The Rich Man and Lazarus
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 4, 2007
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
The message today is all about the sins of craving and fear also known as attachment and aversion.
Attachment is an irrational craving for the things of this world in the belief that in them we will find true happiness. "If only I had more money I would be happy." "If only I had a better husband I would be happy." "If only I could have everything I want when I want it all my problems would be solved." "If I could just win the lottery, watch out then!" Craving has us always living in the future when things will be better "if only"...Please remember the saying, "There are two ways to be unhappy: not getting what you want and getting it". It is true. Getting what you want brings only temporary happiness at best. Soon that temporal joy will fade away to be replaced by more craving. That is the fruit of attachment. Still another name for attachment is idolatry. An extreme version is addiction.
Along with attachment comes its equally strong twin brother. His name is aversion. Another name for aversion is fear. Getting what we want we then fear we will lose it or that someone will take it away from us. Inevitably we always lose what we attached ourselves to because either the result of getting what we desired isn't as great as we hoped and we let it go, or the feeling of immense satisfaction gives way again to craving, or the thing we finally grabbed hold of fades away and dies because all things in this life are impermanent.
So we go through life labeling everything as "good" or "bad" based on whether or not they are desirable to us. Thus, our cravings and fears become the basis of everything we do in life. We live in a dream-world cooked up by our gut reactions; either judging or craving. No wonder we are such unhappy creatures! I dare say this is the disease that most afflicts our messed-up society.
About attachment Jesus says, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break in and steal, but rather lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven." In other words, the things on earth that pass away will never bring happiness or security. They are here today and gone tomorrow like the grass of the field. Only spiritual treasures are eternal.
About aversion Jesus says, "Love your enemies." In other words, there are no enemies except for those we concoct in our minds. Nothing is bad until we label it "bad". So much depends on perspective. There is God's perspective which is always loving, compassionate, tolerant and kind and then there is our perspective filtered through our own prejudices, fears and desires. Aversion demands that we manufacture "enemies" to fear and hate.
Attachment is a prison; aversion is a prison. We are not free if we are motivated by either. Decisions based on either are unhealthy decisions. A life lived as a pendulum between attachment and aversion leads to constant anxiety and fear. That is why these states of mind and their outward manifestations are "sinful". Promising happiness they bring only suffering. Promising life they offer only death.
The literal translation of the word sin from the Greek is "missing the mark". The bull's eye is right in the middle of the target isn't it? Attachment and aversion are opposite extremes on the right and left of the middle path. We are instructed by Jesus to walk the straight and narrow way, neither to turn to the right or left. So we must find the straight path between attachment and aversion, seeing things as they are and not as we think or desire them to be so that we can make wise and righteous decisions based on truth.
Moved both by attachment to his wealth and aversion to Lazarus the Rich Man made all the wrong choices. He could not see the poor man as his brother because Lazarus was a potential threat to his happiness. Because of craving and fear the Rich Man did not find the middle road to salvation which was to see the poor man as his brother, his own riches as an opportunity for service and service as the path to heaven. He would later learn how very unwise his decisions were when he ended up in the lake of fire.
When I went to Philadelphia with the New England teens for the Orthodox Youth Outreach among the homeless a few years ago we all had to learn to walk the middle path in order to do the work before us. We could not allow our first impressions to distract us from caring for each and every person we met in the streets, people I believe sent to us by God. Some were dirty, some mentally ill, some seemingly normal in every way, but we did not have the luxury of choosing who we would care for. We had to look deeper than the surface to find the beauty of the person in front of us. When we felt repulsion we had to plow through it and when we did we were always rewarded. There were no "good" people and no "bad" people in those streets that weekend, there were human beings in need of a smile or a sandwich.
St. John of the Ladder writes that the spiritual life begins by recognizing what is wrong in our lives and looking for a solution. He calls this renunciation. Finding out what is causing our troubles we wisely choose to renounce them. This means learning to think and to live in a different way.
The second step St. John tells us is appropriately called "detachment". Notice that detachment is the opposite of attachment! After we discover what is wrong we actually start to take steps to change the way we think and the way we live. We detach from unhelpful things (using St. Paul's words from the verse in which he says "nothing is unlawful for me") and turn towards what is beneficial.
Put together knowledge and action and you have repentance. The very first message Jesus preached was simply this, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
The first step for us then is to notice when attachment and aversion rise in us. What do we crave and what do we fear? Step back from them. Observe them. Do not identify with them and do participate in them. We must pray for wisdom to recognize what is wrong in our lives, where our thoughts and actions are unrighteous, where we label and judge and distort the world around us and then we can begin the process of detaching from them.
The All-Holy Spirit has been given so that we will have the ability to accomplish this essential spiritual work. We may have to give up the things we love the most and embrace things we thought we could never embrace, but that is the way of repentance. Real change is necessary on very practical, day-to-day levels and real change is possible if we desire it. Craving and fear can be transformed into faith and love.