White Mass in Fort Wayne
This Jubilee Year of Mercy has been a blessed time for us to contemplate the infinite mercy of God as well as our calling to be merciful, to be witnesses of Christ’s merciful love. There’s been an emphasis this year on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I think that Pope Francis’ hope that these works would be rediscovered, so to speak, is being realized in many places, including here in our diocese. For you who serve in the medical profession, there is a special link to various works of mercy. I think especially of the corporal work of visiting the sick. You visit the sick to tend to their illnesses and to help them heal. I think also of the spiritual work of comforting the afflicted. The comfort you provide your patients is an important element of their healing and of their overall wellbeing.
In today’s Gospel, we heard Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The beggar Lazarus was in great need, including need of medical care since the Gospel says he was covered with sores. He was also hungry and needed food. I’m thinking he was probably homeless as well. He was living in misery. The rich man lived in luxury and egoism. He was indifferent to the suffering of the beggar on his doorstep. At the end of their lives, Lazarus was welcomed into paradise, whereas the rich man ended up in torment. Lazarus was received “in the bosom of Abraham” whereas the rich man ended up in Hades. Divine Justice prevails after their death.
It is good to reflect on this parable in the light of this Jubilee Year, to read it using the lens of mercy. There are two episodes in this parable. The first takes place on earth; the second in the afterlife. In the first scene, there’s the anonymous, nameless rich man. And there’s the poor beggar who is named, Lazarus, a name that means “God has helped.” The rich man showed no mercy to Lazarus. He ignored him. He ignored his suffering. He showed no compassion for this poor man lying there covered in sores, with dogs licking those sores.
The second episode of the parable is much longer. It occurs after the poor man Lazarus and the rich man both die. Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man is in the netherworld, hell. So let’s think about divine mercy. It wasn’t granted to the rich man. We can think of other parables where a person’s plea for mercy is granted by God. But here, in this parable, despite the rich man’s plea to Abraham to have pity on him, mercy was not granted by God. This is because his situation is irreversible. It’s too late. There are people who deny the existence of hell. If they do, we should point this parable out to them! But how can any situation be irreversible if God is infinitely merciful? Why is his situation irreparable? It’s not that God is not merciful – it’s that the rich man made no room for God’s mercy. That’s what happens when we don’t show mercy to our neighbor. We close ourselves to God’s mercy. After death, it’s too late. Remember the Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” A corollary to that would be: “Woe to those that are not merciful, for they will not obtain mercy.” This parable is also highlighting that God is just as well as merciful. He wants to show mercy to the rich man, but the rich man closed his heart to that mercy by ignoring Lazarus.
This parable has a message similar to the famous parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. What happens to those who do not give food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, who do not clothe the naked or welcome the stranger, etc.? Jesus says to them: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these ones, you did not do for me. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” In contrast, Jesus says to those who show mercy, who feed the hungry, etc.: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
The rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. He went to hell because he lacked mercy and compassion. This is an important parable for us to contemplate because it has to do with eternity. How we treat the poor and suffering is a litmus test for the path to our salvation or to our condemnation. I think this parable is one that, as Saint John Paul II said when he celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium in 1979, “must always be present in our memory; it must form our conscience.” He said: “We cannot stand idly by, enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazaruses of the 20th century stand at our doors.” These words are as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1979. There are many Lazaruses in our world today, both here and abroad. We must not ignore them. We each have our allotted time on earth. What do we do with it? Do we use it to serve God and neighbor? Or are we selfish like the rich man in the Gospel?
The question of mercy is a serious one. We must be careful. We do believe and affirm that the mercy of God is infinite, but this should not lead to the sin of presumption, to thinking that because God is so loving and merciful, it doesn’t matter what we do in this life, that somehow God will save us. This is the position of those who do not believe in hell. Some think of God’s mercy as a right that we have. No, it is a gift. It is gratuitous. We can accept or reject it. We are rejecting it when we do not show love and mercy to our neighbor. We can think of it this way: mercy has three dimensions, not just one dimension, not just me; and not just two dimensions, me and God. Mercy always travels in three dimensions: God, me, and the other. We must be merciful to others if we hope to receive the gift of God’s mercy.
In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky, in commenting on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, asks the question: “What is hell?” He says that it is “the suffering of being unable to love.” Earthly life is given to us as a moment to love. What a gift! The ability to love! But when we reject this priceless gift, and we go through life without loving, then we will spend eternity that way. Dostoevsky says that hell is the suffering of no longer being able to love. That means that every instant of human life that is not lived for love is an anticipation of hell. And every instant of human life that is lived for love is an anticipation of heaven. I end with the famous words of Saint John of the Cross: “At the sunset of my life, I will be judged on love.”