On Fasting and caring for the poor

Homily for Nov 1st, based on Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:8

I would like to frame this talk with the words from St. Paul to the Romans, he writes “you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Romans 2:21) And from this comes the famous saying we all know “Practice what you preach”.

I say this, because I feel stricken by today’s Epistle and Gospel reading, the application of which I find myself continually working on, and more often than not I seem to fail horribly. It’s obviously difficult to “preach” about a topic I personally continue to have such a hard time with, and that topic is: fasting, and caring for the poor.

It may not be immediately obvious why today’s Gospel reading is about fasting and caring for the poor, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is burdened with theological richness, and there are many fine points which could be made about it. At it’s most basic in this parable we have a rich man, and then we also have this poor homeless beggar named Lazarus. Both of them die and their positions become reversed, the one who used to be rich and who enjoyed a luxurious life finds that he is in fiery torments, but on the other hand the poor beggar Lazarus after he dies is taken to rest in the bosom of Abraham.

So what’s the point of this? Basically the point is that the poor homeless beggar Lazarus is being held up as a good example for us to follow, and the rich man is being held up as a negative example. Yes really, that’s the basic point. Jesus is saying it’s better for us to be like that poor homeless beggar Lazarus, than to be like the rich man.

We’ve all heard Jesus famous expression that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, well the subtext of that expression is that if you happen to be a poor beggar like Lazarus then it would be relatively easier for you to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Not that anyone is guaranteed, or excluded, whether rich or poor, but the kingdom of Heaven is simply closer to the poor and lowly than it is to the rich and powerful.

There are a lot of very famous, very rich, preachers out there today who preach something called “the prosperity Gospel”, basically that if you put God first he’ll make you rich. Not only is that not true, it’s nearly the opposite of truth, Christ actually preached “The Poverty Gospel”! As we can see from today’s parable where the poor beggar Lazarus flies to heaven, and the rich man who would eat sumptuous feasts every day is condemned to fiery torments.

The principle of this parable has to do with God’s fairness. As Abraham said to the rich man “you in your lifetime received your good things, but Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” Think for a moment about what if the opposite had happened. What if the rich man on departing this life, after having greedily feasted on sumptuous foods every day, then went on after his death to rest in the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, but the poor, hungry, and downtrodden Lazarus, whose greatest wish had simply been to have a scrap of food from the rich man’s tables, then went on after his death to an even worse poverty. Wouldn’t that be the height of unfairness? So Jesus tell us plainly that it is not going to be that way. Those who devote their lives greedily to riches and pleasures, and those who live in poverty and pain, will both experience an opposite condition after their deaths.

So, what can we do about this? What would you do with your life if you heard this message from Jesus. Speaking personally, I have a wife, I have a son. Honestly I’m a big wimp, I don’t think homelessness and abject poverty would suit me very well. No doubt you probably feel the same about that.

Well, the Church proscribes two things that we can do: fasting, and caring for the poor.

Willingly eating less food, and also willingly giving up the richer foods, the milk, the cheese, the eggs, the oil, the meats. Willingly depriving ourselves from time to time is in a way like attempting to step into the shoes of the poor beggar Lazarus, an attempt to feel some of the poverty of his life, and to take on ourselves a little bit of the pain of his life, at least for a little while.

At the same though we must also remember to have compassion upon those for whom fasting is not a choice of piety but rather an inescapable dilemma. So, unlike the rich man who cared only for himself, we must use our excess riches, and our surplus food, to do what we can to help the poor. The reason the rich man was condemned to “fiery torment” was not simply because he was rich, but because he used his riches to cloth himself “in purple and linen and feast sumptuously every day”. He could have done much to help the poor man Lazarus who was sitting at his doorstep if only he had but lived a simpler and more moderate lifestyle.

To willingly give up everything and become a beggar for Christ is always an option though. In the long history of the Orthodox Christian faith there have been many who have done exactly that. We usually call them monks, and many times we also end up calling them saints. One such modern example is the Elder Dobri Dobrev (link to article on Dobri Dobrev). He spends his days begging for change on the streets of Bulgaria, and while living in poverty himself, he has contributed over $100,000 to the Churches of his homeland.

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians in today’s Epistle reading that “You are the body of Christ… are all apostles, are all prophets, are all teachers, are all miracle workers?” We might also add that not all are monks, and not all are holy beggars like Elder Dobri. Then Paul goes on to say that “I will show you a surpassing way”, what is this special way? Paul next talks about love. Love is the “surpassing way” and is the primary calling of all Christ’s followers, from beggars to kings.

Fasting is one expression of this love. Fasting is about loving God more than riches, it’s about loving holiness more than food, it’s about loving our fellowman more than ourselves. It’s about following the example of Christ, the example of him who became poor and suffered for our sake. To follow his example means that out of love we also become poor and suffer for the sake of others. To help us in this let us look to the example of the poor beggar Lazarus, and to his comforting outcome. Let us also not forget about the rich man who “feasted sumptuously every day”, and his painful torment.

To Jesus Christ be glory, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.