Why Does the Orthodox Parish Exist? The Rich Man, Tithing & Lazarus

Ss. Cosmas and Damian / Fifth Sunday of Luke, November 1, 2015
I Corinthians 12:27-13:8; Luke 16:19-31
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

One of the things that is most important for any community is to ask the question of who they are, why they exist. This is a question that needs to be asked by churches, too, and perhaps remembered and reviewed every so often. It’s very easy for us to fall into patterns of maintenance, where we just sort of keep doing what we’re doing without having a sense of why we’re doing it.

You can tell that a church has fallen into this “maintenance mode” if, when asked, it describes its mission as “meeting the needs of members.” There are problems with this vision of church life, and there is an alternate vision, as well. Let’s talk about both today.

In the Gospel reading we heard today, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, this issue of getting into “maintenance mode” is lurking underneath. We don’t really hear much about Lazarus in this story. It’s really a story about the rich man. Lazarus here mainly serves as a supporting figure in this account.

So the rich man, whose name we do not know, just sort of goes about his life. There’s no indication he’s hurting anyone, but he certainly does live well, wearing the best clothes and eating the best food. But why is he there? Does he just sort of “exist”? It would seem like it, because he doesn’t see the poor, suffering Lazarus at his gates. He just keeps doing what he’s doing. And so when he dies, he ends up in the place of suffering, which colloquially we call “hell.”

And then after the rich man finds himself in hell, he decides he wants something done about his brothers, who are still alive and probably living in “maintenance mode” just like him. So he calls over to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus to go warn them. But it’s too late. Abraham tells him that his brothers have the opportunity to believe Moses and the prophets. But if they won’t believe them, then their minds wouldn’t be changed even if they saw someone come back from the dead. Why? Because they don’t know what Moses and the prophets say, they don’t know what their purpose is. They just sort of keep going, keep existing.

We as Christians are often in much the same boat. We think of church life as about “meeting the needs of members,” which basically means that the church exists to make the people who come there feel good. They are essentially consumers, and they expect something to come with their membership.

But that’s not what church is for. That is not why the Church exists. The Church exists to save the souls of mankind. That is its purpose.

We do not exist to “maintain” what we have. We do not exist to “meet needs.” We do not exist to run programs. We do not exist to preserve a culture. The Church exists to save the souls of mankind.

The Church exists to extend the love and communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into mankind, to bring every human person into that love. That means that we who are the Church are on a mission. It means that we have a purpose. We as the Church exist to save the souls of mankind.

At the end of the Divine Liturgy, we hear “Let us go forth in peace.” This phrase is sometimes translated “depart in peace,” but it’s really “go forth.” We’re not just exiting the building peacefully. We’re taking the peace that we have received and taking it on the road. We’re going forth. We’re on a mission. We have a purpose. Our purpose is to save the souls of mankind.

If we focus why we do what we do here, then we will do it with more determination, more zeal, and almost certainly more success. We exist as a church to save the souls of mankind. This is not some crazy, “spiritual” idea that has nothing to do with real life. This is our purpose for existing.

When I get up in the morning, I pray, because I need to be saved and because I need to bring salvation to others. When I pray over my food, I do it because I need to be saved and to bring salvation to others. When I come to church, I do it because I need to be saved and to bring salvation to others. When I work things out with my wife, work at my job, study, or even just take care of the ordinary tasks of life, I do it because I need to be saved and to bring salvation to others.

Everything we do, no matter how small, we do to support our ability to be saved, our ability to bring salvation to others. We exist as the Church to save the souls of mankind. That means our own souls, the souls of our family, the souls of our friends, the souls of our co-workers, the souls of our neighbors, and the souls of everyone else we connect with.

We continue to talk about tithing, about pledging and giving and so forth, because this is the time of year when we emphasize that part of our spiritual journey. Someone asked me if giving 10% is a “requirement” for salvation. Someone asked if we can “give our way into heaven.” Someone asked if money is more important than love or service or whatever else.

These questions are important, but I think they make more sense if asked this way: How does tithing serve the purpose of saving the souls of mankind? Because that is our purpose as a Church.

Tithing does serve that purpose. So does any serious kind of giving, whatever its percentage—if it’s 1% or 50% or 100%. 10% is serious for me, but maybe 1% is serious for you. Maybe 50% is serious for you. But being unserious about giving does not serve that purpose of salvation. Why? Because saving the souls of mankind is serious business.

Being serious about giving serves the purpose of salvation both for our own souls and for the souls of others. How?

If I am serious about giving, then I am emptying myself of my addiction to possessions. I am opening myself up for blessings from God. I am making love my priority rather than selfishness. Yes, there are many ways to give to God aside from money, but if I think of giving in terms of trying to get around giving money by just giving other things, then I am holding something back, and that means I am not serious. If giving comes with an excuse or a condition, it’s not serious. So we give seriously, because we are serious about opening up our own souls for salvation.

We also give seriously for the salvation of other souls. When we give seriously, we support ministry. When we give seriously, we expand the possibilities for reaching others for Christ. When we give seriously, we make worship more possible by enhancing it, by adorning it, by taking care of the needs of those who lead it. When we give seriously, we contribute to a parish culture that is about ministry and mission, not about membership and maintenance. When we give seriously, we serve the purpose of the salvation of the souls of mankind.

So that’s why we do all the things we do here and everywhere. There is no other purpose. I have no other purpose here. I have no other purpose in my life. If I serve some other purpose, I have gone off track and I need to come back.

Each of us has to ask ourselves if we’ve gotten off track—individually, as couples, as families, as parish organizations, as a parish. In some ways, we all have. So let’s refocus. Let’s reconnect. Let’s reinvigorate. Let’s return to our purpose.

We as the Church exist for the salvation of the souls of mankind.

To our saving God be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.