1 Corinthians 12:27-13:8; Luke 16:19-31
There is simply no way around the basic truth that how we relate to our neighbors reveals how we relate to our Lord. What we do for even the most miserable and difficult people we encounter in life, we do for Christ. And what we refuse to do for them, we refuse to do for our Savior. Our salvation is in becoming more like Him as we find the healing of our souls by cooperating with His grace. While we do not save ourselves any more than we can rise up by our own power from the grave, we must obey His commandments in order to open our souls to receive His healing mercy and participate in His eternal life.
If we do not do that, we will suffer the spiritual blindness of the rich man in today’s gospel lesson, regardless of how much or how little of the world’s treasures we have. The rich man provides a vivid example of someone who lived only to satisfy himself. He used his great wealth to dress like a king and enjoy the finest food every day. He was so absorbed in gratifying his self-centered desires that he completely disregarded poor Lazarus, a miserable beggar who wanted only crumbs and whose only comfort was when dogs licked his open sores. The rich man was so insensitive that he surely stepped over or around Lazarus at the entrance to his home on a regular basis and never did anything at all to relieve his suffering.
After their deaths, the two men’s situations were reversed. The rich man had spent his life rejecting the teachings of Moses and the prophets about the necessity of showing mercy to the poor. He had diminished himself spiritually to the point that he became unable to recognize even the basic humanity of Lazarus as one who bore God’s image. Consequently, after his death he was blind to the love of God and perceived the divine majesty as only a burning flame that tormented him. When the rich man asked Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of the consequences of living such a depraved life, the great patriarch responded, “‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
That chilling statement applies not only to those who had distorted the faith of Israel to the point that they rejected their Messiah and denied the truth of His resurrection. It applies even more to us who have the full benefit of the belief and worship of the Church. Because we have received the fullness of the mystery of God’s salvation, our responsibility is far greater than that of the Jews of old. As members of Christ’s Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have every spiritual benefit to strengthen us in serving our Lord in other people. Since every neighbor is an icon of God, how we treat them reveals our relationship to Him. Christ taught that what we do “to the least of these,” to the most wretched people, we do to Him. If we become so obsessed with gratifying ourselves that we refuse to convey His mercy to our neighbors, then we will reject our Messiah and deny the truth of His resurrection, for we will not live in a way that reflects His victory over the corrupting power of sin and death. Regardless of what we say we believe, we will bear witness through our actions that we have become blind to the good news of our salvation. And like the rich man, we will exclude ourselves from the joy of the Kingdom.
As we say often in the prayers of the Church, we all need mercy before the dread judgment seat of Christ. We err, however, if we think of the Lord’s mercy as being available only in some arbitrary way in eternity. For we encounter Him every day in our neighbors, especially the poor, wretched, and inconvenient: the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the enemy. We participate in His mercy by showing mercy to them. That is how we share more fully in the life of the Savior as we conform our character to His. 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 actions. 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 and the passing things of this world. The Lord’s eternal judgment will be more a confirmation of who we have become than a shocking decree from out of the blue. As Christ said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)
Today we commemorate the Holy Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian of Asia, brothers trained in medicine who healed both people and animals free of charge. Unlike the rich man in today’s gospel lesson, they did not serve themselves to the point of disregarding the sufferings of others. To the contrary, they selflessly cared for the sick and refused payment. Their ministry embodied the love of Christ as described in today’s epistle reading by St. Paul: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” This type of love is not merely a feeling or an emotion, but an essential characteristic of those who are becoming participants in the Savior’s fulfillment of the human person in the likeness of God.
St. John wrote, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20) The rich man in today’s gospel lesson had rejected love for neighbor to the point that he treated Lazarus like so much garbage. No wonder, then, that he experienced the torment of bitter regret after his death, for he was in the eternal presence of the Lord Whom he had rejected throughout his life. He had wanted nothing to do with God’s love and, upon his death, was able to perceive the divine glory as only a burning flame.
We do well to remember that our thoughts, words, and deeds both reflect and shape the health of our souls. We may be neither as wealthy nor as insensitive as the rich man, but it is certainly possible for each of us to become so focused on finding satisfaction in the things of this world that we become blind to the eternal significance of who we are becoming by how we live our lives each day. We pray often in services for “a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment Seat of Christ…” This prayer is a reminder that we must prepare to meet our Lord daily by repentance as we die to the power of sin in our lives. We must love and serve Christ in our neighbors in order to be united with Him and to acquire the spiritual clarity to behold the divine glory. When we fall short of doing so, we must confess our sins and reorient ourselves toward the life of the Kingdom and away from serving ourselves. If we do not, we risk turning away from Christ in this life in a fashion that will weaken us spiritually to the point that we will want nothing to do with the love of the Savior and exclude ourselves from the joy of His reign.
Instead of pursuing that tragic path, let us follow the example of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. They received freely and gave freely such that they became glorious living icons of the salvation of the world. They were transformed by the mercy of the Lord as they shared His mercy with others by their selfless actions. May the same be true of us all as we prepare to stand before our Lord and give an account of lives.