Amos 6.1-7; 1 Tim 6.11-16; Luke 16.19-31
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital
& Church of the Incarnation
[NB. Click on the Pod-o-Matic Podcast Player to listen. The power was out on campus tonight. So, we started Mass with candlelight. I read the Gospel and as soon as the congregation said, "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ" the lights snapped on! I misquoted a line from scripture in the homily. And as I am correcting myself, my lovely and amazing sacristan, Joycelene brings my #1 Liturgical Fan to provide me with a Holy Wind...strange night in Irving, TX.]Let’s talk about Hell. We can’t read this gospel out loud this morning/evening without saying something about what Hell is. To skip around the subject after reading what is probably the most explicit description of Hell we have in the N.T. would be dodgy at best, irresponsible at the worst. So here goes. . .
Let’s get a definition first. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1033), we read: “We cannot unite with God unless we freely choose to love him.” So far, so good. We must choose to love God in order to live with Him forever. Continuing, “But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves.” How do we fail to love God? How do we reject His invitation to live with Him forever? We sin against Him, our neighbors (meaning any other human being), and ourselves.
Alright, how do we sin? Let’s read a definition of sin and then return to Hell (no pun!): “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience…” When we act against, speak against, desire against reason, truth, and our properly form conscience, we sin. Continuing on: “…[sin is a] failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods.” OK. When you are attached viciously (in a manner of a vice, a bad habit) to goods that are not The Good (God), then you fail to give your love to God and to your neighbors. So, loving things or ideas or desires in a way that fundamentally excludes God is a failure in genuine love. And more: “[Sin] wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” When you act against, speak against, and desire against reason, truth, and your rightly formed conscience, you wound or injure your very nature; in other words, you damage that which makes you loveable to God and the rest of us—your creaturliness, your nature as a redeemed child of the Father. One more: “[Sin] sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from [God’s love]…Sin is thus (according to St Augustine) ‘love of oneself even to the contempt of God.’”
Now, back to Hell. Remember: we cannot be united with God if we sin against Him, neighbor, or self. The CCC continues: “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.” This is straight from Matthew’s gospel: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned. (Matt 25.31-46). More: “[To die in sin] without repenting or accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by [your] own free choice.” That is, if you leave this life having lived apart from God—His love, His mercy—and you leave this life having failed to help those in need, you will live in eternity in exactly the same way you lived this life: separated from God. Hell, therefore, “[is the state] of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed…” Did you hear that? Hell is the definitive self-exclusion from an eternal life with God and His saints. SELF-exclusion. You put yourself in Hell. God wants you in heaven with Him. Why would He put you Hell? Answer: He wouldn’t. Or rather: He won’t!
Paul tells Timothy: “Lay hold of eternal life, to which you are called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” You do this by pursuing “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” Paul urges Timothy: “Compete well for the faith.” The better translation reads: “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you were made.” Did you hear that? You are made to live with God forever! God created you, created all of us in such a way that we can live beyond this life of flesh and blood, beyond our sin, beyond death itself—we can live with Him in “unapproachable light.”* But we cannot live with Him if we sin. Not now and not forever.
The Rich man in Luke’s gospel finds himself suffering torment in the flames of Hell. Why? Because he was rich? No. Because he wore purple garments and ate sumptuously on fine linen? No and no. Because he drove a Land Rover? Wore Gucci and Donna Karan? Vacationed in France? No, no, and no. The Rich Man is burning in Hell b/c “he received what was good in [his] lifetime” and left his neighbor, Lazarus, hungry and dying at his door. For the Rich Man, Lazarus was his way into eternal life and he, the Rich Man, stepped over Lazarus, letting him suffer the agony of his sores and watching him, day-by-day, die of starvation. How ironic then that the Rich Man, once he is in Hell, asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with just a drop of cool water on his finger! Unfortunately, for the Rich Man, such a thing is impossible. Once you have chosen how you will live your eternity, you have chosen. Choose wisely.
Now this is the point in the homily where I am supposed to guilt you into giving money to charity or volunteering at the homeless shelter. Do I need to do that? No. We Catholics are famous for our works of mercy. If you aren’t giving money to charity or volunteering to help the poor, start now. No, I don’t want to guilt you into service. Rather I want to make sure you have heard the subtext of this homily—and for that matter, the plain text of our Mass readings. I’ll say it clearly so there is no confusion: God does not want you in Hell. God made you and me to live with Him. He called us to lives of righteousness. He sent His only Son to die for us so that we can live with Him forever. He does everything in His power to seduce us into a life of Love with Him…everything, that is, except take away our free choice and turn us into programmed androids. He loves us so much that He will respect our freedom to reject Him and honor our decision to live without Him. In other words, God will love us straight into Hell. But please, please hear this: He does not want us in Hell nor will He just randomly toss us into Hell. That’s our choice. Not His. A mature relationship with the Father is rooted in His love for us—He loved us first and loves us last—and we come to the fullness of our humanity when we take His love for us and spread it around.
Finally, God is not hiding behind your bathroom door just waiting for you to sin. He is not under your bed taking notes and hoping you “go too far.” He is not floating above your car praying that you will slip up and cuss someone in traffic so He can crash your car in punishment. Ours is not a GOTCHA God who lurks in dark places just hoping we will mess up so He can get us. Nor is he a petty little god of tiny faults and minute flaws, hungry for theological error and spiritual laziness. This kind of god does not provide a way out nor does he/she open avenues of forgiveness and blessing. This kind of god does not bother to care for his/her wicked creatures, but focuses his/her energy on the Bright and Chosen. In this god’s world, the poor are an embarrassment, a trial, and an offense. The wicked are simply disobedient and subject to arbitrary punishment. Fortunately, we do not worship Zeus and Hera, but Christ Jesus who is our forgiveness and our salvation.
For the sake of your spiritual maturity, please move beyond the god of constant surveillance, beyond the god of terrible Gotcha’s, beyond the god of retribution and blood. Move toward the God of Christ, the God who sent His only child, His son, to die for us once on the cross. We are free from sin in his death and resurrection. We are freed, we are free in his one sacrifice for us. Fight the good fight of the faith not the already, always lost battle of “do-it-yourself” salvation. You didn’t create yourself, so you can’t re-recreate yourself. Choose now to love as you are loved and choose against Hell itself.
*For reasons known only to God and my misfiring synapses, I pronounced this as "irreproachable." There is no such word. Duh.