In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Had I been picking the gospel for today, brothers and sisters, this would not be the one I would pick, where everything ends up in hell, but this is the one the Church assigns for today, so that’s what I must preach on. It’s a gospel in some ways I’d rather not preach on, at least not today. Notice how Paul, when he addresses the Christians, always calls them “saints.” Most of the Christian preachers I’ve heard, when they address the people of God, call them “sinners.” Today’s sermon is not an indictment, but it is a sermon about hell, isn’t it? And we could call it “The Path to Hell.” If the Orthodox Church was a place where you put a marquee out front to put your sermon down and what it’s about and the pastor’s name, that’s what it would say: “The Path to Hell, by Patrick Henry Reardon,” somebody who knows.
The rich man goes to hell. The word used there is, in Greek, hades. I think that word, hades, appears only about six or seven times in the New Testament, if memory serves. This is one of the times. Now, why did he go to hell? Because he committed lots of murders, right? The gospel doesn’t say that. Doesn’t say he was unfaithful to his marriage vows. Doesn’t say he robbed banks or defrauded people. Doesn’t say that he got drunk or used drugs or any of the other things which will commonly send somebody to hell. It doesn’t say anything like that. Doesn’t tell about any deep, dark perverse secrets in his life. Nothing about that. He just lived an ordinary life. He was living the American dream. He was clothed well, ate well, and at the end God had nothing for him.
Let’s talk about this path to hell, at least as it’s illustrated in today’s gospel. I want to talk about three failures of the rich man. The first we’ll call the lack of opportunity, or rather the loss of opportunity, because there certainly was no lack of opportunity. The text says that every single day there was opportunity—every day. That expression appears there in this morning’s gospel. Kath hemeron, day by day, there was opportunity. He passed his whole life in laziness and self-indulgence. He did what he wanted to do. He lived for himself. Each day was just the same as the day before, and the rich man was not alert. He lived in a sort of moral rut. And you know the things that flow along in a rut usually end up in the sewer.
What were the concerns of this rich man? They were the ordinary concerns that people have all around, ordinary concerns—the very things that Jesus said don’t be concerned about them. Do not be concerned about what you eat or what you drink or what you wear. Don’t be concerned about them. He says that: don’t be concerned about them. And that’s the only thing this man is concerned about. He made sure he was sumptuously clothed, richly fed, and that was the limit of his concern: the matters of this life. He thought nothing of the next life or the coming judgment of God. As far as he was concerned, he had to answer to no one but himself.
He was a man of routine. He lived, as the text says, kath hemeron, day by day. He tended not to notice insignificant things around him, such as a man starving at his doorstep. He tended not to notice that. This rich man had the means and the ample opportunity to get ready for the judgment of God. Day by day, as he went on living his worldly routine, he let these opportunities slip. Each day was just like the one before. There were no fast days, no special seasons of repentance. No Lent, no Advent, just kath hemeron. One day was just like another, and all opportunities went unnoticed.
The second loss: the loss of perspective. You see, perspective is very much a visual matter. The rich man’s vision had become blurry. He didn’t notice things. The objects that he saw bore an improper relationship to one another. His point of view was distorted. It happened sometime in his life, probably in grade school, certainly by middle school or junior high—such institutions seem to be especially designed to distort your view of life. This is why hell came to him as a sort of awakening. You see, damnation caused things to fall into their proper perspective. Too late he gained a focal point on reality.
I remember one of my favorite cartoons was years ago—it was David Mills who brought it to my attention—cartoon of a man entering hell and looking very bewildered. He’s met by a demon who says, “Yes, I know this is all pure superstition and mythology, but here you are.” [Laughter]
Things that appeared to be small have now become things of significance and consequence. Little things, such as crumbs that fall from the table, or the drop of water on the tip of a finger—the man now saw these little things are really huge. He now sees that a poor, weak, sick man is really a person of consequence. He’s got a new perspective.
Notice in this parable that the rich man has no name, and the poor man does? It’s just the opposite of the way we’d do it. We know the names of the rich, the powerful, the popular; tend not to know the names of the poor. It’s the opposite with God. God knows the name of the poor man; the rich man dies nameless. The poor man is a person of consequence, and only does the rich man learn this when it’s too late.
The third loss of the rich man: the loss of freedom. That loss of freedom is indicated at the end of the gospel called “the great chasm.” The great chasm or the great gulf: there’s a great gulf fixed, and this man can no longer do what he wants. The whole of this rich man’s life has been moving toward that chasm. This rich man, in fact, has effectively constructed that chasm. He has put together his own prison. He is the creator of hell. He spent a lifetime becoming accustomed to sin. No sins of commission that I can see; all of them were sins of omission, what he had not done. That’s just as sinful as doing something bad, not doing anything at all.
He became habituated to the absence of God. He lived each day as though there were no God and that he had no moral responsibilities in this world. Day by day he forged the chain of his servitude. Day by day he became less and less free. He gradually, little by little, became the slave of his passions. At the end of his life, he owned no possessions; his possessions all owned him. At the end of his life he discovers a great chasm over which there was now no chance of passage. His own life had dug that chasm, and now he was forever lost.
You see, my brothers and sisters, there are all the things that God creates in the Scriptures—heaven and earth and everything he makes—it never says he makes hell. It’s not God’s creation. No man has ever been predestined for hell. I say that directly in case anyone here still holds such a terrible view, that God predestines anyone to hell. He doesn’t. Scriptures never say so; never, anywhere in the Scriptures is anyone predestined to hell. You see, human beings create their own hell. There’s a wonderful line of C.S. Lewis’s worth quoting here, that the gates of hell are locked from the inside.
To what, then, my brothers and sisters, should we attend? Abraham tells us in this parable to what we should attend. We are to attend to Moses and the prophets; that is to say, we are to attend to God’s holy word. That’s how we’re sanctified, and that’s how we meet God: by attention to his word. God did not speak just a long time ago; he speaks now. His words are all written down. To these, says today’s gospel, we must attend. This is where we meet God. This is the word in which we will find plenty of opportunity and perspective and freedom.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.