It is tempting to think that those who seem to have it all in this world are God’s favorites whose success is a reward for holiness and virtue. It is appealing to think that God’s kingdom is simply an eternal manifestation of the arrangements of this world, of life as we know it, where the powerful usually lord it over the weak and the rich almost always seem to get their way.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man powerfully warns again that temptation, for it shows that those who love, worship, and serve only themselves ultimately become blind to Christ as they encounter Him in their poor and needy neighbors. It shows that God’s reign is a great reversal where the humble will be exalted, blessed, and comforted, while the high and mighty will be put down. The issue, of course, is not simply how much money one has, but whether we have opened our souls in humility to personal union with the Lord such that His mercy, love, and holiness have become characteristic of us. The issue is whether we have been healed of the ravages of sin, whether our spiritual vision has been filled with light that overcomes the darkness within us. Ultimately, the question is whether we have become living icons of Jesus Christ.
The rich man ignored the clear teachings of Moses and the prophets on his obligation to care for his poor neighbors. By literally stepping over the wretched beggar Lazarus on his front porch time and time again, he blinded himself to the humanity of one created in the image and likeness of God and with whom Christ identified Himself as “the least of these my brethren.” He ignored God every time that he ignored his neighbor. This blindness became so characteristic of the rich man that, once he departed this life, he was unable to behold the brilliant glory of God and could perceive only a tormenting flame. St. Isaac the Syrian referred to the sufferings of those in Hades as “the scourge of love.” In other words, God’s love remains eternally, but some become so distorted by self-centeredness, disregard for their neighbors, and hatred of God that they are incapable of experiencing being in the presence of the Lord as anything other than the torment of “bitter regret.” They suffer the consequences of their own self-imposed rejection of a relationship with Him.
We do not yet have the eyes to see it, but everything that we say, do, and think in this life shapes who we are before God, both now and for eternity. That is especially true in matters relating to other people, particularly those who are needy, inconvenient, and easy to overlook. Whether we liked it or not, our Lord has identified Himself with them. If we say that we love and serve Him while disregarding the poor, sick, and lonely, we are simply deceiving ourselves.
Our Lord brought salvation to the world by lowering Himself even to the point of death on the Cross, burial in a tomb, and descent into Hades. He went to the place of the dead in order to look for fallen Adam and Eve and to set them, and all the departed, free from the slavery to sin and death that had so distorted their ancient glory as those created to become like God in holiness. Having lowered Himself out of love, Christ rose in glory and brought them into the eternal presence of God.
We will take our place in this narrative of salvation by manifesting in our own lives the descent of the Savior into a world corrupted by sin and death out of love for others. We will find the healing of our souls as we learn to see, serve, and love Christ in the people we encounter every day. The point is not to attempt to use God in order to get what we want in this life or the next, but instead to find the fullness of life in Him by joining ourselves to the selfless offering that Lord has made on the Cross for the salvation of the world. We will have good hope of rising with Him in glory when we serve Him in the Lazaruses we encounter daily. Already today, right now, we may participate in the great reversal of God’s Kingdom by blessing those who are last in the world as we know it. In serving them, we serve Jesus Christ. When we call out for His mercy as we struggle to live faithfully in this way, we will behold a measure of the divine glory and find ourselves already participating in the eternal Reign of God.