When we look around any group of people, we see a great diversity. There is a diversity in appearance, a diversity of skills, a diversity of personalities, a diversity of situation – everywhere we see diversity. This diversity is a gift given to us by God to teach us that we need each other, as we are family – we depend on one another in order to have all the resources that we need to live. We all need food – but not everybody can produce food. We need shelter – but not everybody can build. We need clothing – but not everyone can weave or sew. Everyone has a part of what we all need, and so we need to trade with one another to get what is necessary. In order to facilitate this trade, the concept of money was devised. Whether or not money is good or bad is irrelevant here – money exists as a means by which we can all “trade” our skills and resources with one another and so obtain that which we all need in order to live.
While money is a means by which our diversity is brought together into a harmonious community, money also emphasizes the differences between us. When we begin to compare the value of our various contributions, we will soon notice that some people seem to have a greater share of natural resources. The parable that we heard today about the rich man and Lazarus is an example of this disparity. On one hand, there was the rich man who seemed to have an abundance of wealth – plenty of good food and drink, a fine dwelling, beautiful and soft clothing, an abundance of family and friends; everything that money could buy in abundance. On the other hand, there was the pauper Lazarus who had nothing – no food, no clothing, for only the sores covered his body, and for friends he only had the dogs who came and licked the sores. Certainly here we have a picture of two great extremes. IF all that we have comes from God, then why did God not give everyone the same – why does this inequity exist, why are there such extremes as the rich man and Lazarus?
This parable doesn’t stop with simply painting the picture of the contrast between the rich man and Lazarus, but moves beyond the still life of the two men and introduces another element – that of the death of the two men, something some fear. After their death, we find that the situation of the two is reversed. Lazarus rests in the comfort and delight of paradise, while the rich man was found to be in torment.
Does this mean that worldly wealth results in eternal torment while worldly poverty results in eternal comfort and joy? Certainly not, for it was not the mere fact of worldly wealth and poverty that determined the place of the two men; rather, it was what each did with what he had in the world, what God gave him. We are introduced to the fact that there are more necessities to life than that which we see and touch and acquire in this world. There are indeed physical riches, but there are also spiritual riches and in the life beyond the grave, it is the spiritual wealth which is paramount.
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Let us pause for a moment to look at the how these different types of riches compare. All that is of value in this world is comprised, in the end, of the same thing. It is nothing but dust. What are gems, but dust; what are silver and gold but dust; buildings, whether of stone or wood or anything else eventually deteriorate and become dust. Clothing eventually wears and fades and becomes dust. Even the food that we eat, whether it is left out or consumed becomes nothing but dust. Everything in the world, no matter how precious or valuable on the surface is composed of nothing but dust and in the end that is its final value – worthless dust. Spiritual wealth, however, is composed of those elements which are eternal, and which do not rust or deteriorate or rot away. This wealth is comprised of those things that we call “virtues” and “spiritual fruits” – things such as love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and so on. They are all rooted in one single element that is free of all corruption and that is the grace of God. He pours out His grace, which is the true and enduring wealth, on us. The greatest and most valuable use of worldly wealth is when it is used to acquire spiritual wealth.
Therefore, just as we need to trade with one another to assemble the necessities of physical life, so also it is necessary to “trade”, to assemble the necessities of spiritual life. We need to take the worthless dust of what we have in this world and use it in order to acquire the grace of God. Unlike physical wealth, spiritual wealth cannot be transferred from one person to another. We cannot acquire the “excess” grace of the saints (it is actually not possible for anyone to acquire “sufficient” grace let alone to have a store of “excess” grace). The parable itself teaches us this, when the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus that he might dip his finger in the water to give the rich man a drop of water, to provide some relief and Abraham tells him that this is not possible.
How then is it possible to “trade” to acquire these spiritual riches? While one person may not directly “transfer” grace to another, he can open the door to facilitate that movement. This is what we do when we pray for one another, or when we ask the saints to pray for us. By their prayers, the avenues by which we can acquire the grace of God for ourselves are made clear and our access to that grace is eased. Archbishop Andrei of Novo Diveevo (Archbishop Andrei was the spiritual child of the Elder St Nektary of Optina, who after being widowed was elevated to the episcopacy) relates an account of the repentance of a wealthy young man which demonstrates this principle.
There lived a wealthy family – a grandmother and her grandson who was an officer in the Imperial Guards. This grandson, Vladimir, being quite wealthy, lived a life of gaiety and carousing. He had a good heart and so had many friends. When any of them would ask something from him, he would give it to them without a second thought – the word “no” did not exist for him. His grandmother arranged a marriage for him with a princess of an impoverished family. The young man met her two or three times at parties, danced with her and proposed to her. The wedding was put off until after the Christmas season and Vladimir did not change his life at all but went about in a fog of merry-making and carousing. He didn’t quite forget his fiancée, but he didn’t remember her either – if he had met her on the street, he probably wouldn’t have recognized her.
As the wedding day approached Vladimir began to see the seriousness of life a little more clearly and began to prepare for this change of life. Just before the wedding day, he went to St Petersburg to receive his pay (this was a time when this pay was given in cash) and to arrange for leave for his wedding. Having received these things from the regimental office, he went out to walk in the city by day (something he rarely did as he was usually either still inebriated from the night before or else sleeping off the after effects). He passed the cathedral of the Kazan Mother of God and was drawn in by a vague need to pray. Standing there in the cathedral his soul was touched by the presence of the miraculous Kazan icon and he began to pray. But he could not find the words; he had not prayed in so long that he didn’t know how to even begin. Finally the words stumbled out “O Mother of God! I am coming to a turning point in my life. If it has to be so, help me. But if all this is not necessary, stop it.” And there he stopped, unable to say anything else.
As he was struggling in his soul, he felt a touch on his sleeve, and there was a poor woman with her child in arms asking for help. Not knowing what else to do, he took the purse filled with his pay and handed it to her. When she protested, he insisted and gratefully she asked “but how can I repay your kindness”. Not knowing what else to say, out of his inner turmoil and confusion, Vladimir replied, “You can help me. I don’t know how to pray; but I am in need of prayer, right now, for my soul. Otherwise I will perish.” She disappeared into the crowd and he caught sight of her again as she approached the miraculous icon and bowing down began to fervently pray with prostrations. Vladimir knew that this prayer was for him.
When he left the Church, suddenly he felt a great pain and he lost consciousness. He awoke, lying on a table in his full uniform. He had fallen into a coma and appeared dead although he was just beginning to awaken. He could see and hear those around him, but could not move or speak. He heard his fiancée’s voice saying, “Papa you know how I hated and despised him. Only your debts made me agree to this marriage. I cannot pretend to mourn.” And then he heard his friends approach saying to one another, “How fortunate that Vladimir died, now I don’t have to pay him back.” All this and more revealed to him the hypocrisy of his life and he was brought to repentance. When they lifted his body to go to the grave, he gasped and began to move. Out of fear the mourners and those nearby ran from the room leaving him alone. At this moment he was changed – he divided all his wealth, he first provided for his fiancée and gave the rest to the poor. He forgave all debts. Soon afterward he entered monastic life and finished his life as an Archimandrite of the Kostroma Monastery.
This is the example of how the prayers of one person can bring grace to another and how we can exchange our worldly wealth for spiritual wealth. When Vladimir gave his purse to the beggar and asked her to pray for him – she had nothing to give in return and so she approached the Treasury of all good gifts and Giver of Life, our one Lord and God, beseeching Him through His mother, on behalf of this tormented and confused soldier. Our Lord, seeing the desire to repent in the depths of Vladimir’s heart, showed him the path of repentance through his illness and presumed death.
Upon recovering Vladimir took advantage of that door that had been opened by his charity, and by the prayers of the beggar woman, and in exchange for his worldly wealth, he received spiritual wealth.
There is great wealth in the world, but it is of two kinds. There is the wealth of corruption which is composed of worthless dust – but this wealth can be used to purchase the divine and everlasting spiritual wealth of the grace of God. Take all that God has given you in the world – the worldly wealth of dust and corruption – and exchange it for the spiritual wealth which will bring you into the Kingdom of God. Remember, St Paul tells us in his second Epistle to the Corinthians, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (Chapter 9 verse 7)