Yesterday, we entered into the season of the Nativity Fast, a season of anticipation as we await the arrival of Jesus, who consented to be born in order to suffer and die for our sins. In fact, during this time of the Nativity Fast, our relic of the true cross is set before us on the tetrapod as a sobering reminder that Our Lord’s arrival holds a much greater and important meaning than the social season that parallels it. In the midst of the shopping, eating, drinking and other merriment that attempts to secularize this “most wonderful time of the year,” we must all strive to remember that our Savior’s birth in the flesh is a cause for a different kind of celebration.
Actually, this time of the Nativity Fast IS the most wonderful time of the year, but not for the reasons we hear Andy Williams sing about each December. What is wonderful about this time of year is that we can pray, we can think, we can ponder on making certain our priorities are in check, but most importantly, we can ACT on the meaning of being an Orthodox Christian – to give back to God in thanksgiving for the blessings received all year. Seeing the food baskets in our library is one tangible way of giving back. Sadly, though, there are people all around us who are in dire straits all year long, and yet it seems that only in November it becomes apparent that many others are in need. Please don’t get me wrong – the economic crisis that we are facing as a nation is a sign that things will continue to get worse before they get better, but they will get better. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility, a duty to not only be aware of the needs of others, but to respond to them as well. For our Lord said, “To those whom more has been given, more is required.”
Specifically, there is much to be learned from the message of today’s Gospel reading.
In turning to today’s gospel, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, we find it to be a very sobering and harsh story, quite in contrast to the accounts of healing and mercy that we’re used to hearing in the gospel of St. Luke. It’s a very severe warning: the egoistic enjoyment of this world will be paid for in the next.
As our Lord begins this lesson, he uses an interesting phrase: he says that “A certain beggar...was laid at his gate.” I find that interesting because it shows that the world of suffering and misery is not unreal or far away. It is ever present before us. Many times we fail to see the difficulties others are encountering. What is worse, sometimes we become indifferent to the plight of others – we remain focused on our own earthly wants and desires. The rich man in today’s Gospel reading has used his wealth to isolate himself from what is ugly in the world around him, as rich people often do. But it doesn’t work, because the beggar, Lazarus, is “laid at his gate,” as our Lord puts it. This puts the rich man in an awkward position, because now, in order to continue to isolate himself, he has to pretend that Lazarus isn’t there. He has to ignore him, which he does, for which he ends up paying the penalty by being sent to hell.
Now, there are two points that are worth noticing here: first, the obvious fact that the consequences of the rich man’s actions, and Lazarus’ reward do not come in this life; they come in the next, when Lazarus is sent to heaven and the Rich Man goes to hell. It’s an important point to keep in mind, especially when we run into people who face difficulties, and lose their faith by saying, “I lived a good life; why is God letting this happen?” They are forgetting that reward and punishment do not happen here. The Rich Man is very remorseful for how he’s lived and for ignoring the beggar at his gate; but by that time it’s too late; any opportunity he may have had to change his life is gone. This is where a very interesting, and also sobering exchange occurs between them. The Rich Man, in the fires of hell, realizes that there is no way out of his predicament, asks Abraham to allow Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool the Rich Man’s tongue. It is an exact reversal of what was going on before they both died, when Lazarus was begging for any scrap from the Rich Man’s table. But it isn’t to be, as Abraham explains to the Rich Man that there is no communication between heaven and hell: Lazarus can’t reach across the gulf to cool the Rich Man’s tongue; the judgment made against him at the time of his death is final.
What I find quite remarkable is that, having had this explained to him, the Rich Man lapses into a fit of charity: in the midst of this unbearable torment, brought on by his own neglect, the Rich Man wants to spare his brothers, who are also rich, from the same fate. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them, so they can be warned to change their ways before it’s too late. It seems -- on the surface, anyway -- to be an extremely magnanimous gesture; and it does not seem to be an unreasonable request. After all, it’s probably the first time that this Rich Man has ever even considered the needs of others instead of his own. But Abraham refuses the idea. He tells the Rich Man that, even for his brothers, it’s too late. And the reason we should find that so sobering is because his brothers are not yet dead. Presumably they still have a chance to change their ways, but they are not to be permitted this warning.
Now, by our rationale, it seems so unfair, but Abraham goes on to explain why: they have Moses, they have the prophets, they have the Scriptures; they need nothing else. Everything they need to learn, everything they need to do in order to be saved has already been provided. If they choose not to heed it, it is their own choice and their own fault. It’s a hard position for Abraham to take, but it is a just position, and one we have to listen to.
Why were the writings of Moses and the Prophets not enough to teach these men how to live in order to be saved? Well, one reason may be because, even by our Lord’s time, the books of Moses and the Prophets in the Old Testament were already a thousand years old. Everyone was familiar with them; they were read regularly as part of the synagogue service, and maybe that was the problem. They had become ritualized. Just like the gospel is for us. We hear the same words, the same prayers, week after week, and we respond to the prayers and litanies, but how often do we pause to listen to what is being sung to hear what those words are trying to tell us? It’s not as if the gospels are written in some kind of peculiar code which we need a priest to decipher. Our Lord’s lessons in these parables are too often painfully clear. It’s just that we don’t listen. Just like the Rich Man didn’t listen, just like his bothers didn’t listen . . . until it was too late. And then we run the risk of having one of those “head-slapping” moments where we say, “Oh, you mean I was supposed to actually apply that to my own life?! Who would have thought?”
There is a second point about this parable which I also find interesting, a point made by St. Cyril of Alexandria in his commentary on Luke’s gospel. He points out the fact that the Rich Man is never named by Jesus in the parable, he simply calls him “a Rich Man”; but the poor man he mentions by name. Why? Because the Rich Man, having no fear of God in his heart, was nameless in God’s presence. And then he quotes Psalm 15, verse 4, in which God says, concerning those who do not fear him, “I will not make mention of their names with My Lips.” It’s a chilling statement about the harshness and finality of God’s judgment.
It is so easy for us, Sunday after Sunday to come to church, sing the songs, say the prayers and go home to all the other “important” things that occupy our lives, having fulfilled our obligation to go to church for another week. If it’s going to be more than that, as I think we all agree it should be, then that’s an adjustment that has to be made by each one of us in our own hearts. Ultimately it is up to each one of us to decide what we’re doing when we’re here: what we’re thinking about, what we’re praying about, whether we are truly listening to what’s being sung and said and examining our lives in light of it. No one else is responsible for doing that for us. Everything that we need to be inspired and consoled, to be sanctified and saved has been provided to us by Christ through his Church. What we do with it is entirely up to us.
So, as we continue on our journey as Disciples of Christ, my prayer for all of us is that we take the time to reflect on the meaning of this parable. The Rich Man didn’t have the ability to get a warning to his brothers to change their ways; we can take heed and adjust our lives accordingly to see and act as we ought to and help the many around us who are in want. I propose that we collect food not just one month out of the year, but all year long. Locally, Open Door in Freehold boro is in need of all sorts of food products to help those who are in need. Anyone who has extra food at home, or anyone that has the means to buy extra while shopping, bring in your donation, and I’ll see to it that it gets to open door during the week. I believe they may even accept coupons to help people get a little more at the store. In any event, even though we are a small parish, I think we have the biggest hearts. I’d like to be able to show the folks who run Open Door that St. Paul the Apostle Parish can help make a difference in our own local community throughout the year, not just during November. I ask you to think and pray over this, and then in charity, do what you can to help our neighbors in need.