The Perspective and Power of Compassion
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 3, 2013
Luke 16:19-31 (5th Sunday of Luke)
Throughout my years as a priest, counselor, confessor, etc. there has been a constant theme. People want to have more peace in their lives; they want to live better lives. They want healthy relationships and happy marriages and families. They want to have a deep connection not only with God and others, but with themselves. Religious people use religious terminology to describe this: salvation, sanctification, deification. Abundant life. Rich relationships. And a dynamic connection with God.
But whatever words you use to describe it the meaning is the same. I like theological terms, but most people don’t speak the language, so we have to communicate the message in words people can understand. All in all, it really boils down to one simple thing: people want to love and to be loved.
I very much agree with David Foster Wallace’s assertion that all big T truth has to do with life before death. And since I believe that the Gospel is the biggest T truth there is, I do not think the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is about life after death at all except on the most superficial level. And, as you probably know, I do not like to stay at that level. It is about life before death. About the choices we make and need to make so that we can have an abundant life…before death.
The Rich Man lives the life of a consumer, concerned only for himself (and maybe his family, we don’t know). He ignores the poor man lying at his door and this alerts us to the fact that he is not interested in participating in and developing his natural God-given capacity for compassion (the godliest characteristic of all) and since he is not interested in it in this life he will be unable to receive it in the next. Not that God does not want to shower him with it, but that he does not want and feels he has no need for such favors. Compassion is a deep-cleansing, powerful healer, the godliest and most heavenly solution to our suffering. There is no one that does not need its touch, especially those who feel they do not need it.
Since heaven is full of compassion the Rich Man would definitely not be happy there and God compassionately allows him to be in hell, but he discovers that he is unhappy there as well, because all that terrible hellish fire is is really God’s love too, since that is all there is in this life and in the next one, in heaven and in hell. The Rich Man cannot be happy anywhere because compassion is the ground of existence. Love is the common denominator of everything. The chasm in the parable represents the Rich Man’s choice not to see the truth and to resist it for eternity if such a thing is possible and God will not abrogate that decision because he has given to all of us the free will to choose to love or not to love which is the same as choosing whether to be loved or not to be loved.
Both sides of the same coin. It is all, once again, about perspective, about how we choose to see reality. Here’s a story.
There was this monastery in, let’s say, Greece (for the heck of it). This monastery was in trouble.
The monks were aging. New monks were not coming in. And, most of all, the monks did not like each other. They were always bickering and fighting, complaining about and criticizing one another.
The abbot got fed up and went to seek advice form a hermit that lived further up the mountain.
When he got there and old the hermit his story, the hermit said, “Please come back in a week and I will tell you what I think.” The abbot left and came back in a week. On his return the hermit said, “I have been told that Christ has returned to earth and is living as a monk at your monastery!” The abbot was shocked. He went back and told the monks what he learned and from that day on the monastery started to revive. You see, since nobody knew which one was Christ, they all started to treat each other as if they were Christ and, all of a sudden, things got better and the monastery prospered.
I don’t know much about the afterlife. About “bosoms of Abraham” and lakes of fire and uncrossable chasms, but I do know this: a change in perspective can turn an obstacle into a miracle. Sometimes all it takes is a movement towards love, compassion and understanding to will change everything for the better. It can even turn hell into heaven. On a personal note when people ask me why this parish is the way it is, this story will be what I tell them. We have made a choice to love one another as the Lord has commanded us to do. The rest is up to Him.