Readings: Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
I remember years ago reading a commentary on today’s gospel in which the commentator suggested that altruism and compassion were not what prompted the Rich Man’s plea to Abraham that he warn his five brothers lest they too come to this place of torment. Instead, he argued that is was pride, shame and his unwillingness to let his brothers see his reduced and miserable state of degradation. Now, although today’s parable is not a mini-treatise on hell, this interpretation does help explain the anomaly of someone in hell possessing compassion or anything vaguely resembling love–since by definition, hell is a state of being totally closed to receiving and giving love.
This idea of hell being a state of being totally closed to love can be an important reassurance to those of a more scrupulous disposition who are constantly in doubt about being in a state of grace and their constant anxiety about being cast down into hell by a vengeful and punishing God of justice. Admittedly, being in a state of grace–and not totally closed to God’s love–is not a concern for many in our contemporary society, focused as it is on this passing world. However, for those who take their spiritual lives seriously and persevere in the often daunting inner journey, periods of self-doubt and a sense of being cut off from God’s love and grace are not that rare.
During her trial, Saint Joan of Arc was, apparently, asked whether she considered herself to be in a state of grace. Her famous reply reflecting the spirit of the times was: If I am not, may God put me there, and if I am, may God so keep me. In responding thus Saint Joan was being careful not to appear presumptuous or arrogant, but it does lead one to wonder if it is really so difficult to ascertain whether one is in a state of grace and not cut off from God’s love? Is the working of God’s grace so subtle and difficult to discern and our hearts and souls so opaque and impenetrable? In seeking an answer I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching that a good tree does not produce bad fruit any more than a bad tree produces good fruit. And this taken along with Saint Benedict’s insistence that all the good we find in ourselves can only be attributed to God’s grace whereas all sin and evil is solely our doing.
These statements seem to suggest that if we (or others) detect some good in ourselves and all the good we possess is God’s gift and the work of his grace, then surely this good cannot survive in a heart bereft of God’s presence and love. And to the degree–however slight–goodness is discerned in our hearts, to that degree we must surely still be open to God’s grace and ultimate salvation. In this respect I am reminded of Dostoevsky’s story (in The Brothers Karamazov) of the bad and selfish woman in hell who had once given a single onion to someone in need–a good enough reason, she feels, to be freed from hell. This then leads God to holding out an onion to her which she enthusiastically grabs hold of as God begins to pull her out of hell. However, as others, trying to escape hell, cling to her feet, she angrily shakes them off and, alas for her, in the tussle the stem of the onion snaps and she plunges back into hell. The point I’m trying to make with this story is that that single compassionate action had left her heart open just a tiny crack but it was enough to warrant God giving her a final chance to open fully to his love and salvation.
In this it is good for us to remember Saint Augustine’s claim that God desires our salvation far more than Satan desires our damnation. God never gives up on us and, as he said through the Prophet Ezekiel, has no desire for the death of a sinner (even less his eternal damnation) but rather seeks his life and happiness. And so our Rich Man in today’s parable is offered to us both as a warning and an encouragement: a warning that persistent resistance to God’s love does finally and completely harden and close the human heart to all love. But it is also an encouragement in that even a tiny glimmer of light and love in otherwise darkened hearts are a sign that there is still hope and that God will do everything in his power (while honoring our freedom) to coax hearts to open to the fullness of his life and love, and in uniting us eternally to himself bring rest, peace and eternal joy to our restless hearts.