Abraham’s Bosom, and a Dead Man Talkin’

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One of the things I love about the mass is how the Church formulates the mass readings for each day. It just blows me away. The Gospel reading for today’s mass was awesome! It was really rich in substance and wisdom, and I wanted to share some thoughts on it with you.

If you didn’t get to mass today, and didn’t hear the Gospel reading, don’t sweat it. I’ll include the Gospel reading here, and then I’ll continue with my thoughts on it. Here we go…

Today’s Gospel ReadingLuke 16:19-31

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
Abraham replied, ‘My child,
remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing
who might wish to go from our side to yours
or from your side to ours.’
He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him
to my father’s house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.’
But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.’
He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
Then Abraham said,
‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead.'”


Great stuff, right? The exchange between Abraham and the rich man sets the stage for a high impact lesson that Jesus is teaching here. So I think some background theology about the netherworld, and the bosom of Abraham is necessary. If you’d rather go straight to my reflection, scroll down (but you’ll be missing some juicy theology).

What is Abraham’s Bosom?

Abraham's Bosom
This is a depiction of the parable in today’s Gospel, from the Pictorial Bible of the Abbey of St. Bertin in France. In it we see the souls of the just at Abraham’s Bosom, and we see the souls of the damed in the netherworld (hell), and on the left you see the rich man asking for water

In this parable Jesus mentions the bosom of Abraham. But what does the bosom of Abraham mean? Though this is a parable Jesus is telling, it would be a mistake to think of Abraham’s bosom as a fairy tale.  Parables are fictitious by design, but they are true by nature.  That is, they involve true, real things, in order to teach a moral lesson rooted in truth and reality, even if the narrative is fiction.

There are always true components used to build the fictitious narrative of a parable, in order to teach a moral lesson based on truth and reality. Take the parable of the good Samaritan for example.   The narrative in “The Good Samaritan” may have been fiction, but Samaritans were real, and not highly thought of by the Jews. So a parable that tells of a Samaritan doing an act of charity, while the Jew in the parable failed to,  delivered a clear, even blunt moral lesson.

In today’s Gospel we have another parable, this time of a rich man, and a sick man named Lazarus.  Fiction? Yes. But we see true components within it. Case in point, Abraham’s Bosom.
Abraham’s Bosom, or being at Abraham’s bosom, was a state of spiritual existence where souls who were not fit for damnation (hell, or the netherworld) were awaiting the salvation of the Messiah, at which point they’d be taken up to Heaven.  It was a state of peace, not suffering, but it wasn’t the state of joy and glory to be found only in Heaven.  In short, before the Son of God saved the world, the souls of the just were not in Heaven or Hell. They were awaiting the day of salvation (the crucifixion and resurrection), at what was called Abraham’s bosom. The souls of the damned, or the unjust, went to the netherworld (hell).

In the Apostle’s Creed when we say that Jesus “descended into Hell” or “descended to the dead”, we’re saying that Jesus descended to the place where the souls of the just were awaiting salvation. He descended to the dead to free the souls of the just.  Got it? Okay, let’s continue.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

Something that really struck me in today’s Gospel was toward the end. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazurus to his father’s house in order to warn his brothers and exhort them to do good while on earth, to not focus so much on riches and material things, but to be attentive to the suffering of others. Lazurus doesn’t want his brothers to meet with the same eternal fate as he. Here’s how the exchange concluded:


“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.’
He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
Then Abraham said,
‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead.'”


Bam! That is so true! We see this all the time. We see it in the past, and we see it now. In the past Jesus himself rose from the dead. But many of the Jews were still not persuaded. Today we have a lot of proven miracles in our history. Some of them are fairly recent and investigated using modern scientific techniques that any skeptic can trust. Yet these supernatural events do not persuade the hardened non-believer.

jesus-in-limbo
Jesus descending to the dead (Limbo, or Abraham’s bosom), to save the souls of the just.

The Jews in Jesus’ time had Moses and the prophets. They had the law of God through Moses, the voice and wisdom of God through the prophets, who pointed to the Messiah—Jesus—who was giving us the wisdom of God, and proving himself to be the Son of God by numerous signs, wonders and miracles. And yet how many of the Jews did not embrace the law, the prophets, or the Messiah?

Some people are hardened in their disbelief. Sometimes they’re atheists, and sometimes they’re believing Christians. Some believers may indeed believe in God, and Jesus, and the Gospel and all that…at least in theory. But in practice their belief does not change them because their belief doesn’t become action. Their belief does not convert them to greater and greater virtue. Sometimes such believers are so hardened in their practical disbelief that nothing at all can persuade them, despite having a wealth of grace, theology, history, and signs and wonders to look to. If someone were to raise someone from the dead before their very eyes, and then said to them “God wants you to grow in holiness”, they’d probably respond “Well, I go to mass every week, and that’s good enough, because God is love and it’s impossible to disappoint him, even by indifference and a lackluster faith”.

God is calling us all to heroic virtue. And not just to feed the hungry. Charity after all is just one virtue. God is calling us to grow in all the virtues—Charity, chastity, patience, justice, temperance, prudence, and so on. He’s calling us in a special way during this season of Lent to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. So the time is now, not tomorrow or next week or next month, to renew our dedication and devotion to God and to truth; to turn away from sin and to be faithful to the Gospel. Let’s pray for each other, that we all abandon our bad habits, our sinful dispositions and sinful ways, leave the path that leads us gradually to the netherworld, and instead walk courageously on the path that leads to Heaven, and to the bosom of the Heavenly Father.

Ave Maria, virgo fidelis!

 

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