Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Torments of the Rich Man

I've been reading John Chrysostom's first sermon on “Lazarus and the Rich Man.” You can read it here too.

After detailing the Nine Sorrows of Lazarus, Chrysostom clearly has his congregation calling for the rich man's blood. How could someone be so cruel? How could someone be so selfish? How could someone be so hard-hearted? And why should this evil man get to live in luxury while virtuous Lazarus suffers among the dogs? It isn't fair; it isn't right!

Chrysostom calms the crowd. You see, the rich man will not simply receive punishment in the life to come. He is already being tormented in this world. Channeling his inner Dostoevsky, Chrysostom offers us this psychological profile of the parable's villain:

Hieronymus Bosch, "Hell"
Do not simply tell me of the man who enjoys an expensive table, who wears silken robes, who takes with him flocks of slaves as he struts in the marketplace: unfold for me his conscience, and you will see inside a great tumult of sins, continual fear, storm, confusion, his mind approaching the imperial throne of his conscience as if in a courtroom, sitting like a juror, presenting arguments as if in a public trial, suspending his mind and torturing it for his sins, and crying aloud, with no witness but God who alone knows how to watch these inner dramas. The adulterer, for example, even if he is immensely wealthy, even if he has no accuser, does not cease accusing himself within. The pleasure is brief, but the languish is long-lasting, fear and trembling everywhere, suspicion and agony. He fears the narrow alleys. He trembles at the very shadows, at his own servants, at those who are aware of his deeds and at those who know nothing, at the woman herself whom he has wronged, and at the husband whom he has insulted. He goes about bearing with him a bitter accuser, his conscience; self-condemned, he is unable to relax even a little. On his bed, at table, in the marketplace, in the house, by day, by night, in his very dreams he often sees the image of his sin. He lives the life of Cain, groaning and trembling on the earth even when no one knows. (32)
That sounds absolutely terrible, doesn't it? If Chrysostom is right, then we might have gained some insight into one area of "Pastoral Care in the Context of Wealth." Chrysostom will make plain in later sermons that the mere condition of wealth isn't necessarily sinful but the acquisition and use of wealth is often suspect. What story might be hidden behind that wealth? A vicious business deal? The exploitation of workers? The abuse of natural resources? Simple avarice? Chrysostom asserts that wealth hints at such stories and that these unshared deeds torment the wealthy making this life a true hell on earth. Does this then present us with a ministry opportunity? Can we invite the disclosure of these unspoken burdens so that they might be loosened? Should we seek these stories, not to accuse the main character, but to offer her a chance at redemption, a chance to step out of that story and into the new life of the Gospel?

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          Chrysostom, John. St. John Chrysostom on Wealth and Poverty. Trans. Catharine P. Roth. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984.

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