26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 25, 2016
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
I begin today by quoting from a letter written in 1984 by Pope St. John Paul II:
“In a culture which tends to imprison man in the earthly life…
the pastors of the Church are asked to provide a catechesis
which will reveal…what come[s] after the present life:
beyond the mysterious gates of death,
an eternity of joy in communion with God
or the punishment of separation from him.
Only in this…can one realize the exact nature of sin
and feel decisively moved to penance and reconciliation.”
The pope goes on to say that essential to this catechesis is
“what the traditional Christian language calls the four last things of man:
death, judgment, [heaven] and [hell].”
The subjects of death, judgment, and heaven
aren’t completely foreign to modern conversation.
Death is inevitable and heaven’s something we all hope for.
Judgment’s a somewhat less popular topic,
since no one likes to be judged by others,
much less receive a “final judgment.”
But even more unpopular is the subject of hell.
It seems that modern culture tends to dismiss the idea of hell
as merely the product of medieval superstition.
It’s the stuff that nightmares are made of and the fear of hell
is nothing that a good psychiatrist can’t cure.
But even when we do admit the existence,
or the possibility of the existence, of hell,
we tend to think that it’s a place that others might go
–but not us, or the people we love.
Because admitting that we might go to hell
means two things that we don’t want to accept:
first, that we commit serious sins
which are worthy of eternal punishment;
and second, that the time to reform our lives is now,
because when death comes,
judgment and heaven or hell follow.
Many well intentioned people question the existence of hell
because they can’t understand how a God who loves us
could send a person to suffer in hell forever.
In order to understand this we need only understand two things about God.
First, he does love us.
Second, he loves us so much
that he gives us the gift that rightly belongs only to him
–he allows us to choose.
And in loving us, he respects our choices.
So we see that God doesn’t send us to hell
–but by our choices in this temporary earthly life,
we choose for ourselves what we will receive after death:
to live with God, or to live without God, forever.
We choose heaven or hell.
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus used to warn people about hell quite often,
and today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is one the best examples.
In this story, the rich man goes to hell,
and the poor man–Lazarus–goes to heaven.
[Now, to be precise, for all you scholarly types,
Lazarus actually goes to “the bosom of Abraham”
which is where all the just people in the Old Testament happily waited
for Christ to die and rise and open the gates of heaven for them.
Of course, Jesus eventually did open the gates,
and so today we read this simply as “heaven.”]
Now does this mean that if you have money you’re automatically going to hell,
and if you’re poor you’re automatically going to heaven?
In order to understand who Christ is talking about
as the rich man and the poor man,
you have to place this reading in the context it comes to us in the Bible.
Think back to last week’s Gospel reading
–the parable of the dishonest steward and Christ’s warning to us that we
“cannot serve both God and mammon”–or earthly treasures.
In Luke’s gospel, that parable from last week
immediately precedes this week’s story.
So the rich man in this week’s parable is the person who loves and serves
earthly treasures–or mammon
–while the poor man is the person
who doesn’t cling to the treasures of the world,
but instead clings to the love of God.
In being complacent with the things of this world,
the rich man chooses the comforts of this world,
and therefore rejects the goods of God.
But in the end the rich man dies and faces judgment.
And he’s not judged by his own standards
or by the trendy standards of modern society or some public opinion poll,
but by the eternal standards of God himself.
And the result of that judgment is the punishment that he cannot live with God
–or “in the bosom of Abraham”
–but instead is cast into, what Jesus calls
“the netherworld” or “the abode of the dead.”
Jesus tells us that there the rich man
“was in torment and …tortured [by] the flames.”
This is hell.
When the rich man can no longer stand the agony, he cries out to Abraham
–the father of the Hebrew race and our father in faith
–for some consolation.
But Abraham responds that he can’t help him because
by choosing to embrace the consolations of the world
instead of the consolations of God,
the rich man has chosen, for himself, to be without God,
and so he has chosen to be in hell.
The poor man named Lazarus, on the other hand, has chosen the other path
and now rests in peace:
“’My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”
And on top of this, there’s a second reason that Abraham can’t help him.
“between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.”
Because he chose the temporary goods of earthly life above God,
the rich man receives, in the end,
the eternal torment of permanent separation from God.
Hell is eternal–there is no reprieve, no parole.
You can not pass over the chasm between hell and heaven.
This is the teaching of Scripture, and of the solemn dogma of the Church.
Some might say this is pretty frightening.
But, in a very real sense, we should be afraid of hell.
Because it will be, in some real way, terribly painful:
imagine the absolute worst moments of your life,
some terrible physical pain that made you scream,
or perhaps news of the death of a loved one
–Hell is immeasurably worse than that and forever without ceasing.
But also, and much more importantly, we should be afraid of hell
because the choices we make which bring us to hell
are choices which gravely offend and hurt God.
We should be scared to death of offending this God who loves us
so much and gives us so much, all the good things we have
–every love, every joy, even life itself–
and Who wants to give us the perfection of all that living with him in heaven
–if only we choose that.
How could we offend the God, how could we reject the God who gives us
all these things?
But even as we fear hell, we mustn’t get carried away by that fear.
And we mustn’t fear death.
Look at the last part of today’s Gospel reading.
The rich man asks that Lazarus be sent back from the dead
to warn the rich man’s brothers
who are still living with their riches on earth.
Abraham responds that
“If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead.”
Think about this.
The rich man asks that the poor man
who has already died and been glorified in heaven
come back from the dead to warn his brothers.
Who is the poor man now?
Who’s the one who completely abandoned all the goods of the world
–even life itself
–in order to completely and perfectly serve God alone?
Who’s the one who, after approaching the world and those who served the world,
was rejected by them, and even killed by them?
And who’s the one who did come back from the dead to offer us
his eternal mercy and love as the way to eternal life with God in heaven.
The poor man in this story, is no one other than Jesus Christ himself.
Jesus rose from the dead and then ascended to his Father.
But he left us with the Holy Spirit, his Word, his Church, and his sacraments.
In particular he left us with the Sacrament of Penance.
While in the next world there is a great uncrossable chasm
between hell and heaven,
in this world, Christ can and does
cross over the abyss between sin and holiness,
and revives our tortured souls with the cool water of his grace
—the same grace that flowed in the water
from his pierced heart on the cross
—the same grace that poured out on us in the waters of baptism
—that same grace pours out on us in the sacrament of Penance,
as Jesus comes to us, forgives all of our sins
and gives us the strength, the grace
to always choose Him over the world,
to choose heaven over hell.
We need to receive this sacrament not just once-in-a-while,
or once or twice a year,
but whenever we’ve committed a grave sin
—whenever we’ve freely chosen to embrace the things and values
of this world and to reject the good God offers us.
And even if we’re unaware of any grave sin,
we should still receive the sacrament often—at least every month or two—
why would we turn down this free gift of grace,
that washes away anything that separates us from Christ,
and refreshes us, renews us in the fullness of his life.
Consider the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
These are all realities and they’re all eternal.
While we don’t choose to die or to be judged,
we do choose whether we will be judged worthy for heaven or hell.
We don’t have to be afraid of death,
but we should be afraid of sinning against God and of hell.
But we shouldn’t be overcome by this fear
–instead we should seek the peace found only in the mercy of the Lord,
who offers us heaven.
Don’t choose to imitate the rich man clinging to the things of this world.
Choose to imitate the poor man, who empties himself
for love of God–Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Choose not eternal death, but eternal life.
Choose not the torment of hell, but choose the eternal joy of heaven.