When we had the Relics of St. Thérèse here, Sr. Anna Christi from Greyfriars Elgin gave a talk about her to the children present. She began, very memorably, by saying that in Christianity everything is upside down. To be great you need to be little. To be at the top you need to go to the bottom. To be massively influential you need to hide yourself away.
Well: today’s Gospel parable invites us to extend this list. The really happy man, we must say - the one with the brightest future, the one most to be envied, the one who is most loved and honoured by God: he may be the very one who has nothing; the one who is most looked down on, despised, pitied, even friendless in this world. Whereas the man whom everyone talks about, the big celebrity, the one who always draws admiring crowds: he may be the most wretched of all creatures.
Blessed are you who are poor, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain, according to St. Luke: yours is the Kingdom of God. And then: Woe to you who are rich; you are having your consolation now (cf. Luke 6:20ff).
In Christianity things are upside down, and things also tend to opposite extremes. We could say that today’s parable is not only all about reversal, but also all about contrast. We start with two extremes. At the end these are not only reversed, but also very much amplified. The rich man is very rich; he lives in opulent luxury; he is at the top of the social scale. Lazarus by contrast is not only very poor but also sick. Not only can he not house or feed himself: he’s in constant pain. He is not only hungry and cold, but also constantly humiliated. Not only is he uncared for, but he’s also scorned. Then comes the reversal. The rich man is in hell, the poor man in heaven. For the one, torment, punishment, isolation; for the other, bliss, reward, communion. Opposite extremes, but now fixed in eternity.
There are so many things to be said about all this. Let me just pick out one or two for now.
Perhaps I might begin by highlighting the great consolation that is given here to all who bear the name of Christian. We look around our world and see so much injustice, unfairness, things that should not be; things that cry out for redress. We see vice apparently rewarded, and virtue unregarded or even apparently punished. We see bad people at their ease and crowned with success; while sometimes good people find themselves plunged into troubles, sufferings, failures and humiliations of every kind. Well: God sees all this. He is not indifferent. At the end of time, all will be set right, and superabundantly.
Then for us: it’s good to be reminded, even very frequently, that time is short, and eternity long. The one is hurtling ever more rapidly towards the other. So to live as if for this life only; to try to find all one’s joy in what this world has to offer, rather than looking always to our eternal destiny: this is the height of folly. What, says Jesus, does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and loses his own soul? (cf. Luke 9:25 etc.) It should be obvious to everyone that everything in this world will pass away. And universal human experience also shows that riches and pleasures never satisfy. They don’t make you happy. But goodness, kindness, a pure heart, a clean conscience, a life spent in the friendship of God: these make us rich indeed, and also they prepare us for an eternity of joy.
Let me draw out another point from today’s parable that’s so obvious it scarcely needs saying: but I’ll say it anyway. This parable teaches us not to be heedless of the poor. We knew that already, but it does no harm to be reminded of it every now and then. In so far as we can, we should help those less well off than ourselves. If we have spare money, we should give it generously. Last week we had the parable of the unjust Steward. Jesus there recommended we make use of “the mammon of unrighteousness”, that is money, in order to win ourselves friends (Lk 16:9). If the rich man of the parable had done that, Lazarus would have been ready to intercede for him at the Last Judgement. But the silly fool missed his heaven-sent opportunity. So he died with many drinking companions, but with no real friends at all. Then, apart from money: often we can do good just by recognising the human dignity of some person in distressing circumstances: by some kind word, or perhaps even just by a smile.
Nowadays in our globalised world we could say there are millions lying at our gate. The problem is so huge we feel overwhelmed by it. And there is never any simple solution. Often, for example, one is advised not to give money to beggars in the streets. That could fuel their drug or alcohol addiction; or perhaps line the pockets of the evil men who control them. But still: rather than do nothing, we do something. We help where we can. We support good charitable organisations. We contribute to things like food banks or soup kitchens. We at least are aware of the problems of homelessness and loneliness in our society, and bothered by these things, and we pray for all affected by them.
Today’s Gospel parable ends with very sombre remarks about the brothers of the rich man. They will not repent, says Jesus, even if one should rise from the dead. And so it proved, when he himself rose from the dead. And so it still is with our irreligious society. We might think of the urgent warnings of Our Lady in many apparitions in the modern era, especially of course at Fatima. If people hear these warnings, they pay no attention. Their minds are fixed only on this present life, and on being at the top. We can only pray for their conversion, and determine not to be among their number.
I want to end with the great gulf of which Jesus speaks.
You may know the long poem by William Blake called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I once had to study all that in great detail. Blake was a genius, and also what we’d call a free thinker and gnostic. His idea has been a running theme in such circles from the earliest days. It still has plenty of currency today. Somehow, Blake thought, in the end all will be one, all reconciled, all harmonised. But the message of the Gospel is the opposite of that. There is a real difference between good and evil, right and wrong, Angels and demons. In this world such things are distinguished, but all mixed up together. At the end of time they will be eternally separated. Heaven and Hell will never marry. They are opposites, and our destiny is to land up forever in either the one or the other.
We pray then with fervour that all our sins may be forgiven, through the unique mediation of our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, and through his most holy and precious blood. Then may both we, and all whom we love, come at last to eternal life with him in heaven.