Asceticism, Suffering and the Justice of God

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Fifth Sunday of Luke, October 31, 2021
II Corinthians 11:31-33, 12:1-9; Luke 16:19-31

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

We live in a world with a lot of injustice. People harm one another directly, through violence and evil words. Those who have great possessions or power oppress the poor and the powerless. And so often we see that it is not put right. This is unjust.

So today we are going to discuss the justice of God. God’s justice is about putting things right. We see this theme in both the Old and New Testaments, that God judges the rich and powerful for the way they treat the poor and powerless, that He judges those who do violence to others.

When God judges, it is not like judges in our time, whose purpose is to interpret and apply the law in a court, often handing out punishments such as fines or imprisonment. It is also not like the “street justice” we see between violent people and nations, which is mainly about revenge.

God’s justice is to put things right. So if someone is being oppressed, He releases him from that oppression and exalts him. If someone is an oppressor, He takes that one down as many notches as is needed to end that oppression. And so on. This justice will be fully realized in the Kingdom of God in the life to come, though God is also acting now to bring justice.

God’s justice is very much in play when we see someone baptized into the Church. When the priest has baptized and chrismated the new Christian and is washing off the chrism, he says to that person, “Thou art justified.” In other words, that person has been put right in relationship with God—and it has been done by God by forgiving his sins and putting Christ on him.

After that, the Christian life is about staying in that justified way of being, about living righteously—that is, living justly. Faithfulness to justice, to righteousness, is what it means to be Christian and what is required to stay within the kingdom of God, both in this life and into the age to come. This faithfulness is both maintained and increased by repentance, which is nothing other than turning away from the unjust life, the unrighteous life, and living the just life, the righteous life. In the Scriptures, justice and righteousness and the same thing.

So with this frame in mind, let’s look at both the Gospel and epistle readings for today. We’ll look at the Gospel first, which is a reading from the sixteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. It is the well-known parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In this parable, we see that the rich man was clothed in purple and fine linen—that is, the very best, most expensive clothes—and he “feasted sumptuously every day.” He lacked nothing and had nothing but the best. And at his gate is a poor man named Lazarus, who is hungry and sick.

Both die. The poor man is taken by the angels to Abraham’s bosom—that is, to a place where the saints dwelt together to await the resurrection—and the rich man dies and is in torment in Hades.

We know almost nothing about their lives other than that one was rich and one was poor, and both lived accordingly. It doesn’t say that the rich man abused Lazarus, just that Lazarus wanted to eat the crumbs from the man’s table. We don’t know if he got that or not.

When the rich man calls out to Abraham for help in his torment, Abraham says to him that in all his lifetime the rich man received good things, while Lazarus got bad things. And now, their positions are reversed—Lazarus lives in comfort, but the rich man is in anguish.

From this we can see that at death, God has given justice. The man who had nothing is brought up and exalted to where he belonged, while the man who gave himself everything in this life is brought low and now exists in the next life the way Lazarus did in this life.

So what is our takeaway here? It is precisely what we call asceticism. Asceticism is to deny oneself good things in order to repent. We do this through fasting and chastity, of course, but we also do it through almsgiving—that is, through giving away what we have to others for their benefit, expecting nothing in return.

The emphasis on the asceticism of almsgiving is everywhere in the Scripture and in the writings of the Fathers and in the divine services. When we grasp tightly to what we have in this life, giving ourselves every possible comfort, then we are on the road of the rich man, who in this life got his reward, but in the next life was put down because he would not give away what he had.

The only way one can wear all the best clothes and eat the best food every single day is by withholding possessions from others. It does not matter if they “deserve” it or not. If we withhold it, then we are saying to God, “I want my comforts in this life and not the next.” By holding onto it, we are preventing ourselves from being comforted in the next life.

So what about Lazarus? We do not know whether he took any asceticism on himself voluntarily or not. It simply does not say. But we do know that he suffered, and it seems likely that his suffering was involuntary. And that links us therefore to the reading from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, from the eleventh and twelfth chapters.

St. Paul says here, after describing a heavenly vision of Paradise that he experienced (which he, in his humility, says happened to “a man [he knows] in Christ”), tells how “a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan” was sent to torment him. He asked God three times to take it away—so we know that St. Paul did not ask for this—but God said no. So this demon that afflicted St. Paul in some way was there by God’s permission. St. Paul was suffering involuntarily, and even worse, it was suffering from a demon, an evil spirit.

Why would God allow this, and what does it have to do with establishing justice? St. Paul links this demonic attack with his visionary experience of Paradise, and he says that the demon was sent “to keep [him] from being exalted above measure through the abundance of revelations.”

Someone who has real spiritual visions will certainly experience the temptation to pride. And St. Paul’s personality was big and bold, so you can imagine what pride would look like in someone like that. So when God lets this demon attack him, it is to serve divine justice. That is, it is to prevent St. Paul from becoming unjust, unrighteous.

Even more, in refusing to take the demon away, God says to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” That is, St. Paul becomes even more a vessel chosen to bear God’s grace by enduring this affliction. He is made even more righteous by it, and he emphasizes that he even will “boast in [his] infirmities,” meaning that he is not complaining about the suffering but embraces it with patience and gratitude to God.

So how do these two readings apply to us? It is straightforward. If we are permitted wealth and comfort by God, especially if it is such that we are very comfortable all the time, then we need to give some of that away, to put ourselves right so that we do not have to be involuntarily put right when we die, like the rich man experienced. We cannot be grasping and stingy and also inherit the Kingdom of God. Generosity is how the Kingdom of God works.

Further, if we experience involuntary suffering, then we do not complain but instead perceive that God has permitted it to us for our justification—that is, to put us right. It might be to put us right in this life in justice for sin, but it might also be to prevent us from becoming unjust and unrighteous, which then also makes possible our further perfection as it did with St. Paul. We can then be grateful not for the suffering as such, but rather grateful that God has given to us this opportunity for righteousness.

To the Just and Righteous One Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.