Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
One says, Jesus tells us a story about the evils of wealth. No, insists another, it's a story about collective sin and the need for social justice. Still others shout out their opinions: it's about the existence of purgatory and hell; no, Jesus is teaching us about not ignoring charity. Well, any of these could be part of the purpose of the story. I want to add a spin of my own, one that gives the story something more than a moral lesson: the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a story about persuasion; that is, what does it take to convince an incredulous soul that he or she is created for a reason greater than eating, sleeping, reproducing, and dying? Though the story Jesus tells starts with Lazarus, I would start at the end. The Rich Man pleas with Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers to repent so that they might avoid hell. Abraham answers, “If [your brothers] will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” If they will not be persuaded by Moses, the prophets, or someone risen from the dead, what will persuade them? What persuaded you to follow Christ, to live a life beyond your basic biological urges?
Think for a moment about what it means to persuade. The word itself simply means to convince or to influence. We are persuaded by reason, emotion, force, authority, deception, and convention. Most of us would like to think we are persuaded by evidence reasonably evaluated. But few of us would radically alter the way we live our lives simply b/c someone gave us a good argument to do so. Emotion and social convention are likely the two most influential elements in our decision-making. For Christians, especially Catholics, authority plays a huge role in persuading us to accept or reject ideas about the faith. It's a bonus if authoritative persuasion is also rational, emotionally satisfying, and socially conventional, but authority alone is usually enough. And there's an excellent reason for saying that authority alone is usually enough to sway us. Simply put, we believe all that we believe b/c we accept the truthfulness of the biblical witnesses and the experiences of God handed on to us by the apostles, their successors, and our ancestors in the Church. Added to these witnesses is the testimony of our experiences with God within that long tradition. Other elements may contribute to the lasting power of our faith, but it is essentially our stubborn refusal to abandon apostolic authority that keeps us persuaded!
Abraham tells the Rich Man that his brothers will not be persuaded to repent even if someone rose from the dead and told them to repent. How does Abraham know this? Because thus far the brothers have refused to listen to the witness of Moses and the prophets; they have rejected the authority of their ancestors in the faith. If they will not leave their heart and mind open to being touched by God through His living Word, they cannot be persuaded in any meaningful way. Rational arguments do not produce faith. Emotion might produce faith but it just as easily destroys it. Social convention produces a trendy faith, one that changes as soon as the conventions do. A lasting faith is built on the solid foundation of the apostles' witness and the Church's Christ-given authority to define what is and is not necessary for salvation. Christ preached the Father's mercy to sinners. He rose from the dead and left us to persuade with our words and deeds that the Father is indeed merciful. So, the question isn't really, “What persuaded you to follow Christ?” but rather, “Are you—by your words and deeds—persuading others to follow him?”
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