Throughout the centuries, and even today, many people have what might be called mystical experiences. They see visions and dream dreams, to quote the Prophet Joel. Thus St Paul experienced the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and it changed his life. Similarly, St Peter and the other disciples encountered Christ risen from the dead and proclaimed it throughout the world. These experiences energized their ministries and jump-started the spread of the Gospel throughout the ancient world.
Such experiences continued throughout Christian history, right up to our own day. One well-known Christian thinker in the modern world, the Russian Orthodox bishop in London, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) described his encounter with the Lord in these words: “I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed Him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of Him. I was found; I did not find Him.
“I was a teenager then … I could not accept aimless happiness. Hardships and suffering had to be overcome; there was something beyond them. Happiness seemed to be stale if it had no further meaning … I decided that I would give myself a year to see whether life had a meaning, and if I discovered it had none, I would not live beyond the year. I had no use for Church. I did not believe in God.”
Under duress, young Anthony attended a religious lecture at the Russian youth organization. He was greatly disturbed by the lecture and asked his mother for a copy of the New Testament to check the truth of what the speaker had been saying.
He describes what happened: “I expected nothing good from my reading, so I counted the chapters of the four Gospels to be sure that I read the shortest, not to waste time unnecessarily. And thus it was the Gospel according to St Mark which I began to read.
“I do not know how to tell you of what happened. I will put it quite simply and those of you who have gone though a similar experience will know what came to pass. While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a Presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of Him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will… This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist.”
PBS commentator Frederica Mathewes-Green tells of a similar experience. She was a vocal agnostic who had dabbled in Hinduism. In Facing East – A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (San Francisco, 1997), she describes her husband Gary as “a political animal who just didn’t think much about God.” She then tells how that changed:
“Gary’s shell began to crack when a professor required his philosophy class to read a Gospel. As he read the words of Jesus, he became convinced that here was one who ‘speaks with authority.’ Since Jesus said there was a God, Gary began to doubt his doubting.”
Federica’s turn came on their honeymoon trip to Europe where the following took place: “One day in Dublin I looked at a statue of Jesus and was struck to my knees, hearing an interior voice say, ‘I am your life.’ I knew it was the One I had rejected and ridiculed, come at last to seize me forever.”
What was different about these people, compared to the brothers of the rich man in Christ’s parable?
Why “Few Are Chosen”The Apostles were religious people; they observed the precepts of Judaism as practiced in their day. Others were contemptuous of religion and had ridiculed it. Yet somewhere deep inside them was a search for meaning, a hidden disposition to faith, even if they were not practicing any religion at the moment. Thus when these momentous experiences took place, they received them wholeheartedly and changed their entire way of life.
People who have no interest in God or in any kind of an interior life, who are content pursuing a materialist way of life might easily shrug off a spiritual experience as some kind of delusion. They might blame it on a touch of the flu or having too much to drink.
Similarly the rich man’s brothers in the parable may have paid lip service to the Scriptures, but the focus of their lives was far from the things of God. They would not even have heard a voice from the dead.
Christ’s AlternativeA parable is a story with a moral, not a detailed history of an event. In this case, as in most, the moral is found at the end of the story. When the rich man in the parable asks Abraham to send Lazarus to shake up his brothers, Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets: let them listen to them” (Luke 16:29). In other words, they have the Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – as their means of discerning the mind of God for them.
This saying, of course, is directed at us – it is the moral of the story. We are meant to base our faith on the mystery of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures rather than on some fantasy that the Holy Virgin or an angel might visit us. Just as our daily life must be based on something more practical than a hope of winning the lottery, so our Christian life must have the solid foundation of the Word of God to us.
We have not only the Law and the prophets, but the Gospels and Epistles. We have the witness of Christ and the apostles, the testimony of the martyrs and the ascetics. We have the power of the holy mysteries, the words of our liturgical texts and the unspoken voice of the holy icons. These are the voice of the Lord to us – let us hear them in faith.
A Missed OpportunityWhen people think about violating God’s law, they think about sins of commission: doing something prohibited like stealing, harming another, or the like. We often forget that sins of omission – things that we neglect to do – are often even more damaging.
The rich man in Christ’s parable is not accused of any sin of commission. He is not blamed for being rich any more than Lazarus is praised for being poor: in itself, having money is not a sin. We are not told how he made his money. He is not accused of defrauding people as Zacchaeus claimed to have done. The only thing he is accused of is not giving alms.
The poor man, Christ says, lay at the rich man’s gate, hoping for scraps. It may be easy to ignore a panhandler on the street; it is not so easy to ignore him when he is at your doorstep day after day. Yet this is what the rich man did. He did not overlook abstract appeals from far-away charities; he passed by a flesh-and-blood person in need on his own doorstep, “the living creature,” as St John Chrysostom describes him, “for whom God cares.”
The rich man in Christ’s parable may have felt that he needed every scrap he had acquired, but as St John Chrysostom affirmed, he did not know what he needed it for: “If a person enjoys luxury in moderation and distributes the rest to the stomachs of the poor, then his wealth does him good. But if he is going to give himself up to luxury and profligacy, not only does it not help him at all, but it even leads him down to the great pit. That is what happened to this rich man” (On Wealth and Poverty).