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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sept. 26: Final Retribution: Heaven or Hell?

"The love of money is the root of all evils." Everyone has heard this saying (although some incorrectly shorten it to "Money is the root of all evil") but not so many know that it was originally written by St. Paul to Timothy, his "son in the faith".

In our Gospel lesson this Sunday, we considered a parable of Jesus that graphically shows us the outcome of an "in money we trust" attitude -- Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

Jesus was instructing his disciples about money and some Pharisees were listening and scoffing. Luke characterizes them as "lovers of money" and records Jesus' response to them: "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight." (Luke 16:15) Jesus then goes on to tell the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man at whose gate he lay.

The story goes like this: A rich man, wearing the best clothes of purple and fine linen, feasted sumptuously every day. Lazarus, a beggar covered with sores, lay at the rich man's gate desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table as dogs licked his sores.

One day Lazarus died and was carried by angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and woke up in hell. Looking up he could see Lazarus and Abraham far away and, calling to Abraham, he asks him to send Lazarus down to cool his mouth with some water.

Abraham reminds the rich man that he got all his good things while he was on the earth, whereas Lazarus had gotten only evil things, and now their situations were reversed. The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his five brothers, but Abraham says that even if someone were to rise from the dead, the rich man's brothers would not be convinced.

We know this is a parable rather than a literal description of heaven and hell because we know that eternal life in heaven isn't dependent on our deeds, but on our acceptance of the unmerited favor of God. Deeds, however, are a reliable gauge of how we stand in our spiritual life. "Our resources and gifts are for the purpose of loving God and our neighbors," explained Fr. David. We are, like Abraham, "blessed to be a blessing".

We also need to be sensitive to the context: Jesus was talking to two audiences at once. To the Pharisees, he was telling a story about values under the Law, while at the same time he was preparing his disciples for a harder truth about their future.

Fr. David pointed out that the parable has three themes. First, how we fare on earth determines how we fare in the afterlife. Second, God will balance and make things right. Third, every person has a choice.

First theme: In the parable, Abraham tells the rich man that he had his good things while he was on the earth. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus warned people to be careful where they were taking their rewards. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, "...when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have their reward in full." (Matthew 6:5) By denying himself nothing, the rich man chose the part of his eternal life that would be the easiest, and that was the part that was the shortest -- his life on earth.

Second theme: "God isn't interested in our intentions -- we know the way good intentions pave, and that's the way to hell," Fr. David said. "God is interested in our actions. Do we love God with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourself? It's on these actions that our final retribution will be based."

He pointed out that the rich man recognized Lazarus in the afterlife and even called him by name. One can easily imagine the rich man believing he was being kind to Lazarus by allowing the beggar to lie at his door and forage in his rubbish, and even perhaps by saying hello to him as he came and went from his fine house. The rich man certainly fits with the unrighteous Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25, who are told at the judgment that they failed to give the Lord food, drink, clothing or help and they respond, "Lord, when did we see you (in these situations) and not help you?" Respectors of persons to the very last breath, just like this rich man who apparently saw himself as Lazarus' benefactor.

"Even in the most dire circumstance of waking up in hell, the rich man's thoughts still revolve around himself," Fr. David continued. "He didn't lift a finger to help Lazarus on earth, but expects Lazarus to come down to hell and put a finger of water on his tongue, to cool it. Just as Sartre would later describe it, the rich man feels his needs and wants are more real and legitimate than anyone else's -- that he's the only person with a full thought life and everyone else is lesser. He even argues with Abraham, patriarch of all the Jews, about what Abraham should be doing for him. The sad truth here is that people will continue to justify themselves even in the face of final retribution."

Third theme: "Is life like the old advertising slogan -- 'You only go around once, so go for the gusto'? Should we really 'look out for Number One'? Who is 'Number One' in our lives?" The rich man thought he'd be judged on the basis of his social status ("Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.") and when he found out that the standards were much different, he begged Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his five brothers before they made the same mistake.

Abraham's response, that if the rich man's family didn't heed the warnings they already had from the Law and the prophets, then they wouldn't heed anyone who would rise from the dead, was Jesus' way of preparing his disciples for their own lives after his resurrection and ascension. That his chosen people, represented that day by the Pharisees, would in large measure fail to heed even the message he would provide as the firstfruits of eternal life.

In summing up, Fr. David quoted theologian John Piper: "If during our time on earth we pursue things instead of God, then earth will be the extent of our heaven and eternity our hell. But if during our time on earth God is our treasure, then earth will be the extent of our hell and eternity our heaven."

Let us always keep before us the One who came back from the grave to show us the way to heaven. "Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits. Selah." (Psalm 68:19)

Notes: Parish annual meeting is Sunday, Nov. 14.... We're developing program topics and lessons for congregant-led after-service discussions during our coffee hour. More information to follow.

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