Masochism is that mental and psychological aberration according to which a person voluntarily seeks out pain and suffering and actually derives pleasure and satisfaction thereby. I mention this because today’s parable of Lazarus speaks of the great chasm separating the place of torment from the peaceful and joyous repose with Abraham. The latter explains that this chasm exists to prevent anyone from crossing who might from our side to yours, or from your side to ours. Now the rich man in torment wishing to escape and cross over to Abraham is fully understandable, but what would possess anyone—except the masochist—from wanting to venture from heaven towards the regions of hell? Pondering this question might tell us something about God and the punishment experienced by the unrepentant sinner.
The soul in torment amid the flames is there because of a total self-centeredness and a complete disregard of others. The rich man thus still has no love for Lazarus or Abraham, and thus no particular desire to share their company. His only desire is to escape his suffering. In contrast, love and compassion might impel the soul in paradise to venture near hell in an effort to ease the sufferings of those trapped there. And although the parable suggests that God created the chasm separating heaven and hell, it is actually the residents of hell who do so. The chasm is, of course, not a physical but a spiritual one reflecting the reprobate sinner’s self-inflicted inability to receive love and forgiveness.
Our presence here this morning reflects our desire to not construct or reinforce that chasm. Nevertheless, we can only gauge our affinity with Abraham and Lazarus by the depth of our compassion and sorrow for those who persistently reject God’s love and choose eternal separation from him. If the thought of those in eternal torment does not trouble us in the least, we may have more in common with them than with Lazarus and Abraham. Thus, God challenges us to mirror his own compassion and unfailing goodness to the sinner and even those who persist in evil. For, as Jesus exhorts us: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
The thought that some hardened sinner may escape eternal punishment by a deathbed conversion should thus never dismay us, or make us feel we have been treated unfairly—like those workers in the Jesus’ parable of the vineyard. As sinners ourselves and deserving eternal separation from God, we should rejoice that another fellow exile has made it home. Otherwise, we will be like that elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son who resented the repentant return of his wayward brother. Our Catholic tradition maintains the permanence of hell, and thus there is probably nothing we can do for those trapped there. However, we can heed the rich man’s plea and warn those still in this world (and who still have a choice) to open their hearts to the saving love of Christ so that they may be spared the same tragic fate that is nevertheless neither inevitable nor predestined—since God willed all to be saved.