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Galatians 1.11-19

Luke 16.19-31

To discern the spiritual message of this morning’s parable, I’m following the teaching of a fourth century saint of the early Syriac Church, St Aphrahat, called the “Persian Sage.” He was a contemporary of St Ephrem of Syria. St Romanos the melodist, in the sixth century, was also from Syria, although he spent most of his life in Constantinople. With these saints, St Aphrahat belonged to that Church of early Syriac Christianity which was directly connected to the primitive Church of Jerusalem. In their interpretations of the bible, these early Syrian Christian theologians, then, set before us the original ethos of the early Jewish Christian Church, and this is why I value the teaching of early Syriac Christianity. The Syrian language is cognate to biblical Hebrew, and so these early Syrian theologians thought and wrote in the poetic imagery of the bible. With roots in early Syriac Christianity, Orthodox hymnography is filled with Syriac Christian imagery. It shapes much of Orthodox theological expression, even as the ecumenical language of the Orthodox Church came to be expressed, necessarily so given historical circumstances, in the prose of Greek philosophy.

Of this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, St Aphrahat says: “The Rich Man stands for the nation which ate and grew fat and kicked and forgot the LORD.” He is quoting Dt 32.15. This verse is drawn from the Song of Moses, which constitutes the Second Biblical Canticle, chanted in the Orthodox Church only during Great Lent, and then only at Tuesday Matins. This Song of Moses is sung only during Great Lent, perhaps, because it is so profoundly penitential. It functions to guide the faithful into their heart to acknowledge the sins and trespasses that have alienated them from God, paralyzed their souls, and made them “dead men before God” (I’m drawing from St Macarius of Egypt, another saint close in spirit and mind to the early Syriac Christian Church).

This being so, I wonder if we should consider it noteworthy at all that this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is assigned in the weeks before the beginning of the Nativity Fast, when we begin to prepare our souls for the coming, the Advent, of God With Us, born of the Holy Virgin in the cave, because there was no room for them in the inn (Lk 2.7)—which, by the way, shows very much the shape of this morning’s parable, as we shall see in a moment. In these weeks now before the beginning of the Nativity fast, the Song of Moses is not sung directly, of course; but, as St Aphrahat interprets this parable, the parable puts us in mind of the Song of Moses.

St Aphrahat was writing in Persia when Christians were under threat of persecution by the Persian government because it was at war with the Roman Empire that was Christian. He was writing 1700 years ago, commenting on a parable that was spoken 2000 years ago, which echoes the Song of Moses written centuries earlier in the days of Moses, even before Israel took possession of the “Land of their Inheritance.” And yet, how relevant to our nation today is this Syrian Christian interpretation of this morning’s parable! “Jesherun (Upright One, a symbolic name of Israel, describing her ideal character),” it says in Dt 32.15. “Jesherun ate. He grew fat, he kicked. He grew thick and sleek. Then, he forsook God who made him, and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.”

Dear faithful: how does a nation escape this indictment that has enshrined the murder of unborn innocents as a civic right, and legalized sexual perversities that are an abomination to God? How is this legislation not of the spirit of the anti-Christ’s hatred of the woman, the Mother of our children, the Mother even of our God, whom he seeks to destroy! (Rev 12.4)

The Song of Moses goes on, and it is worth quoting: “[Israel has forsaken God, and] stirred God to jealousy with strange gods!” Yes, what god does our nation follow when it sanctions the murder of innocents? In the bible, at least one of his names is Moloch. What god is it that legalizes sexual perversities and immoralities of all kinds? That god, too, has many names in the bible; and it is not a god but a devil. “With abominable practices,” Moses goes on, “they stirred God to anger. They sacrificed to demons and not to God, to gods they knew not. New and fresh gods came in. They forgot the Rock who begat them. They forgot the God who gave them birth.” (Dt 32.15-18)

An emblem of the nation that has spurned God, then, is St Aphrahat’s interpretation of the Rich Man who spurned Lazarus at his gate. As for Lazarus, “He is an image of Our Savior,” says St Aphrahat. “He longed and sighed to get some fruit from the Rich Man (St Aphrahat seems to be referring to the “blood of the grape” in Dt 32.14, the produce of the vineyard of Israel the LORD planted) and receive it for the Father who had sent Him. But no man gave to Him. And, where the LORD says, ‘the dogs came and licked His sores,’ the dogs that came are the Gentiles who lick the wounds of Our Savior, His Body, which they receive in the Holy Sacraments of His Church.” (Murray, p, 60) Lazarus, that is, is the God the rich nation has spurned, choosing instead to follow those that are not gods and justify their abominations.

This morning’s parable, then, as it is explained by a saint of the early Syriac Christian Church in the fourth century, gives expression perhaps to the heaviness that has settled over many of us as we watch with alarm what looks like a growing shadow of evil looming over our nation, deceiving and beguiling us with its lies. When even the churches of American religion forsake the LORD and begin promoting and supporting the abominations of those that are not gods in the Name of the LORD, what hope is there for such a nation? What are those who wish to be faithful to the God of Israel to do under the threat of who knows what kind of trials and tribulations may be coming upon them—from inside and outside the walls even of the Church—if they are resolved to bear witness to the Body of Christ? What hope is a preacher of Christ’s Holy Gospel to offer them?

“Let all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the LORD, for He comes!” cries the Psalmist with the angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior to the shepherds! “He comes to judge the earth! He will judge the world with righteousness, and all the peoples with His Truth. Say among the nations, the LORD reigns! Yea, the world is established. It shall never be moved! He will judge the peoples with equity!” (Ps 96.10-13)

If we wish to save our skin and enjoy the good things of this life without suffering persecution of whatever degree, then let us fall in with the Rich Man this morning and be counted among those of our nation who take the path that is broad and easy to follow after gods who are not God. We’ll keep the troublesome Savior at our gate outside because there is no room for Him in the inn of our soul. But, if our eyes are looking to the hills whence comes our salvation, then perhaps we need to start preparing ourselves to fall in with Our Savior who comes to us as Lazarus, the poor man ignored, forgotten, despised, knocking at the door of our heart, calling us to open the door that He may come in and dine with us and we with Him (Rev 3.2).

On this point, too, St Aphrahat offers pastoral guidance that is ever-current: descend into the inner chamber of your heart and, taking up your cross in the work of prayer, dig deeper into your soul to lay the foundation of your life on the Rock who is Christ (Lk 6.38). This puts me in mind of another Syrian saint: St Isaac of Nineveh, a contemporary of St Romanos. “Be diligent,” he says, “to enter the chamber that is within you, and you will see the chamber of Heaven; for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both. The ladder of the Kingdom (the Cross) is within you, hidden in your soul [not in the riches of this life!]. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend.” (Hom 2)

These ascending steps of St Isaac bring us back to St Aphrahat. He would call them, “perfecting the rest of God,” clearly the mystery of the LORD’s Death and Sabbath Rest in the Tomb by which He transfigured our heart into a Bridal Chamber. “Perfecting the rest of God” is the spiritual work of putting to death what’s earthly in us, namely our idolatry together with the greed, lust and anger that flow from it; putting these to death by acting out our prayer in mercy, kindness, and generosity even to those who hate us, but also by standing up unashamedly for what is good and right (Lk 12.8-9). In this we unite ourselves to Christ, we “partake of the divine nature as we flee from the corruption that is in the world because of lust” (2 Pt 1.4), and so we become blameless and innocent children of God, shining in the resurrection of Christ as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil 2.15). May God grant us, by His Spirit, even in the darkness of night, to join the shepherds and Magi and come to fall down before Lazarus, Christ our God, the Light of the world, in the cave outside the inn, to ‘perfect the rest of God’ in our souls and bodies under circumstances that are not beyond our strength! Amen!