And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. (Luk 16:9)
I recall a conversation long ago with a young, up-and-coming entrepreneur. He was a new member of the parish I was serving (Anglican). We had been speaking about stewardship – money. His comment to me was straightforward: “You make it sound like a man can buy his way into the Kingdom of God.” My answer was equally clear: “Yes, you can. But the price might be everything you have.” That was many years ago, but my thoughts have not changed. In fact, time has only confirmed their truth.
We are rightly skeptical when the topic of money is brought up in a religious context. We fear that we are encountering, yet again, one more scheme for getting our money. In a consumer culture, how can we not? But the topic of money, particularly under the heading of “mammon,” was a common part of Christ’s teaching. We strangely think of sex and psychology as proper realms for moral instruction, but somehow hold money to be exempt. We fail to see the true nature of anything when it is viewed as somehow removed from God.
There are interesting verses to be found in the gospel. The opening quote in this article is only one such example. Christ tells us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This seems to flip our modern understanding. We would normally suggest that someone should “put their money where their heart is.” Christ, instead, tells us that your heart will always follow your money. That is a very serious statement, indeed.
It is in this vein that my remarks on “buying your way into the Kingdom” should be understood. Christ told a parable about a rich man and a poor, named Lazarus. The poor man sat by the rich man’s gate but never received even so much as a scrap from the rich man’s table. In time, they both die. Lazarus, we are told, was received into “Abraham’s bosom,” while the rich man was tormented in the flames of hell. When the rich man cries out for help, he is reminded by Abraham of the injustice he refused to correct in his life: the rich man “fared sumptuously” while Lazarus had nothing.
Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. (Luk 16:25)
He then tells the rich man that there is a great gulf between them now and that there is nothing that Lazarus can do for him.
This latter comment has, through time, become almost the only thing in the parable that some remember. It is, of course, a point that has become fixed through centuries of anti-Catholic argumentation. “There is a great gulf fixed,” we are told, and so prayers for the departed are of no use. The damned are damned.
Of course, this is a terrible distortion of the parable and overlooks its most obvious point. The rich man has done nothing for the poor, and now he receives the due end of his evil works. It is quite similar to those who, in Matthew 25, did not feed, clothe or visit the “least of these my brethren,” and, in so doing, did not do it to Christ Himself. In this hardness of heart, they, too, are lost.
Strangely absent from modern thought, however, are the clear assumptions within both parables. In both cases, the care for the poor would have made all the difference in the matter of salvation. The Rich man might have come to the aid of Lazarus. In so doing, he would have discovered that Lazarus would “receive him into an everlasting home.” His refusal to be of help to Lazarus is the sole reason given for his burning in hell. In Matthew 25, those who are kind to the sick, the naked, the homeless, etc., discover that they are being given the Kingdom, even though they were unaware of their service to Christ.
It is in light of such an understanding that I made the scandalous statement that a man can “buy his way into the Kingdom.” There is no bribe he can offer God. God needs nothing from him. But he can give to the many Lazaruses that surround him. In time, perhaps, they will receive him.
This understanding actually has a long and important place in the tradition of Christianity, one that has been largely forgotten in modernized versions of the faith. Many Orthodox Christians are familiar with a practice called the “mercy meal.” It is a memorial meal eaten by family and friends following a funeral. As such, it blends nicely with American funeral customs. But its origin is something quite difference. It is a “mercy” meal because, in its origin, it was a meal for the poor. In some parts of the Orthodox world this custom survives.
Why feed the poor after a funeral? It was simply one of many actions in which alms (from the Greek word for “mercy”) are given to the poor. This distribution of such alms was for the clear purpose of the well-being of the deceased. The rich man dies. But his family invites Lazarus and all of Lazarus’ friends to a meal. And if things are well-understood, it will not have been the first of such meals.
A conversation with a Romanian friend recently let me learn of a practice in his village, probably not unusual. Some homes have been left to the Church by the deceased, for the housing of the poor and needy. After a funeral, it is common for food to be delivered to these houses. It is also common for the clothes and some other properties of the departed to be distributed to the poor after the 40th day prayers.
Some might argue that this is not an effective or proper way to organize a society for the needs of the poor. That, doubtless, is true. But this is not about the construction of a social net – it is the construction of a Christian heart. That heart, if rightly taught, will know that there is no salvation for the rich apart from the poor. I will repeat that: there is no salvation for the rich apart from the poor. Nothing could be more clear in the gospels.
We have so individualized ourselves and individualized our salvation that the love we give to others is viewed as nothing more than a moral obligation. The poor are not a moral obligation: they are a means of our salvation. God has so created us that our lives belong to one another. We could say that we “coinhere.” For example, we cannot love God apart from our brother:
But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1Jo 3:17)
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (1Jo 4:20)
St. John warns that “he who does not love does not know God.” Our brother, particularly our brothers among the poor, are given to us that we might know God. They are for the salvation of our soul. St. James has it this way:
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (Jam 1:27)
In the season of Great Lent, the tradition of the Church holds that we should fast, pray and give alms. Of the three, the last is by far the greatest. St. John Chrysostom says that he who gives to the poor does a greater thing than he who raises someone from the dead.
It is our foolishness that fails to see the power God has placed in our hands when He gives us of His wealth. The sole reason for such largesse is for our salvation, not for our self-aggrandizement. You can indeed buy your way into heaven. You must bribe the poor to pray for you. Be such a friend that they will always remember you before God. It is not the value of the money that will matter – but the value and power your money has over your heart. Your heart will be wherever you put your money. Only the poor have the power to take your money (and thus your heart) into the Kingdom.