Today’s Gospel challenges us in its soberness: We see one man who suffered in this life, saved, and another man, who had everything in this life, condemned. This image is such a challenge because we live in an age where many assume they’re good (by their own definition of what ‘good’ is) and, therefore, ‘automatically’ going to heaven. But this subjective understanding of Heaven just doesn’t square with the Gospel, which makes it clear that the Kingdom of Heaven means foremost this: life with and in God, participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity—what we call, ‘theosis’—and the bearing of the fruit of that theosis in how and for Whom we live out our earthly lives.
This fruit is manifested in how we live out our faith in witness and response to those around us. To be with God, you and I are admonished to desire that life above all else, to be rich toward God and others, and poor toward the distractions and temptations of the world, its power, hold, and callousness towards the needs of others, whether spiritual and/or physical.
God Himself is rich in love and mercy and He gives us opportunities to love and to serve to His glory and our deification. He gives us the Scriptures and the divine services to teach us, form us, in the mind of the Church, in the mind of the Kingdom. God feeds us with the sacramental life of His Kingdom even now as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, the Kingdom of Heaven.
The big question isn’t what God does for us, but rather, how do we each respond to that which He’s entrusted to us. Do we avail ourselves of these God-given means of our growth in divine grace, of opportunities to love, serve, and witness? Unused tools are of little use to us.
We can run the risk of taking God, and His love and mercy, for granted: we remember that we’ll all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ to give an account of how we’ve lived, and what our response has been to God’s gracious offer of life and love with Him. Some of the Fathers say that our judgment on that “Last Day” will be based on how we know God now, how we love God now, how we say “Yes” to God now in this life, day to day. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is an example of such judgment through self-examination, and so, it’s an opportunity for conviction, for growth, and for change.
The rich man treats Lazarus with scorn in this life. Even in the next life, he still sees Lazarus as merely his slave, existing solely for his need, and saying, “Send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” In this life, this man’s wealth was his god; he lives for his own selfish pleasure. He has‘knowledge’ of God, but he does not know God, does not love God as we see in his lack of concern or compassion for those around him. He’s not concerned about what God thinks about his actions. Meanwhile, we hear that Lazarus, “full of sores,” laid at his gate, and longed to eat the crumbs off the rich man’s table.
Lazarus dies and is taken up to God’s near presence, i.e. ‘the bosom of Abraham.’ The rich man also dies and is buried. Having been deprived of his needs in this life, Lazarus enjoys the heavenly banquet in the true and eternal life with God and His Saints. Lazarus is in eternal and perpetual memory before God. This is the basis for our prayers for our departed Orthodox brethren departed before us. We desire for them “Memory Eternal” before God who is Eternal Life. God knows Lazarus by name, just as He will remember the name of each of us, who have lived with the priority of the Kingdom of Heaven in this life. The rich man, on the other hand, having lived only for himself and his own self-pleasure in this life, is deprived of God’s near presence in eternal life. His name is not even remembered before God.
From God’s perspective, as St. John Chrysostom puts it, the rich man was already ‘buried’ in life by his “couches, rugs, furnishings, sweet oils, perfumes… wine, varieties of food, and flatterers” (see the comment in the Orthodox Study Bible, p. 1399) because these things surely were his ‘god’ and his ‘god’ is temporal—and so, it’s all buried with him.
It’s tempting to see this story from an “us versus them” perspective. Oh, I’m not like that rich man. But I encourage us to examine ourselves for a moment in light of the rich man just as we do in the Triodion period before Lent when we examine ourselves in light of the Pharisee. All of us have been given ‘riches’ of one kind or multiple kinds or another. All of us will be asked what we have done with those riches entrusted to us at Christ’s awesome Second Coming. All of us will be asked how we have demonstrated our love for God and those around us in need.
This parable is not a story condemning wealth, but rather an illustration of what happens if we allow our soul to become cold-hearted, selfish and vain-glorious toward God and our fellow man and become ‘poor’ or stingy towards God and those around us—whatever our means. Already, the rich man is withering and dying to God in this life.
To this extent, St. John asks, “Do you see how by the place, by the things that waste there (in the rich man’s house), he draws men off from this desire that is here, and rivets them to Heaven… For if you transfer your wealth there where neither rust or moth corrupts, nor thieves break through and steal, you will both expel this disease and establish your soul in the greatest abundance (Manley, The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, p.m. 472). And so, we’re reminded of Christ’s words to us elsewhere: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). So ask yourself, Am I longing for heaven? Is my treasure in Christ God and His unending Kingdom?
All of us need to be wary of this ‘disease,’ of wanting to have our ease, of using others, even God, for our own ends, of being cold-hearted toward God and others. We conquer this disease by keeping our ‘vigil lamps’ lit, by examining how and for Whom we’re living now, how we’re loving, serving, and giving. How much have we been willing to be Christ’s “light” and “salt” in this world, modeling the Gospel in word and deed? To this end, it can be helpful to periodically do an inventory of our riches—material and spiritual—to evaluate how we’re using them, whether for our own temporal use or for the building up of the Kingdom, that is, our life with God, our salvation, and that of those around us. This is the purpose of our pledge and commitment card, which gives us an annual opportunity to consider what we would offer back to God from the “first fruits” He’s so graciously entrusted to us of our time, talents, and treasure.
St. Cyril of Alexandria spurs us on in living first for God, saying, “do not consider your riches as belonging to yourselves alone; open wide your hand to those who are in need.” And St. Paul urges us to have our abundance supply another’s lack that their abundance—in another area of need—may also supply what we lack (paraphrased, II Cor. 8:14).
If we do strive to live in this way–as the Body of Christ, as the family of God—supplying what the church and each other lack without those gifts, we discover ‘riches’ we didn’t even know we had and grow in our understanding of God as our Heavenly Father who loves us and calls us to live as His sons and daughters. We help each other and those to whom we witness the faith by giving them an opportunity to work out their own salvation even as they give us an opportunity to work out ours by giving us an opportunity to witness to the truth of Christ.
And so, we come away from this parable reminded that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, that Christ is coming back again to judge the living and the dead and that God beckons even now to prepare and consider who and for Whom we live our earthly lives. May we love God and be sensitive to the needs of those around us—both to their physical and to their spiritual welfare. May we give a “first fruits” of ourselves to God’s glory and our deification, serving and loving God and our neighbor.