Fr. George Smiga
September 29, 2013
Luke 16: 19-31
As Christians we believe in heaven and hell. But it is not that often that we stop to understand them. Heaven is the easier of the two. It makes certain sense that if we have a loving and caring God who guides us in this life, then that same God would extend life and joy after death. Hell is a stickier issue. How can we explain a loving and forgiving God who condemns his creatures to eternal torment? Is not God all merciful and forgiving? Then how can we explain eternal damnation?
It is an honest question, and one on which today’s gospel can shed some light. Today’s story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the few times in the New Testament when we are given a glimpse of the afterlife. What we see is instructive.
The thing to notice in the story is that the rich man never changes. While he is alive he is completely absorbed in himself, in his purple clothing, fine linen, and sumptuous dinners. After death he is the same way. Even though he is in torment, what he is most concerned about is securing a drop of water to cool his tongue. It is all about him, from start to finish, in this world and in the next. What this story is telling us is that if you are filled up with yourself, if you are completely self-absorbed, there is no room for love. There is no room for heaven. Complete selfishness is hell.
The great chasm in the story that the rich man cannot cross and that people from the other side cannot cross has not been put there by Abraham. It has not been put there by God. That great chasm has been established by the rich man, himself. His heart is so closed in on himself that he can neither give nor receive love and mercy. The rich man wants to be happy. He sees happiness far off. But he does not understand that his condemnation is the result of his own selfishness. His isolation results from a chasm he has created through his own choices.
Now, Jesus tells us this story to warn us, to remind us that the choices we make today have eternal consequences. We are, today, shaping the person we will be for all eternity. Whenever we make choices to spend our time and energy only on ourselves, we increase self-absorption. When we fill our minds with obsessions about how we look, or what other people think about us; when we waste time surfing the internet or viewing pornography; when we make decisions that are based only upon our own comfort and pleasure; with each one of those decisions our heart closes in a bit more on itself.
On the other hand, when we open ourselves to service, when we reach out to help our children, our friends, our neighbors, when we give of what we have to those in need, or are willing to stand up and defend those whose freedom is endangered; through that generosity and service, our heart opens a bit more to love.
A glass that is already full cannot receive anything more. The rich man’s heart was so full of himself that he could not accept mercy and love. The joy of heaven is that we will be able to take in God’s presence and God’s glory. That invitation to heaven is being offered to every creature at every time. God cannot be blamed if some people so fill their hearts with themselves that they cannot take in what God offers. God does not send anyone to eternal torment. But we can choose to go there. We are making choices today that determine how much room we will have in our own hearts to accept love. So choose carefully. Because if we so fill up our lives with ourselves that we become completely full, we can keep all love out. And that would not only be a disaster. That would be hell.