THE GOSPEL. S. Luke 16. 19
“And besides all this, between us and you
there is a great gulf fixed”
It is quite a story, a parable actually, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the rich man and the poor man, in which we are given, really, a picture of heaven and hell. “Behold, a door was opened in heaven”, we heard last week and we learned that “[we] must be born again”, born from above, thinking upwards, as it were, thinking into the mystery of divine love opened to view in the vision of God as the Holy and Blessed Trinity. And here and now, heaven and hell are before us in this parable. What is it all about?
It is simply about the reality of heaven and hell in our everyday lives, simply about the heaven of our care and love for one another, simply about the hell of our neglect and indifference to one another; simply about the worship or the non-worship of God. Hell is here and now in our neglect of God and one another. They go together.
You don’t want to hear this, I’m sure, but it is the direct and simple meaning of this parable. Heaven and Hell are states of life that have altogether to do with the worship of God and the love and care for one another that arises out of that love. The strongest kind of connection is made between honouring God and honouring one another. This challenges the mushy sentimentality of our maritime souls, the postures of self-righteousness and emotional attachment to one another but without placing one another in the presence of God, without any kind of real commitment to worship. The neglect of God and the neglect of one another go together. And yet, “a door was opened in heaven” and we are given to see the highest potentialities of our humanity in all of the truth of our diversities united and realized in the worship of God. We are called to act out of that vision.
And we can’t, of course, if we aren’t present where the vision is made known and celebrated from which we are being challenged to live what we have been given to see. You can’t love what you don’t know. Without knowing the love of God, you can’t love out of his love. We like to think that we can, but our loves are really all in a mess. We need to see the vision which sets our loves in order. Without it, I am sorry to say, our lives are really hell. We may be rich in the things of this world, but if we are not rich in the things of God, then are we most poor and miserable, empty and desolate. Hell, after all, is the absence of God in our lives.
There is a turn towards the practical with respect to our lives in faith that begins on this day. Having run through the creed from Advent through to Trinity Sunday, the creed now runs through us, as it were. We are to be what we believe. And how can we do that without being altogether serious about the praying and teaching life of the Church? Our indifference towards God signals too, an indifference towards one another, towards the Lazarus in our midst, the poor man at our feet. “Heaven and Hell”, as one of the desert fathers puts it, “are with our brother and our sister” and that is the lesson, really, of the parable of Dives and Lazarus. And we can’t be with them unless we are with God.
The strong Christian message, the one you don’t want to hear, is that there can be no true love and service of Lazarus without our love and service of God, a love and service which are rooted in the liturgy and the worship of the Church. We can, of course, empty that worship of its meaning by refusing to act in accord with what we have been given to see. But to think that we can simply “go and do good” without that is equally folly. After all, it is not always easy to know exactly just what we are to do about poverty and suffering, and the many, many hardships that belong to the human experience.
But, too often, and especially in our contemporary culture, we think there are practical solutions – just throw money, devise this or that social programme - for each and every problem. There may or there may not be some good that comes out of such things but they are always limited and always tainted by the various agendas both our own and those of others. If we are honest about ourselves, we will acknowledge this truth. We often give to charities, I’m sure, just so that they won’t bother us any more. And in so doing, perhaps, we ease our own consciences; we excuse ourselves from the feelings of guilt; we justify ourselves. And that is the problem. Our acts of charity end up really being about ourselves. And what we have actually done is to step over Lazarus once again. There is this strange and terrifying paradox; our acts of charity become our way of ignoring the intractable reality of human suffering.
We need, I think, to be able to accept the limits of human charity without despairing of the divine love which seeks the perfection of all our souls. We need to be encouraged to greater acts of generosity and charity knowing full well the limits and short-comings and failures in human terms of our charity but without falling into cynicism or complacency, without despairing of the need to act, on the one hand, and without presuming that we have the answers, on the other hand. Our despair and our presumption are actually the hell that belongs to our neglect of the things of heaven. It comes from not fully facing and accepting the reality of human suffering in which we are all implicated.
In our idolatry of the practical, we think that the most important thing is what we do. “What must we do?” Tolstoy asked with great anguish with respect to the world of human suffering. And, of course, we must do something, always. But while it is important to act, the most important thing is to be present in the midst of the sufferings of the world, to be present purposefully and prayerfully, to be present in the struggles of discernment about the good, about what must and can be done. It means to know ourselves as among the poor of the world, too. “There go I but for the grace of God” and that because of the grace of God I must act towards those in need. It means to seek the face of Christ in those whom we serve. God, after all, is not absent from the sufferings of humanity.
The story of Christ is about the divine presence in the midst of all of the horrors of suffering and death. He is no stranger to “the valley of the shadow of death.” But we so often are, especially when we ignore Lazarus at our feet.
The meaning of this parable, it seems to me, is illustrated by Christ’s action at the Last Supper when he kneels and washes the disciples’ feet. It is an act of love, the deep love of God who enters into the world in order to open out to us the realities of heaven. Such realities are not found in our neglect of one another but in our seeking the good of each other, a good that can only be discerned in the mystery of God. Our liturgy and our worship, so often so sadly neglected, so often so indifferently observed, make present the reality of the mystery of God which embraces and dignifies our human lives. Without our prayerful attention to the mystery of God opened to view in the witness of the scriptures proclaimed and the sacraments celebrated, our lives are not heavenly. In neglecting God, we neglect one another, the Lazarus who is our brother at our gate.
“There is a great gulf fixed”, says Abraham in this gospel parable which Jesus tells, between heaven and hell. It is a powerful and no doubt disturbing image and yet how true. The epistle helps us to understand its teaching. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” God, we cannot see, our brother in need we can see, but only in responding to what we have been given to see about the love of God in the sacrifice of Christ can we begin to love one another. Then, and only then, “God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” And we can only act out of the love of God, “because he first loved us”. And when we don’t, like Dives in the parable, we create “the great gulf fixed” between where we are and where God is, between Heaven and Hell. Hell really is of our own making; Heaven is what God is. When we act out of the heaven which we have been given to see, then the love of God is at work in us. It is heaven now for “God is love and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”
This is the recurring refrain of the Trinity season. We ignore it at our peril.
“And besides all this, between us and you
there is a great gulf fixed.”