I wonder whether the Church has been setting us up for this parable over the past few weeks? We had the message about the narrow gate. We had the parable of the prodigal son. We had the command to invite people who cannot thank us. We had the strange question, if you cannot be trusted with what is not yours, who will trust you with what is your own? Has this all been a set up? Is today’s gospel a mini-culmination? What do I mean by this?
Whenever I visit classes at school, especially grades 4 and above, there is normally time for questions at the end. What do you think is one of the favourite topics, one which (almost without fail) is the subject of one, if not more, questions? Heaven and hell. Primary school students seem to be fascinated by heaven and hell. And as you would all probably know, these are not typically the subject of religious education classes, at least not since I went through primary school. Yet children still ask questions about them all the time.
And the questions are great. Where is heaven? Where is hell? Why does God put people in hell if God is all love? How do I avoid going to hell? Do only Christians get into heaven? As I said, they are all brilliant, worthwhile questions. However, they all betray a fundamental misunderstanding about eternal life, a misunderstanding that is not limited to children. All these questions assume that eternal life happens later. That heaven and hell happen later. Perhaps it is worth thinking about this. Is this what I assume?
One way of testing this is to consider our understanding of today’s gospel. Do I think that Lazarus is in heaven at the end? Do I think the rich man is in hell at the end? Fine, I am sure, so far. But do I think that the rich man is in hell at the beginning of the gospel? We should think carefully about this because this will judge us.
As I said, Jesus has told us recently that when we have a party, not to invite our friends but to invite those that cannot thank us. Last week Jesus told us to use money to buy our eternal home. Therefore, when we are given the picture of a wealthy person enjoying his wealth, when we are given the image of a successful person living the “good” life, does it feel like the start of a horror film? If it doesn’t, given what we know, should it?
And when we hear about poor Lazarus at the gates desperate for food, suffering unimaginably, being completely ignored, do we catch our breath in anticipation at the catastrophe that is to come?
Worst of all, are we completely shattered by the fact, that the rich man has no name? Do we hold our head in our hands when we realise that the warning in last week’s gospel has come true? That if we do not care for what is not ours, namely other people, then we will possess what is most personal of all, that one thing we really should own: my name, my identity?
Do we really believe that the rich man is in hell at the beginning of the gospel when he is in the process of annihilating his very self, his own identity, by living the way the world holds up as success? Living contrary to God’s Word?
But what is still more troubling, what do I think of Lazarus? If the rich man is in hell and stays in hell, what can I say about Lazarus? I am loath to say that what looks like hell might actually be heaven. Though to be clear, I am loath to say that in relation to someone else. Jesus says that for each one of us this is the case. St Francis of Assisi and numerous other saints and mystics say exactly the same thing.
But even if I am loath to say such a thing on behalf of someone else, nevertheless, I think we should take very seriously the fact that Lazarus is in the gateway. The horror of his life is the doorway out for the rich man. He is the narrow gate.
And it is the same for us. And it could not be clearer for us in this church.
At the final judgment, Jesus tells us when I was hungry, you fed me. When I was lonely, you visited me. When I was sick, you comforted me. If we are with Jesus, we are in heaven. This is what our baptism tells us. This is what the architecture of this church tells us. The Cross is the doorway to salvation. Our communion with those who are suffering is our communion with Christ. In some mystical way, we know that those who suffer are close to God. And if we want to be close to God, if we want to be in heaven, we must be close to them.
And this is not some future reality. This is the truth of the here and now.
Let’s pray then for this clarity. May we know our eternal destiny not as some future game, but as the fullness of every decision. May we know, and witness to the fact, that our brothers and sisters, especially those in need, really are the incarnation of the truth of our baptism.