On Compassion


Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, November 1, 2020

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is always calling us to repentance by reminding us that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, to turn from our ways and live. “How should we live”, we cry. His answer is to follow his example and live lives of compassion. Today’s parable is planted firmly within this tradition.

In this beautiful, challenging, and sometimes horrifying gospel, we meet three characters: An unnamed rich man, the poor Lazarus, the only person in any parable who is actually named, and Father Abraham. The parable is mostly a dialogue between the rich man and the heavenly Patriarch, Abraham. The rich man is unnamed because he is all of us. So, this parable could be read as a conversation between us and God. So what can we learn from it?

The first lesson is to be aware of God’s great mercy, even though that is not immediately apparent. At the outset, it looks like God is being unfair by setting up a boundary or chasm between heaven and hell and causing one character to fry away in hell. But let’s look at that a little more closely.

I can certainly relate to the Rich Man. Often my internal state does not match my surroundings.

For example, when I was in Thessaloniki, beggars would gather at the door of churches begging for money. Often at first, I would give them a few coins. Then eventually, I would recognize them and realize that this was actually their business, to beg for money. I would then take the coins and buy a candle for them in prayer. Eventually however, I would arrive in my dark robes, and waive them away as I made my way toward the service. Even this morning I encountered a homeless man with blood on his face, having difficulty pulling his coat on. I asked him if he was OK, but I didn’t help him with his coat. Was I compassionate enough? What is the difference between the Rich Man and myself? The only real difference is an awareness that I am utterly dependent on the mercy of God, and that helps me turn in compassion toward people like Lazarus who is the ultimate image of utter pity. He is pitiful in his essence. In life he was too hungry to refuse the crumbs that fall from the master’s table, like the woman with the flow of blood. He is covered in sores, eating crumbs. He is too weak to drive off the scavenger dogs who lick his wounds. But his poverty was turned to repentance. Lazarus was never embittered by his miserable life. He never criticized the rich man. He did not blame God for his situation. And that is critical. Those of us who live without bitterness with an open heart for goodness will receive the reward of a clear and easy conscience. Lazarus, seemingly cursed in life, is ultimately comforted, relaxing in refreshment beside a verdant pool of water.  How do we get there? Lazarus by his example, clearly teaches us about the need for compassion.

The poor man Lazarus has a name and he is known. Lazarus means, “he who has been helped.” And in spite of his suffering, Lazarus was named and he was seen. His name was written in the Book of Life, and he was known and carried by the angels to Abraham in Heaven.

The name of the Rich Man, on the other hand, is never spoken. He is richly clothed and fed like most of us are; He received his reward, many good things, things we treasure as well: good food, good clothes. He was blessed, and of course his wealth was hard to resist.  And once he chose to indulge in the pleasures of life, he produced for himself a place empty of good inside, because he was filled only with himself. Christ objects not to his riches exactly, but to his impiety, his infidelity, his pride and cruelty to another human being.  The rich man could not say “I didn’t notice Lazarus.” He clearly saw him lying there, but was utterly unmerciful. He was without sympathy or compassion, and his self-absorption prevented him from seeing another human being as a person, not an object to be stepped over. Lazarus is not useful to him so he ignores him.

In Hades the situation is reversed. The Rich Man is now tormented in flame, and he begs for a drop of water. I have often heard that the Love of God, which is everywhere can be experienced as a flame for those unwilling to accept His Love. The problem is not God’s lack of love. The fire is self-hatred, the other side and the result of self-love, and a manifested lack of faith. The Rich Man still feels entitled to be served. He commands Abraham to “send Lazarus to comfort me. Dip your finger, cool my tongue, and be quick about it” you can imagine he commands. It is a very vivid description of hell, to see the Rich Man burning there, his soul suffering and experiencing pain. Where is his hope? Where is his compassion? Instead he only experiences self-love and envy.

The Rich Man has no taste or aptitude for Heaven. Like the wonderful story by C.S. Lewis, the Great Divorce, whose characters were in heaven but they couldn’t recognize it. They could only see themselves.  The Rich Man stands jealous of Lazarus’ possession of heaven, and He wants Lazarus to come serve him in hell. It’s unbearable for him to see happy someone he held in contempt. This is his internal state. 

And now the Rich Man’s judgement is fixed. A chasm has been fixed between him and Lazarus. A great gulf has been fixed between here and there, and cannot be crossed. And this gulf is created by opposite choices in life. One chose to be self-absorbed; the other chose to live without bitterness. The Rich Man lived without compassion and so he dug a deep chasm between himself and other human beings, and thus he separated himself from God. Father Anthony said just last week, there is no place where God is not. God’s love is everywhere filling everything, but we can choose not to receive it.

The Rich Man claims his brothers will repent if properly admonished, should someone appear to them from the dead. He wants to warn his brothers. Again, he commands, “Send Lazarus down here. Please, have mercy on my brothers,” he cries! If someone rises from the dead and appears to them, they will surely listen. Abraham says “no.” He replies that if they did not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded even if someone should rise from the dead (obviously referring to the resurrection of Jesus).

We could imagine the Rich Man in his torment casting himself upon God to be freed from his sin. And this story might have had another ending.

This is how our story can end. At one point in the parable Abraham calls the Rich Man, “my son, remember.” Remembrance doesn’t redeem in itself. But remembering can reveal the emptiness of our lives, and lead us to pray in faithfulness, confession, and repentance.

We can make friends by feeding the hungry and giving food to the thirsty.

And this is where the parable calls us: in faith and in prayer, to confess and repent from our sins, to turn from our selfish ways and to live in sympathy and compassion for each other. The greatest commandment is to Love the Lord our God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Let’s try to do that.