The Rich Man and Lazarus

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Reading of the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke 16:19-31

Orthodox Christianity is forever and always about hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  The Holy Trinity did not give up on creation in the face of the fall.  The Lord Jesus did not give up in the face of the Cross. Nothing can defy the compassion of the Almighty, nothing (in the end) can thwart his purposes, certainly not our paltry little, earth-bound perspectives, our pious, little certainties...and certainly not death.

Jesus rescued the Adulterous Woman from stoning, even though the Law proclaimed that she should be executed.  But Jesus is above the Law.   He is before the Law.  The Ten Commandments were inscribed by his divine hand on the very stones with which the crowd would have stoned her.  St. Isaac of Syria wrote, "Do not say God is just...David may call him just and fair, but God's own Son has revealed to us that he is before all things good and kind."  If we do not understand that, then we have missed the point of everything.

Mercy supersedes justice.  In Christ mercy and justice have embraced and the higher has transformed the lower.  The higher always transforms the lower.

So what about the poor Rich Man in today's parable?  Evagrius of Pontus, that great, enigmatic spiritual master, finds here a glint of hope.  This selfish, egocentric miser who cared nothing for the poor and dying Lazarus showed even in hell a sliver of compassion for others.  "Bring me just a drop of water," he cried as he was in torment. But Abraham told him that the gig was up.  "A chasm has been fixed that no one can cross either way," the old Patriarch said.  What should have provoked peals of curses and anger from the Rich Man produces instead something we do not expect: compassion. "Send someone please to warn my brothers."  Such a tiny opening. We should know by now that all God needs is a tiny opening into the human heart to do great things.  Remember the Prodigal Son.

Evagrius says that this little chink in the Rich Man's selfish armor means that there is hope for him, that the story is not yet over.

Abraham answers that Moses and the prophets should have been enough for all of them to repent during their lifetimes. And then comes the punch line!  I can almost see the twinkle in the Lord's eye as he says this to the disciples.  "They wouldn't believe even if someone should rise from the dead!" Jesus knew full well he was about to do that! Moses and the prophets were never enough. They were never meant to be enough!  Someone, indeed, would have to rise from the dead for there to be hope for anyone, saint or sinner. 

This Gospel is not about the hopelessness of those who die in sin. It is a prophecy about the resurrection by which the very gates of hell would be shattered, the abyss would be bridged and hope would reign supreme even and especially for the hopeless.  Jesus did not lie when he told the parable about the one, lost sheep the shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to find.

No one could cross the great chasm Abraham speaks of between heaven and hell before the Resurection. The icon of the Resurrection tells the story. In the center we see Christ standing on a cross He has built from the shattered gates of hell. The cross almost covers over the formerly uncrossable abyss which we see filled with broken chains. He invites the dead from all ages to leave hades with him, over the abyss on the bridge he has built. In Christ, who has crossed and bridged the great chasm between heaven and hells, there is always hope.

Although every human being who will ever live and who ever will live has been saved through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, the Church will not say dogmatically that everyone will accept the Lord's generous gift.  Our undying belief in free will constrains us. But, at the same time, we are moved to see in Holy Scripture a cosmic vision, a mysterious potential we cannot begin to figure out. 

What can separate the human race from the love of Christ asks Paul in Romans.  Nothing, he replies. He tells in Ephesians that Christ, "the one who descended" has filled all things because he has "ascended far above all the heavens." He prays for the Ephesians that the Holy Spirit will awaken them through faith, "rooted and grounded in love," so that they might be able to comprehend "the width and length and depth and height - to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge" and be filled with the fullness of God. He ends this third chapter with these words, "Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be glory in the all generations forever and ever. Amen."  All things, dears ones, are possible with God.  His Word cannot return to him without accomplishing its purpose. Even death, we have learned, is no match for Divine Love.

When the little gods we believe in fall like all idols before the majesty of God's glory which is beyond all conception, our small ideas, our inadequate thoughts, our silly opinions and interpretations will also fall and crumble into dust. Divine mercy will shatter the prisons we have built for ourselves and others as it did the gates of hell itself. And we will be transformed completely. Then we shall know once and for all that "all things are possible for God." Faith that does not grow and change is dead. Faith that leaves our most cherished assumptions unchallenged is self-delusion.

Let us end with the full quote from Evagrius. I am grateful to Frank Schaeffer's new book PATIENCE WITH GOD for this.  "There was a time when evil did not exist, and there will be a time when it no longer exists; but there never was a time when virtue did not exist and there will never be a time when it does not exist. For the seeds of virtue are indestructible."  What brought Evagrius to this conclusion?  The Rich Man!  "And I am convinced by the rich man almost but not completely given over to every evil who was condemned to hell because of his evil, and who felt compassion for his brothers, for to have pity is a beautiful seed of virtue."

Love, as we see in the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, supersedes the Law, crushes the power of death and prevails over the hell itself.  When all else fails, three things remain, faith, hope and love.