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Names written in heaven

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Gospel Commentary Lk 16:19-31


A recent Pew study reported that 72 percent of Americans believe in heaven, but only 58 percent believe in hell. Moreover, some people have taken the spiritual narcotic whereby everyone goes to heaven after death, no matter how life was lived; hence, funeral Masses or services have become canonization ceremonies rather than a time to pray for the soul of the person who now faces judgment. Jesus, however, definitely teaches about hell in our Gospel passage this Sunday. 


What causes a person to be damned to hell? One of my parish second graders would answer, “A mortal sin.” Right. The “Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” reads, “One commits a mortal sin when there are simultaneously present grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. This sin destroys charity in us, deprives us of sanctifying grace, and if unrepented, leads us to the eternal death of hell. It can be forgiven in the ordinary way by means of the sacraments of Baptism and of Penance” (No. 395). For example, if a person plans to kill someone, is of sound mind, murders the person, and is not sorry afterward, that person condemns himself to hell. Of course, the ultimate judgment is God’s.


So, why did the rich man in the parable end up in hell? What did he do? First, let’s pause for a catechetical point: In the Apostles’ Creed we say, “Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, he descended into hell, and on the third day he rose again from the dead.” Remember the gates of heaven had been closed since the sin of Adam and Eve. So those who died went to the netherworld, in Hebrew, “Sheol,” or translated into Greek and Latin, “Hades,” or in English, hell. The faithful, like Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, were in one part of Sheol, a place of happiness where they awaited the Messiah. The mortally sinful went to another part of Sheol, a place of torment. Once Jesus made the sacrifice to forgive sins, he descended to Sheol and took the souls of the faithful to heaven; the sinful remained, and Sheol became hell as we know it.   


Now back to the rich man. What was the mortal sin that damned him to hell? The answer is not what he did but what he failed to do, not his commissions but his omissions. He dressed in fine, purple linen, a cloth that cost 400 times the average daily wage. He feasted sumptuously; most people worked six days, rested on the Sabbath, and had meat to eat that one day only. Nothing is wrong with eating well, dressing well or having a fine home. However, if one is so blessed, one had better be mindful of those in need. 


Also, the rich man was not unkind to Lazarus, in word or deed. However, he simply does not even notice him. He is not only hard hearted, he is heartless. He lacks charity — his love is focused on himself and his desires. His commissions did not condemn him, his omissions did. And, an omission may constitute mortal sin.


We must always be on guard. We are blessed living in this country and this community — yet we could become very comfortable, even blind to the needs of others. Or see the needs and say, “Someone should do something. Those poor people.” The charity in our own souls could dry up. 


Our hearts must be united to Jesus’ Sacred Heart; our hearts must be inflamed with the same charity as his Sacred Heart. Therefore, a good examination is to ask ourselves, “How well do I enact the corporal works of mercy — to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned, bury the dead? And, the spiritual works of mercy — instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish the sinner, forgive injuries, bear wrongs patiently, comfort the sorrowful, pray for the living and the dead? Did I see Lazarus today?”


In the parable, Lazarus is named; the rich man is not. Why? Scripture says, “The righteous shall have their names written in the Book of Life in Heaven.” Lazarus made it. The rich man did not. Will we?


Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, is episcopal vicar for faith formation and director of the Office of Catechetics.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019