The Chasm We Fix In Our Hearts


Sermon preached on Sunday, October 30, 2022 by Dn. James Wilcox

Luke 16:19-31; Gal. 1:11-19. Oct. 30th, 2022

Today, in Luke’s Gospel we arrive at one of the most commonly misunderstood passages in all of Scripture. (Probably). For most of us have likely encountered this text and thought of it as definitive Scriptural proof for the existence of hell as a place of burning sulfur, where human beings are tortured for eternity after they die, either for their disobedience, or their refusal to believe in God. It’s a concept that is certainly fitting for this time of year seeing that tomorrow is Halloween, but in truth this specific image of hell has been shaped more by Dante’s Inferno than anything having to do with Orthodox teaching on the topic. This is to say that the Church from its earliest times has never believed in hell as a place of eternal.conscious.torment. The passage itself doesn’t even mention this specific view of hell to begin with, but speaks only of Hades, which in ancient Jewish thought is simply the place of the dead. But to truly believe in that infernal concept of hell we’re so often told is true, it requires us to first believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth from the outset, then created human beings out of divine love, while also fashioning a pit of burning sulfur and flame to torment those same humans who do not love him back. In human terms this is the image of an abusive parent. Why, then, do we somehow assume this to be “good theology” when we approach the topic from a spiritual perspective?

Suffice it to say that this is NOT the image of the Father that Jesus gives to us in the Gospels. A god who demands divine retribution for sins because He is offended by them is the image of an unstable and weak god, but not the God revealed through Jesus Christ. Of this very idea St Isaac the Syrian notes the following. He states,

"If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth ... with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly – such a person thinks in an unspeakable blasphemous way about God because of his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion... Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passions." [1]

And having heard that statement from St Isaac, I think it’s important that we set aside this particular view of hell before we look at the remainder of this passage. Because there is another point in the parable that I think is pertinent. And I find this point to be one of the most startling aspects of the entire story, if I’m being honest. The point I’m referring to is in reference to the “chasm” we read about, which has been “fixed” between Lazarus and the Rich Man. Here again, I think we have a tendency to perceive this “chasm” as an attribute of hell, or certain Scriptural proof of the final condition in which one suffers forever in burning agony, as seen in the depiction of the Rich Man. But we can dispel this notion, again, simply by looking at the passage to see that both Lazarus and the Rich Man can see one another. The Rich Man is also able to communicate with a third person in this story — Abraham — who was also once alive and has likewise died and come into region of Hades. This is to say that Lazarus, the Rich Man, and Abraham are all in the same location. Yet, only one of them is experiencing pain. And perhaps we are left to wonder why? Why is it one of them is in pain while others are enjoying comfort, and how does this all happen in the same space?

If we take a moment to think about it, spaces like this already exist here on Earth. An energy source like the Sun, for instance, can cause both comfort and pain for individuals located in the same region. A stark example of this came to pass in 2010 when a group of 33 miners were trapped half a mile underground for nearly 70 days in a remote region of Chile. When they were finally rescued, they were brought to the surface. And if you go back and watch the video footage you’ll notice that all the miners needed to wear sunglasses as they were being brought back up to the surface. This is because the light from the sun was too painful for their eyes to behold — they had known nothing but darkness for 70 straight days. Meanwhile, the families of those miners who were awaiting their arrival on the surface, had no need of sunglasses because all of their time had been spent in the light of the sun. And they were accustomed to this light. This is to say that there are two different groups of people in this same location experiencing both comfort, and discomfort, both deriving from from the same energy source. And we should note, that it is not the fault of that energy source for the pleasure or the displeasure each person is experiencing. And just so… it is no different for Lazarus and the Rich Man in today’s parable. Both of them have died, and both of them in the afterlife are in the presence of God who emanates pure uncreated divine love — this is the energy source they both experience. And it is within this energy of divine love that one of them experiences comfort, and other experiences pain.

But what is really at the root of the Rich Man’s pain in this case? If we turn back to the story, we read that the Rich Man had not only flaunted his riches by dressing elegantly in fine purple (the color of royalty), but he hoarded his wealth, and feasted sumptuously (something very few had the privilege to do in antiquity) all while ignoring the plight of a poor man in his midst. But he didn’t merely ignore him, he allowed him to exist right outside his own door — dogs licking his sores — without lifting a finger to help him, all the while believing there was nothing wrong in his doing so. He believed that he was right — that he was justified in his lofty position — and he needed everyone else to see just how great he believed himself to be.

So if we wonder what the “chasm” is that has been “fixed” in this story, to which neither can cross, it is the condition of their hearts. 

The Rich Man embraced his egotistical pride, while refusing to embrace the love of God as revealed in the image of God present in the outcast of this parable — of which our Lord tells us elsewhere “as you’ve done it to one of the least of these my brethren, so you did it unto me.” For a person to reject the love of God as it exists in the other, is to cast ourselves into darkness, such that the true love of God when it is revealed can only be experienced as bitter anguish. St Isaac the Syrian, again, says it best when he states that the power of God’s love works in two ways:

“…it torments those who have played the fool” he states, “…but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties… this is the torment of [Hell]: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability." [2]

And here is why I find this idea of the fixed chasm so startling. We live in a time where antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and hatred toward LGBTQ persons has become increasingly normalized in the socio-political climate of America. And I’ve noticed that once one of these ideas sets into a person’s mindset — into their heart! — it is extremely difficult to share any fact that might otherwise demonstrate the error of such reasoning. Not even if someone were to rise from the dead to tell them so. 

America has become the Rich Man of this parable. And whatever each of us thinks about those particular social issues I just mentioned… well… if our positions on these matters is formed more by our political loyalties, than it is to the way of Jesus Christ — that is in seeing the image of God present in the refugee; as abiding within that gay or trans person you may have been taught to reject; or within any other underrepresented person who doesn’t look like you, or behave the way you want them to — you may have already fixed a chasm within your heart. Insofar as we firmly stand against the “other” we refuse the love and light of God that already embraces all of humanity.

“If we cannot respond to our neighbor in need,” writes Father John Behr, “then the very glory and splendor of Christ when he returns will also be too much for us; for it is the same Christ in each case, even if we do not recognize him.” [3]


[1] Isaac the Syrian, “The Second Part.” 39, 2.

[2] Ibid., Isaac the Syrian, “The Second Part.”

[3] John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, 24.