How to get to Hell
(Readings: Amos 6:1, 4-7; Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31)
Introduction to Mass
In the first reading this Sunday the prophet Amos denounces the luxurious lifestyle of rich people in his society, and especially the way it made them forget about their relationship with God. The in the gospel Jesus attacks the same lifestyle, for another reason: that it hardens people's hearts and makes them ignore the needs of the poor and weak, even if they happen to be on their own doorstep.
If there have been occasions when we've turned our back on anyone who's needed our help, we begin this Mass by acknowledging the sinfulness of what we've done, and by asking God for the grace to change.
This Sunday's readings carry on with the same theme as last week, bringing out what we might call the social teaching of the Bible. The first reading and the psalm include some very pithy statements about God's disapproval of the self-centredness of the rich, and his taking sides with the poor. The gospel passage brings out more of Jesus' own teaching about the attitudes towards money and possessions that are consistent with membership of God's Kingdom of God, and the attitudes that aren't consistent with that membership.
Biblical passages like these are in many ways just as much of a challenge to the mentality of modern believers as they were to the Chosen People in Christ's time and in Amos' time, though maybe for different reasons.
For example, I think we can question just how many Christians today really believe that the fate of every individual is determined by the kind of factors that Jesus talks about in the gospel - that an attitude of complacency and blindness towards other people's suffering is the sort of attitude that's likely to land a person in hell? How many people believe now, with the earnestness and the immediacy that Christ had, that there's even such a thing as the alternative between heaven and hell?
I think there's tendency among a lot of Christians now to think of the faith as a sort of moral code to live by in this present world, and to treat Christian beliefs about life after death, and perhaps about the effects of Jesus' death and resurrection, as if they're just myths.
So that for example the point of this section of the gospel would be that the poor should be looked after because that's a humane thing to do. Whereas, in fact, that doesn't seem to be Jesus' main point here at all. There's more to his argument here than that.
Jesus started from the assumption that we live in a world marked by sin - all the effects of human weakness and malice - and one of the ways that sin shows itself is that while some people live comfortably and even luxuriously, there are others who are suffering, through a lack of basic necessities.
Only some people in our world can be described as winners, in terms of wealth and material standard of living. At the same time there are losers. And of course, in Jesus' parable, the rich man symbolises the winners while Lazarus stands for the losers.
Jesus' point here, it seems to me, is that what's going to happen to the winners in the next life - whether they go to heaven, or whether they go to hell - is determined in large part by the attitude they take now to the losers.
In the gospel last week Jesus spoke in a critical way about wealth and about wealthy people. It was nothing to do with being jealous, or because he wanted to be rich himself. His attitude was the opposite. Jesus always presented money and possessions as a danger to the spiritual life, an obstacle to developing the right values, an obstacle to developing our relationship with God. His own way of life was consistent with those beliefs.
And it's not being unfair, I think, to say that people who dedicate a lot of time and effort to accumulating money and possessions are not usually very spiritually-minded. They're usually people who think that the only side of life that really matters is the material side, and other people exist to get them what they want out of life.
The prophet Amos was venting his scorn - as God's spokesman - about people who were living in that way, wrapped up in the paraphernalia of their new wealth, and indifferent to the welfare of the community as a whole, which Amos saw as living as if God didn't exist.
At the same time, according to the Bible the other danger of being comfortable and secure, and enjoying a luxurious lifestyle, is that it makes people blind to the suffering of others. Their consciences, and their capacity for compassion, is blunted.
People who have done well out of life often become very philosophical about the hardships others have to endure. There's a complacency - sometimes even a justification - of other people's poverty and suffering: it's inevitable, it's always going to exist, so there's no point trying to do anything to alleviate it.
But if the picture that Jesus conjures up is to be taken seriously, the people who think like that are the people who are going to have their fortunes reversed in the next life. Whereas those who are deprived now - the Lazaruses - are going to be welcomed into heaven with open arms.
The divisions that exist in this world aren't just removed, in the Kingdom; they're reversed. Jesus even rubs it in, with a few colourful details: the rich man can see where Lazarus is now and how he's being comforted. The rich man is denied any relief of his torture and his agony. He's not even allowed to warn his brothers, so that they can avoid the same fate when their time comes.
To some people this might seem vindictive and excessive. But of course there was nothing inevitable about where the rich man ended up. Christ isn't drawing a literal picture of a God who takes pleasure in being vindictive. He's dramatising what might happen to anyone if they spend their life solely looking after their own enjoyment, and ignoring other people's misery, right under their noses. And Jesus' real aim in using this threatening kind of language is to jolt his listeners into changing their attitudes and their behaviour before it's too late.
So there are a few conclusions that we can draw from the readings this Sunday.
One is that according to Christ, the various divisions between wealth and poverty that exist in the world are the result of human sinfulness and selfishness. They're not some kind of natural law that we just accept as inevitable, part of the world the way God made it.
The second thing is that if we want to see the real world reflecting the values and the ethos of God's Kingdom then we have to work in whatever way we can to remove those divisions. There is any number of situations where we can give a moral lead - mostly by our own example, but also by speaking out and raising awareness, as the prophet Amos was doing in his day.
And the last thing is that, for us as Christians, we can ask ourselves whether we take our beliefs about heaven and hell as seriously as Jesus took them - or do we fall into the way of thinking that it's all a bit of a fairy-story or a myth?
Those are the lessons that I would take from this warning that Christ gives in the gospel this Sunday and the vivid picture that he draws of God's final judgement.