Most of us have heard of C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and one of the most creative and insightful Christian authors of the twentieth century. In one of Lewis’s books, The Great Divorce, he describes a fictional visit to heaven by the souls of various people from hell. They then have the opportunity to turn away from the sins that led them to hell in the first place. Not all take advantage of this second chance, however, because some were shaped to the core of their being by ways of thinking and acting that turned them away from God, other people, and their own true selves. Their damnation was not the result of an arbitrary judgment; instead, it was a reflection of the reality of who they had become by their own choices.
The rich man in today’s gospel text reminds me of those poor souls in The Great Divorce, for his habit of indulging himself and totally disregarding a miserable beggar on his door step shaped him so decisively. He wore only outrageously expensive clothes and had a great feast every day. He must have known about the poor beggar Lazarus. He probably stepped over or around him every time he went in or out of his house. Here was a desperately poor man, lying on the ground, whose only comfort was the stray dogs who would lick his open sores. All that Lazarus wanted were the crumbs that fell from the man’s table, you might say his garbage. But the rich man was so greedy and thoughtless that he apparently denied him even that. Our Lord is quite clear about what such a life does to human beings. This man showed no mercy; compassion and love had no place in his life. Consequently, he cut himself off from the mercy, compassion, and love of God.
His eternal suffering shows the reality of what it means to refuse to respond to our calling to live as those created in God’s image and likeness. This man would not be like God in any way. He showed what he thought of God by treating his neighbor, surely one of “the least of these” who also bore the divine image and likeness, literally like trash. And when he called for mercy from Father Abraham, he made no confession and did no repentance. He cared only for himself and his brothers, and obviously had no concern for obeying Moses and prophets who had made clear the obligation of the Jews to care for the poor. Like the sick souls described in The Great Divorce, this man would surely run in terror from the presence of an infinitely righteous God. As Lewis suggested, perhaps we may think of the gates of hell as being locked on the inside.
As we say in the prayers of the Church, we will all need mercy before the judgment seat of Christ. We err, however, if we think of the Lord’s mercy as being available only in some arbitrary way at some point in eternity. For we encounter Him every day in our neighbors, especially the poor, wretched, and inconvenient: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. We participate in His mercy by showing mercy to them. The rich man in the parable shaped himself decisively in unholy ways by his behavior; in contrast, we may shape ourselves decisively in holy ways by our behavior. We never earn God’s mercy, but we will ultimately make offerings of our lives to God or to something else. We will either worship and serve Him or ourselves. Perhaps the Lord’s eternal judgment will be more a confirmation of who we have become than a shocking decree from out of the blue.
God knows our hearts and we can hide nothing from Him, either today or at any point in the future. Our faith as Orthodox Christians goes to the heart, to the depths of who we are, but also reminds us that we are always in relationship with other people who are also the children of God. We encounter Him in them. Who we are in relation to Jesus Christ is shown each day of our lives in how we treat others, especially those who need our help, attention, and friendship, as well as our enemies. A Christianity that ignores “the least of these” is not worthy of the name. Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. We bring judgment upon ourselves whenever we treat our neighbors, no matter who they are or how they have offended us, in ways that do not manifest the divine love and compassion.
No, the point is not that the rich will be damned and the poor will be saved. Instead, it is that there are strong and deep temptations associated with focusing on ourselves, especially our wealth, possessions, and success in this world. For if we love ourselves, our pleasures, and our status more than God and neighbor, no matter how much or little we have, we have already shut ourselves out of the kingdom. The name Lazarus means “One who has been helped,” and those whose miserable life circumstances do not encourage them to trust in money, power, or success are in a good position to learn that their help is in the Lord, in His mercy and love.
The rich man never learned that lesson, however. Quite different from this selfish man are the saints we commemorated on Friday, the Holy Unmercenary Healers Cosmas and Damian. They used the money they inherited from their parents to provide medical care without charge to the sick and needy. God worked many miracles through them, for they became channels of the Lord’s mercy and love to those with whom the Lord identified Himself: the sick, the weak, the stranger, “the least of these my brethren.”
St. Paul’s famous words about love to 1 Corinthians 13 were lived out by these great saints. We remember them precisely because of their love. The Lord said that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. And what greater sign of love is there than patiently and selflessly to ease the pain of others, to lighten their burdens, to heal their bodies, and restore them to health. No, these men did not take credit for their work or think that they healed by their own power. Instead, their lives were transformed by the healing energies of the Holy Spirit; thereby they became channels of God’s mercy to suffering, desperate people.
Saints Cosmas and Damian were completely different from the rich man who disregarded Lazarus. They would have provided him their best care free of charge and done everything possible to nurse him back to health. Their selfless love for Lazarus would have been an icon of the Kingdom of God in which those who wait humbly upon the Lord will not be disappointed. No wonder they are great saints of the Church.
But we have to go beyond merely praising the memory of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. We must venerate them not only with our words, but also with our deeds; namely, by following in their footsteps for the Lazaruses of our world and of our lives. No, we are not all called to become physicians or to give everything away to the poor; we ourselves may face illness and need. Nonetheless, we are all called to live out the selfless love that Jesus Christ has brought to the world, the love that is patient and kind and free of envy; that rejoices in the truth and endures all things for the salvation of the world. That kind of love never fails, for it has already conquered death through our Lord’s crucifixion and glorious resurrection.
Such love is not a feeling, an emotion, or a sentiment. It is a commitment, a sacrifice, and an offering of ourselves to God in the service of the living icons of Christ whom we encounter every day, namely every human being with whom we come in contact. So let us be Christians not merely in name, but also in how we live, even when it is inconvenient. Then we will be shaped decisively by the same divine mercy that we ask for ourselves and we will participate already in the eternal joy that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.