September 25, 2022, Luke 16: 19-31
As far as I can tell, the scriptures talk about hell directly only seven or eight times, and with the possible exception of Judas, and even this isn’t clear, no one in the scriptures is ever said to have been sent to hell by name. No one. There is a hell, according to scripture, but for all we know there may be no one in it.
Today’s gospel is one of those passages, and it’s the only one in which somebody is sent to hell, but this is obviously a story, not a pronouncement, it’s a parable, as many of the passages about hell are parables, and like everything Jesus says about the afterlife, it’s admonitory. He’s admonishing us. He’s trying to get us to change.
But I don’t mean that hell isn’t real or doesn’t matter. It is real and it does matter, and in fact what I want to say today is that if we try to eliminate the possibility of hell from our faith, the real, objective possibility, if we try to explain it away, what Our Lord says about love and compassion doesn’t make sense anyone. Hell is necessary for the Gospel.
No hell, no dignity.
I take that powerful four-word sentence from one of the letters of Flannery O’Connor, the twentieth-century Catholic fiction writer. Someone had written her arguing that the idea of hell was old-fashioned and out of keeping with who Jesus is, and O’Connor responds in this really remarkable paragraph.
Hell is what God’s love becomes to those who reject it. Now no one has to reject it. God made us to love Him. It takes two to love. It takes liberty. It takes the right to reject. If there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity.
A huge amount of theology is compressed here: that hell is necessary exactly because God loves us and wants us to love him, wants to be in relationship with us. That friendship like this is always between persons, and to be a person we must have freedom, we must have the freedom to say no. If we’re forced to love, that’s not love. Love must be freely given, and when we say no, when we walk away, that’s hell, and hell on earth, not just in the afterlife. We create it. We choose it.
We don’t have to be perfect and we can’t be. Everything with God is grace. We have only to make the slightest move towards him. We have only to accept the gift of His Self.
Don’t be fooled. The rich man knew exactly what he was doing, despite his protests after the fact. He walked past Lazarus again and again, and he had plenty of chances to change, even up to the end. You can’t get to hell on a loophole. You don’t get sent there on a technicality. You have to want it.
God doesn’t put people in hell. They put themselves there.
And too often we all walk past from the homeless man. That’s the warning Jesus is giving us. We all walk past. Like the rich man we drug ourselves, we deaden our senses, eating and drinking and consuming everything around us until we no longer realize how deadened we’ve become. This is the hell we create on earth, the hell of our own addictions, and these addictions have terrible consequences for others. Our selfishness and pride create the political and economic structures that lead to the suffering of Lazarus and countless people all over the world.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be scared. He wants us to rejoice. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and we are called to be confident and free. But we can only be free after first recognizing that we are finite, too, we are limited, we’re no different than anyone else.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be scared. He wants us to pay attention.
He wants us to stop judging and start serving.
Start serving: in your family and neighborhood and community, and in the parish through Alpha and Newman and Catholic Daughters and Knights of Columbus and Stone Soup and our own St. Vincent de Paul, which is having an open house today between masses—as so many of you are already doing. I see so much quiet, selfless work behind the scenes, I really admire so many of you, and I think the rest of us should try to follow your example.
Stop judging: this one is harder. Because in the real world, outside of a story, we can never know what’s going on inside anyone else’s mind, especially in the very last moments of their lives.
What does Jesus say on the cross when the thief on one side of him asks for forgiveness? Today you will be with me in Paradise.
I know a woman whose friends kept telling her that her son was going to hell because he wasn’t living a good, Christian life. They were sure of it, and maybe they were right to be concerned. But what Jesus is saying, I think, is mind your own business. He’s saying what Flannery O’Connor says at the end of the letter I quoted: Remember these are mysteries. A God you could understand would be less than yourself.
I know a man who has been very successful in his work. He’s a good husband and father and has a nice house and a nice car, and he told me once that he doesn’t think that he has any sins to feel sorry for. He grew up in a hellfire-and-brimstone church and as an adult has come to reject the whole idea of sin and hell. He doesn’t believe in sin. He doesn’t think he’s a sinner.
And he’s a good man, I admire him, but I know that he’s a sinner, because I know that I am, and we all are, and I worry that comfort and success can sometimes deaden our senses and put us all in spiritual danger–and I think that this man knows this deep down, he knows there’s something missing, as we all do, and what I pray for him, and for myself, and for all of us is that we stop and realize that we’re not in control and that we need God, and that we see all the people on our doorstep, and help all the people who need us—that we face all the challenges in our lives and accept all the graces, the leaves turning on the trees, the stars in the morning, and feel grateful, and feel lifted up. The acknowledgement of sin is an occasion for joy. A great relief comes, and an energy and a hope, again and again, however many mistakes we make, however many times we fail.
This, I think, is what Jesus is saying. Hell isn’t proof that God is a tyrant but that he isn’t. Hell isn’t proof that God is violent and angry but that he loves and cares for us. Hell, too, is good news—serious, challenging, good news, news about the radical choices that we are called to make and are always making, choices with vast, eternal consequences.
No hell, no dignity.