even hell. As always the question is, will we respond favorably to God’s love and make ourselves into a true reflection of it, or will we make ourselves into the opposite of His love, and despise Him for all eternity? May God help us to take our lives in the right direction.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.