1 St John 4:7-end St Luke 16:19-end
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us.
[1 St John 4:8-10]
We have entered into Trinity season, the longest season of the Christian year. The liturgical colour is green, symbolizing our growth in the Spirit.
For those baptised on Pentecost, how appropriate that the whole of this Trinity season will be the opening up of the steps in our growth in Christ – it is like an extended catechism class! Of course it is a good review for all of us, and an encouragement for us all to look higher.
Jesus said last Sunday, that baptism enables us to see and enter the kingdom of God in this life.
So what is the first step of entry into that Kingdom? You might ask, what do I do next? When Jesus was asked what is the most important thing a person might do, he said the greatest commandment is this: love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Jesus was referring to what is written in that Law. [Dt 6:4] We repeat this every Sunday at the beginning of our liturgy to remind ourselves what our life is all about.
What does this call, to love God with all that we are, have to do with seeing and entering the kingdom of heaven? It is this: we see and enter the kingdom of heaven as we become like God, who is love – there is no other way. As we recover that likeness to God, we will begin to see that kingdom in our midst and as we actively love God, we enter into that life of heaven now.
So how do I love God with all that I am? Here is a mystery about human life: we cannot, at first, see our own hearts to know whether our love is real, we easily deceive ourselves. Strangely, our inner thoughts and our real motivations, are largely hidden to us at the start of our journey. Modern psychology recognizes this in their interest in the unconscious, which is the greater part of who we are, which is largely hidden from us. So Jesus tells us to look at how we are relating to the people whom we meet daily.
In our first reading, St John describes it like this,
If a person says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for whoever does not loves his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And we have this commandment from [God], that whoever loves God love his brother also. [1 Jn 4:20-21]
Again, the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves is in the Law of Moses [Lev 19:18, 34]. Jesus said it is the second great commandment and it is like the first. It is much easier for us to observe if we are loving our neighbour, because we can see our outward actions before we can see inwardly where our own hearts truly are in relation to God.
We can be so easily be deceived that all is well in our hearts with God in this life.
This morning, Jesus tells a scary story of self-deception – the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, who was laid at his gate full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. [Lk 16:19-21]
In the Parable, the two men die. Lazarus is taken into heaven to Abraham’s bosom while the rich man is in torment in hell. The rich man looks up from hell and cries out, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. [16:24] But Jesus says it is too late, the choices we make of what to love in this life become the fixed disposition of our souls. What they experienced in the afterlife is the unveiling of the true spiritual state of their souls in this life.
No one can say that the rich man didn’t love – he loved fine clothing, he loved fine food, and no doubt he loved the fine house he had, with a gate around it to protect it. He loved himself, though not his full human nature. But he never exercised the love of God and neighbour. The love that came down upon him from above was turned towards satisfying the lower aspects of his soul and body and its fuller and final purposes were rejected by him. He brought himself to a place of torment.
The Rich man knew nothing of the spiritual life, which becomes known in the exercise of the love of God and neighbour – that love has a shape and content.
But surely the rich man is commendable for not being a burden on society, for “creating” wealth, for enjoying and having an appreciation of the good things of God’s creation, for supporting the artisans, for supporting the livelihood of others who served him and their families? Actually, says Jesus, it depends. What matters in the end for the rich man, and for every one of us, is, where is our heart? And that was revealed plainly in this life by how the rich man treated his neighbour who was in need and was laid at his gate.
This parable was a popular one, figured in paintings or in etchings, bought by wealthy Dutch businessmen in the Golden Age to have in their homes to remind them not to lose themselves in all that wealth.
The surprising thing in this parable is that Lazarus is actually commended to us as one who has begun to live the life of heaven and is rewarded with eternal rest and joy in the bosom of Abraham. In what way is he an example for us to follow?
Lazarus is an example in two ways.
First, Lazarus needs help and, while not demanding it as a right, he hopes for it from his neighbour. We might think it is better not to put people out by asking for help when we are in need, or better to avoid accepting their kind offers of help. But actually, it is a good thing to depend upon others and allow them to love us – we are in need of each other. Of course we could abuse this, coveting what our neighbour has. But we must rid ourselves of shame at being needy – the fact is we all are! It is certainly the case if we would ever fall in love, it is not wrong to need another person. The self-sufficiency of the rich man became for him a deception that locked up his heart. Lazarus, in contrast, knows that he needs love and hopes for it from his neighbour.
Second, Lazarus is an example of how we are to relate ourselves to the true Rich Man—God. If we are to open ourselves to the greatness and goodness of God, if we would draw closer to God, we start by recognizing our utter dependence, our neediness of God’s love. In our Gospel last Sunday Jesus said, Unless you are born of water and of the Spirit you cannot enter the kingdom of God. [Jn 3:6] If we desire a vision of heaven, if we desire to enter into the kingdom of God, we must acknowledge that we have nothing of ourselves to contribute to this quest other than what is given us from above. Our bodies, our senses, our feelings and imagination, our clever minds, though great gifts (and all from God), and though they will certainly be taken up into that divine life, of themselves they will not bring us one step closer into heaven. What we need for this journey into heaven is all a gift of grace. [Jn 3:27]
Jesus tells us that it is not wrong to desire love from our neighbour and from God. When it comes to seeing and entering heaven, we are truly beggars, like Lazarus. And if we are honest we admit that we have wounds that earthly medicines cannot touch.
God is the ultimate Rich Man, since all things on earth and in heaven are God’s. But unlike the rich man in the parable, God does not withhold the treasures of heaven from us. He freely gives, and not just the crumbs that fall from his table. God enters through the gate of the Virgin Mary into our world in Jesus Christ to bind up our wounds. And God is ready to feed us with his very life. Jesus says, I am the living bread which came down from heaven, if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. [Jn 6:51].
We are to want God’s love, his graces, and to ask for it. And if we would journey further into the divine life we are called to share that love poured into us with our neighbour. God shows his love by coming into the world and offering up his life for us. John says simply:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. [1 Jn 4:11]
It is in this act of exchange, this sharing of the love we receive from God and neighbour, that we ascend ever higher into the kingdom of heaven. John says,
If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us; because he has given us of his Spirit. [1 Jn 4:12]
The more we respond to the movement of love in our hearts, by loving our neighbour and allowing our neighbour to love us, the more we are infilled with love, with God. This is what it means to enter into the kingdom of God – God dwelling in us and we, cooperating with the grace given to us.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect [Mt 5:43-48]. He is talking about the perfecting of our love. That love has content, it has a shape, it is not anything goes. It is at the heart of the Christian pilgrimage to understand what true love is, and this is the focus of all the Sundays to come.
Lazarus got his loves right, the Rich man didn’t. The name “Lazarus” means, “God has helped”. He will help us too if we ask.
Now let us prepare ourselves for Holy Communion through repentance and faith. Notice that like Lazarus, we put ourselves in the position of “beggars” for grace when we hold out our hands to receive Christ. God will respond by lifting us to sit at his table, as sons and daughters, to feast in the kingdom of heaven.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2