This morning’s Gospel reading is one of stark contradictions. While the parable Jesus teaches deals with wealth and poverty, Jesus does not teach us that it is sinful to be wealthy (Abraham was wealthy), neither does He teach that it is a virtue to be poor. Our worldly state, whether prosperous or miserable, is no indication of our condition in the eyes of God.
There are some very interesting facts some of you may not know about this particular parable. For example, Ancient Hebrew tombs often carry the inscription, “Asleep in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The phrase expresses the reality that exists beyond the grave. As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we believe that that when a person dies life does not end, but is merely changed. If we have lived our lives in faithfulness to God’s will and commandments and have done all that Jesus has instructed us to do, then we shall go to heaven. If not, then we shall find ourselves in hell.
God says to us “As I find you, I will judge you” (Ezekiel 33:20). Let us take this exact moment as an example. If Christ were to appear before you right now, how would He find you? Will He find you in repentance? Will He meet you in confession? Will He hear you say, “I have sinned against heaven and before You”? (Luke 15:18). When He approaches you, will He find tears of genuine repentance and self-reproach in your eyes? Take this to heart, my children, for it is in one moment that God makes His decision and you will then know your fate.
If you have lived a righteous life, then the doors of eternal blessedness and joy will open to you and Jesus will be waiting to embrace you and take you to Himself. However, if He finds you otherwise, then the eyes of your soul will open and you will see what you have lost. But what will it matter at that point? You will never be able to regain what you lost, for you had not one but many, many chances to obtain what God so lovingly and generously promised to you.
In His parables, Jesus uses terminology familiar to His audience. And He also paints a dramatic scene of contrasts: riches and poverty, heaven and hell, compassion and indifference, inclusion and exclusion, faith and unbelief. Those who are hard of heart will never understand the lessons Jesus teaches in His parables nor the real importance of the contrasts He creates. They see only the immediate or surface meaning of the contrasts but they cannot see the deeper meaning; they cannot see what really lies below the surface, which is the actual substance of the contrasts. What a great mystery this is!
The rich man in this morning’s Gospel reading ends up in hell, and for the purpose of the message which Jesus desires to impart, it is a hell in which the condemned can see heaven. The rich man calls to Father Abraham to send Lazarus to help relieve his suffering. His whole comfortable life he never had to ask anybody for anything, until now. He then asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his family to mend their ways, so they will not end up like him, in fiery torment. But there was nothing that could be done at that point. The opportunity, rather many opportunities, he had allowed to pass by without notice.
When our Lord comes at the appointed time to judge the world; when the heavens are rolled up like a piece of paper and the earth, which has been utterly defiled and misused by those living upon it, is renewed; when the sun, the moon and the stars go dark and fall from the sky like the autumn leaves from a tree; when the trumpet resounds throughout the entire world, and the scattered dry bones are reconstructed and flesh and life come upon them once again, when the hosts of angels will gather to worship and honor the fearful and awesome Judge who is to come; when the clouds lift upon themselves the holy and righteous saints to meet the Lord of Glory, then those who have remained below and see all these things will weep most bitterly and beat their breasts in despair, reflecting that they wasted their precious time here in pleasures, in drunkenness and debauchery, in acquiring wealth which they selfishly horded unto themselves, in avarice, and in every sin, which now condemns them to their most pitiable and lamentable fate. Will they not seek to run to the poor, to the sick and the dying, to the hungry and the naked to comfort them and console them so that they also might hear the sweet voice of the Lord saying to them, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave Me food…I was naked and you clothed Me…”? (Matthew 25:34-36) But once we die, there are no more chances to do these things.
How many times a week, how many times during the course of a day even, do we have chances and opportunities to do what is proper and right before the Lord? Like the rich man, we ignore the things of God because we want a good life; we want to enjoy life to the fullest while we have it. But that is precisely the problem. We spend almost all of our time making sure we are happy and content and that we acquire for ourselves all that life has to offer. But when death comes to us, it is an entirely different story. In the blink of an eye, everything changes. Once we die, the ultimate reality becomes the ultimate reality. If we live our lives like that of the rich man, there is no chance for salvation. We cannot change or undo what we did during our lifetime. But there is hope. We still can make the necessary changes to our life now so that we do not end up like the rich man.
We come into this world crying, my children, and we pass the greater portion of our lives struggling, we pass through periods of weeping, and sorrows, and disappointment, and we leave the world oftentimes in tears and pain. When death comes upon us all our dreams and plans vanish like fog in the warm morning sun, and we awaken into the reality of the true life.
Many of us go through life not realizing just how fast this vain life flies by – the years pass, the months roll by, the hours disappear, the minutes slip by imperceptibly, and then, without any warning, the telegram comes "Put your house in order, for you will die; you will live no longer!” (Isaiah 38:1).
Then the deception is uncovered, and a person who has died realizes what an important role the world has played for him or her. For the ones who did not live as they should have lived, in faithful obedience to God’s laws and the instructions and example of Jesus, there is regret and distress; they yearn for the chance to live again but differently; they lament that they cannot repent and receive the Holy Mysteries of the Church as they should have. When they were alive, time was at their disposal for years; they, however, wasted it in frivolous pursuits and in shameful desires and passions.
This morning’s parable does not tell us much about the afterlife, but it tells us plenty about the human heart. Abraham sadly replies that “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This morning’s parable tells us plenty about the nature of unbelief.
There is a point of irony in this story that very often goes unnoticed by many people. Right before His own death, Jesus performed a miracle involving another Lazarus; not a beggar, but the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany. Lazarus was dead and Jesus wept. But Jesus did not weep just for His friend, whom He deeply loved and cared about, but because He knew that His miracle of bringing Lazarus back from the dead would not change a thing. The people would still cry out “Crucify Him! Crucify Him,” rejecting their Messiah. Lazarus was raised from the dead, but the hearts of many who witnessed this miracle were still hardened. In fact, some sought to kill Lazarus, to put to death this obvious, divine miracle.
The rich man of the parable urges Abraham, “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” A real-life Lazarus did, but to no avail. Many of those who witnessed Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus were astonished but remained unmoved in their hearts. Some were converted but others were not.
Jesus was rejected by many in spite of the miracles He performed. Miracles can attest to the authority of a prophet but they do not always produce conversions. It takes faith to convert and many did not have the requisite faith and of those who did convert, they often went by the wayside because their faith was lukewarm. It was not genuine; it was not born of the Spirit.
Throughout the centuries since Christ walked the earth there have been scores of skeptics; people who deny anything and everything supernatural. I recently had a conversation with an individual who reminded of Voltaire, the French philosopher. Voltaire once declared that within one hundred years Christianity would be dead. Within a hundred years Voltaire was dead, and his house had become a Bible publishing company. The person with whom I had the conversation did not believe that Christianity would last much longer and that the Church was definitely on its last legs. But people have been saying the same thing for centuries.
From our very beginnings, skeptics have always raised objections to Christianity and to the Church, but they are gone and Christianity and the Church still remain. Whatever objections or assaults the skeptics have expressed or aimed at the Church, She and the Orthodox Catholic Faith, still remain. Though many try, even to this very day, to topple the Church and undermine the faith, they cannot overthrow or destroy them. Why? Because Christ Himself promised that the gates of Hell would never prevail against the Church.
Skeptics are people who are spiritually lost. The rich man in this morning's Gospel was spiritually lost, not because he was rich, but because he did not listen to the teaching of the Law and the Prophets. He did not seek God but, rather, spent his life in pursuit of worldly pleasures and wealth. These, to him, were more important than seeking the things of God. Can any of us here this morning honestly say that we seek first the things of God in our life? If we are totally honest, all of us here, myself included, must admit that we spend a greater portion of our time seeking the things of the world than those of God.
What happened to the rich man can easily happen to us. In fact, the fate of the rich man will actually be our fate if we do not change our ways, and change them now. None of us here this morning knows exactly when we will be called to meet our Creator. The call may come to anyone of us as soon as we walk out the door of this cathedral or soon after we get home from church. Are we prepared? Is our life in order? Have we lived a life in Christ, faithful to His commands and teachings? Or have we just gone about doing our own thing?
My children, time is a very precious gift. It is not something we should take for granted or abuse. Knowing this, however, does not mean that we should try to cram as much enjoyment and pleasure into what time we have left as possible. Rather, we should concentrate on making our lives fruitful in the sight of God that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.
We do not want to end up like the rich man. Think back to the Gospel reading for a minute. However important the rich man thought himself to be, he is not mentioned by name. Why? Because his name could that of any one of us here this morning whose life resembles his. The rich man was an individual with fancy clothing and plenty of food, and a house big enough to have its own gate. Other people existed only to serve and pamper him. Even in the place of torment he imagined that Lazarus should be sent to serve him, cooling his tongue or carrying messages to his brothers.
Lazarus, on the other hand, was a poor man. Lazarus’s poverty was so great that he had to sit begging at the rich man’s gate. Even bread, the most basic of food staples, was not readily available to him, and he would gladly have eaten the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus was also sick, no doubt from malnutrition and the inability to maintain his health. Quite possibly the poor man could not even afford to pay for a doctor. The only compassion he received was from the dogs who came to lick his wounds. The only dignity that remained to poor Lazarus in this life is that he is given a name. The Lord knows His own people, and calls each of them by name.
If the Lord knows all His people by name does it not stand to reason then that He knew also the name of the rich man? I am sure that Jesus did, in fact, know the name of the rich man, but was the rich man one of the Lord’s own people? From the standpoint of being one of God’s children, he certainly was one of the Lord’s people, but did the rich man know the Lord? In this sense, he was not one of the Lord’s people. The rich man did not know the Lord. He knew only himself and was concerned only with those things that pertained to himself.
So Lazarus died. We hear no mention of a funeral or of anyone mourning his death but we do hear of the angels carrying his soul to the bosom of Abraham. By this we may conclude that Lazarus was truly one of God’s children, a true son of Abraham living by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Even the repentant thief on the a cross was told by Jesus, “Today, you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
At death, the souls of believers enter into heaven. Their bodies remain in the earth. The Apostle Paul speaks of this state for Christian believers as being “asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Thus they remain until the return of Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgment.
The rich man also died. In this at least the rich man and Lazarus were equal. Death is the great equalizer. “Death comes to all men and after death, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The rich man was buried. In his case we do hear of a funeral. We can imagine that there would have been hired mourners, as was customary in Jewish culture at the time. There may have been public orations from relatives and friends, and from flatterers who hoped to benefit from his legacy. This is the way of the world.
We do not, however, hear of angels bearing his soul to heaven, but rather of his immediate torment in hell. We may conclude from this that, whatever his upbringing or religious affiliation in this life, the rich man had not been a godly man, a true son of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. While Lazarus was ushered immediately into Paradise, the rich man had no place there. The rich man was sent to hell. This is the fate of the wicked, and of all that forget God.
The difference in judgment between the rich man and Lazarus was not simply a reversal of their social status, but a fair judgment on how they used their opportunities in this life. Not all rich people go to hell, nor do all poor people go to heaven. It all depends on how one lives one’s life.
It was not Lazarus’s poverty which guaranteed him admittance into heaven, but how he lived his life before God. He begged, but he did not steal. Jesus makes no mention of the man bemoaning his difficulties, or blaming others, or entering into political agitation, or condemning the rich man’s apparent heartlessness. That is all for God to judge.
Despite his poverty, Lazarus had learned contentment, as many do. More than this, he had learned the fear of the Lord, otherwise he would not have been received into heaven. “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure with trouble” (Proverbs 15:16).
Likewise, the rich man was not condemned to hell because he was rich, but rather for his missed chances. He had every opportunity to show compassion to the poor man at his gate, but does not appear to have done so. Surely he knew the Hebrew Scriptures: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).
The separation between the rich man and Lazarus was full and final. When we die, we go to our respective places, either to heaven or to hell. We are judged on the lives we have lived, and on how we have used our opportunities to repent of a bad way of life by turning to our Lord Jesus Christ. We make our decision in this life, because after death there is no more opportunity for repentance. “If a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there shall it lie.” (Ecclesiastes 11:3)
The dead rich man could see Abraham afar off, and could see Lazarus in his bosom. The rich man prayed to Abraham who he thought he knew, calling him father. He did not pray to the God of Abraham, however, whom he had evidently never known. He asked Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him in that dreadful place, to bring water to relieve him from the awful flame. The answer of Abraham only confirmed the totality of the separation between the godly and the unrighteous. The rich man had all his good things on earth, and Lazarus was receiving all his good things in heaven. And there is the great gulf that is fixed between the two, a gulf so great that none can pass between heaven and hell.
Next the rich man asked that Lazarus be sent back to earth to warn the rich man’s five brothers of the reality of hell’s torments. But Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets, and if they do not listen to them why would they listen to one who was sent back from the dead?
Are not many of us like the rich man? Do we listen to the Church when She speaks to us about the things of God? Do we listen attentively to and believe Her bishops and priests when they instruct us in the ways and things of God? How many of us really know the Lord Jesus and listen to Him when He speaks to us through His Church?
In the New Testament we do read of one who arose from the dead and who, before His own death, did warn us of hell, and who, by His own death makes a way of access for repentant sinners to enter Paradise. Jesus Christ is the One of whom I speak. Rich or poor, if we do not take the chances we are given with each new day to repent of our sins and change the way we live, our fate will be like that of the rich man. The fault then is ours; our fate is in our own hands.
What is it to be, my children? Will you choose the fate of the rich man or the life of Lazarus? The choice is yours. But know this, time is running out for you, for me, for all of us. We cannot think that we have a lot of time to decide for no one knows when our time to die will come. And when that time does finally arrive, it will be too late for repentance and change.