Heaven and hell

A sermon of His Beatitude, Archimandrite Parthenius, on the Sunday of the parable for the poor beggar Lazarus, uttered in the monastery Refectory on 4th November 2018
Archimandrite Parthenius Bigorski


My dear ones, today during the Holy Liturgy we had an opportunity to hear one of the most wonderful parables, which our Lord Jesus Christ, in His Divine wisdom, has told the people. Namely, in His Evangelical story the Divine Teacher and Saviour represents two personalities: of an extremely wealthy man and of a poor beggar named by Him as Lazarus, which means “God is my Helper”. This Lazarus lived nearby, almost at the threshold of the rich man’s house and patiently waited for the crumbs from the rich man’s table in order to feed himself, but as the Gospel says, even that was hard for him to get, so he hungered.

Last weekend I had several young people who came to me for a spiritual conversation. They didn’t know much about the Gospel of Christ and weren’t all that familiar with their own Orthodox faith. During the conversation one of the boys asked me: “Father what would Hell be like and who are those people that would end in it?” And I replied: “I wouldn’t want to think even for a second that there would be human souls in hell, therefore I pray and hope for all men to be saved”. Still the question of this boy inspired me to contemplate all week, as to how nice it would be if all men were saved and entered the Kingdom of God. But we have to be specific, there are certain conditions to fulfill in order to attain salvation. One of them is compassion. The parable about the poor Lazarus gives us a symbolical presentation as to what Heaven and Hell would be like, but what’s more important, it also gives us the conclusion that both Heaven and Hell are something we begin to build in this life here on Earth. Actually, these are spiritual conditions which begin from here, from this life. The person who doesn’t try to find place in his heart for the others, who feeds on the misery of others and is envious by the prosperity of his neighbors, who has directed his mind towards judging everybody, but not himself – such person would inevitably be miserable in heaven, where love flourishes. The Divine Isaak the Syrian has an amazing contemplation regarding this: “I tell you”, says he “that those tormented in Hell are being punished by the ‘whip of love’! And just how bitter and intensive is this martyrdom of love! Because when they feel that they have sinned against love, they are tormented by it more than by any other punishment which causes fear. The sadness which consumes the heart because of the sin against love is far worse than any other possible punishment”.

Parable of the rich man and poor beggar Lazarus, fresco in the Rila Monastery, 19th century

Our Lord Jesus begins the story in a very simple way: There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. There is no judgement in these words, God doesn’t reproach this men for being rich, or liar, or squanderer. The treasure by itself is not a sin. The Bible testifies that Abraham, Job, Lot, Joseph of Arimathea and many other righteous people were also very rich. Then what is it that brought the rich man from the parable to that horrible state after death, that he so desired a slightest refreshment from a single drop of water on the tip of Lazarus’s finger? This man simply lacked compassion during his life. He was selfish. His heart was so petrified, so selfish, that he didn’t even notice the poor Lazarus, who seemed to have been sent to him by God, so that by being compassionate to him, he would attain eternal salvation. That is one of the reasons for the existence of inequality among people in every sense of the word. It exists so that we could attain salvation one through another, by patiently enduring or being compassionate with the misfortune of the neighbors. There are many among us who would say: “I am not as rich as my neighbor”, and point finger at him. “He has so much and jet is so merciless, I on the other hand have nothing to give”. But it’s not like that. You too have something to give. All you need is just compassion, love. We all have to enrich ourselves with love and compassion towards our neighbors. Being sincere friends to our neighbors we become friends of God as well. Then we would be recognized by God and our name would be mentioned by Him, both here and in eternity. Have you noticed that in the story our Lord didn’t even want to mention the name of the man who was so distant from Him, who showed no compassion towards the others. That’s why He doesn’t mention him by name. It’s not that God didn’t love Him, not by far. This man simply didn’t understand that every person in this world is a child of God. Every man, even the most despised one in this world, is a beloved child of God and as God’s children we should show love to our neighbors. And to prove to you that every one of us can give something, I will tell you an example with some spiritual children of mine, who because of the poverty, are forced to go to Austria and work there. Each year these people come for Epiphany in the church in Rostushe. Every one of you who has been there, knows that the church is built on a hill and there is no approach to it by stairs, just a steep dirt road. Therefore in winter when everything is frozen, we come across many troubles with it. Now these spiritual children rejoice for going to Austria to earn money, but not to make their own house, not to by a better car, or to provide their children with something – certainly with God’s help they will do all that – but first they rejoice for being able to help make stairs to the church. When I heard this from them I was so touched, I began to cry. These materially poor people were so rich in spirit, abundant in compassion.

So even the poorest man can give something to his neighbor. It doesn’t have to be something material, it could be for instance, time, patience to hear someone out in his problems, a kind word, a smile, an understanding. In other words: compassion. What a wonderful, amazing word! That is what Christ wants from us – to serve our neighbors with everything we have available.

Thinking, thus, this entire week about Heaven and Hell, it occurred to me how badly we sometimes act in everyday life. Not just lay people but also us, the clergy. And there are also lay people who although constantly attending services, when speaking, they judge with such hatred, they demonstrate such malice and cunning, that if it were up to them no one would have been saved. We eagerly discus as to where to place the ecclesiastic borders, we want to limit the Church which is without boundaries, we fight for jurisdictions, for territories and power, and seem to forget that God is the only absolute ruler, not just of heaven but of Earth as well. We heard a while ago from the sermon of the Bishop Nicholas of Ohrid: “People keep dividing this black earth, but still fail to divide it! They pay, even with their lives, the boundaries of their property, and yet the boundaries remain unsettled… And they don’t want to admit that the sheep has foolishly surrendered its life for a bit of grass, forgetting that this grass is to be used for life and not life for the grass”. For such people who haven’t learned to be friends of neighbors, thus friends of God, recognized by Him for their love and compassion, this realm of love is a torture and they begin to live their Hell even here. But we have seen from the Evangelical moral that God has prolonged the life of the rich man, leaving him enough time for repentance. Let us pray with great warmth and persistence, that all of us, even the ones with most petrified hearts, are reached by the light of Divine love and to understand well the Evangelical message, so that we would not be eternally tortured by the “whip of love”.

There is enough place in this world for all the people, there is even more in Heaven. Therefore, my dear ones, if we want to be good Christians, let us adorn ourselves with love and compassion. In that way we would attain eternity and our names would not be forgotten here on Earth, nor in Heaven, by the One Who never forgets anyone and in Whose heart there is enough room for every one of us.

God bless you all!