Beloved Fathers, brothers, Mother, and sisters, today’s Gospel comes to us very providentially. As many of us have just gone through COVID and the flu in the last two weeks, Saint Luke presents us with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Today the Church shows us the bright and shining glory that accompanies all who endure infirmities.
Here Christ presents to us the beggar Lazarus. Not only was he homeless, but he is described as “laid at the gate” of the rich man, meaning he was so infirm or so far gone in illness that he was either paralyzed or otherwise immobilized that he couldn’t even crawl over to the rich man’s residence himself. Some had to put him there. In addition to (or perhaps because of ) his infirmity, he is full of sores. What an awful sight of poverty, disease and utter neglect! It wasn’t even a fellow human who cared for him, but it was the unclean dogs who tended to his wounds. The rich man was so hard-hearted in the face of Lazarus, that Lazarus died from his negligence! What an ignoble and senseless death!
But immediately the angels come and take him to Paradise, to be rewarded in the bosom of Abraham. While the Gospel continues in the description of the fate of the rich man, I would like to reflect on the rewards laid up for all who like Lazarus suffer and endure hardship.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Christ says, “by your patience, possess ye your souls.” (St. Luke 21:19). The Fathers tell us that Christ does not say, “by your fasting possess ye your souls” or “by your long prayer rules possess ye your souls.” No—it is by our patience that we are saved and the Church gives us many examples of patient endurance in her saints.
Job the much-suffering, one of the righteous of the Old Testament is another such paragon of patience. Job was a wealthy, righteous man like his ancestor, Abraham. He was hospitable to strangers and helped the defenseless. He would perform sacrifices for the sins of his children in case they had sinned in their thoughts, so careful was he to follow God’s law. And yet Chrysostom declares that Job shown more brilliantly when he was festering with sores on a dung-heap-much like our Lazarus. All the calamities that befell him—the loss of his immense wealth, the sudden death of all his ten children, the complete and utter loss of his health, and any support he could have found in his wife and friends attest to Job’s patience. These occurrences were terribly traumatic and by enduring them Job shows to be more courageous and valiant in spiritual combat and more spiritually advanced than when he performed virtuous deeds in relative comfort and security. Job showed that His love for God was not dependent on any blessing or benefit from God or because it was convenient and comfortable. He loved God for His own sake, his love was absolute. Stripped of everything and all human dignity, Job in his illness and in his pain—Job on the cross, brilliantly shone as a man who loved God above every thing and every circumstance.
While we were sick with illnesses, most of us had at least a day or two where we were more or less confined to our cells, perhaps even just our beds. It could easily seem like those days were lost—we stopped having our daily liturgies and even most of our services. Work (for most) was put on hold. From an external point of view, that’s what it looks like—like nothing. No liturgy, perhaps barely much prayer on our own, no work, no productivity. But our Fathers tell us that it is through involuntary afflictions that Christians of our days are cleansed from our sins and win crowns.
Father John Krestiankin tells us, “In these times of scarcity of spiritual leaders and weakening of the faith in the faithful, the Lord has given us an impartial guide which heals, teaches and instructs us—sickness and sorrow.” We are not capable of achieving the feats of our fathers and we do not have any God-bearing elders. But that does not mean that God leaves us without opportunity to grow and be healed. Furthermore, Fr. John writes: “Your suffering, and the grain of mercy, compassion and aid your close ones show you are ascribed to all of you as podvig, which petitions for your souls’ salvation.” We have had plenty of opportunities to suffer, however briefly, in these last two weeks. We also had plenty of opportunities to help our brothers—to visit the sick Lazarus on our porches—in bringing food and medicine to them, in offering a word of comfort, or even by simply offering more fervent prayer on their behalf. All of this, however insignificant it may seem, however much of “nothing” it may feel, is actually the secret healing of our passions and the gathering of spiritual treasures. Fr. John calls this “repentance in deeds”. Sometimes we can have the mistaken notion that to make up for our sins (if we’re confused enough to think that that were actually possible), we have to put on hardships, add our own podvigs to our life. But Fr. John calls “repentance in deeds” to mean enduring all the things that happen to us. Just accepting the lot God allows for us, especially if that includes sickness and sorrows, is enough for us, just like it was for Lazarus. Saint John Chrysostom remarks about Lazarus that enduring his infirmity was enough for his salvation, in fact the Gospel does not ascribe any virtue to Lazarus and yet he gained the same reward as his father Abraham.
Why is patience so great? Why is it the source of our salvation? From the outside, from a worldly perspective, it feels like so much “nothing”. Can this be what God is asking of me? Surely God would be more pleased if we were all healthy and could resume our daily liturgies sooner and we could go back to work. But patience is not nothing. Saint Peter tells us in his first epistle, “Now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:4-7). Involuntary afflictions that come to us are more precious than whatever work we might do for God that otherwise is pleasing to us and looks good. By the very nature of it being involuntary, unwilled, we can see why it is so important. The desert fathers talk about how it is precisely our will, our fallen human will that is a wall of brass separating us from God. And by enduring sickness and involuntary afflictions, our fallen will is broken, even if only temporarily, for the duration of our affliction and God can come to us more easily.
Saint Paisios of Mount Athos said that the horrible cancer that eventually took his life was more valuable than all his ascetic labors he had previously engaged in. This is a saint who had fasted for forty days at a time, lived in solitude in the deserts, who prayed through the nights. But it was cancer that brought him closest to God. Father Arsenie Papacioc, who also led a strict monastic life both in monasteries and in the wilderness, had his greatest encounter with God while in the prison camps of Romania.
In the Cross of Christ, we see the incomprehensible love of God for us. Sometimes, because we are so used to it, we can forget that our God suffered. Our God died. Even if just physically speaking, God suffered more on the cross than any of us ever will. But it is precisely why it is on the cross we can see how much God truly loves us, for surely it was not convenient for God to be crucified. So likewise it is when we undergo our crosses that we can express our love for God the most, and not when we are comfortable and feel pious when everything goes our way.
Fathers and brethren, let us thank God that we are all back to health and that we had an opportunity to suffer like Lazarus in today’s Gospel. God is always looking out for us and seeks excuses to give us crowns. The Golden-mouth again tells us that a lot of times God sends us short afflictions—short enough for us to win crowns, but not long enough to drive us to despair. Let us take this experience of the last few weeks as a reminder of the virtue that comes in “doing nothing”. Let us remember the patience of Job and Lazarus, covered in sores and abandoned by all. Let us take to heart the experience of our contemporary saints, Elders Paisios and Arsenie. God is always looking out for us, and it is especially when we are undergoing afflictions and illnesses, when our regular, busy and productive schedule is thrown out the window, that God cleanses us from our passions and rewards us for our patience. May Christ God grant that we also may be vouchsafed the rewards of Job and Lazarus and of all the saints who were saved by their patience. Amen.