Jesus said to the Pharisees: ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
From his torment in Hades the rich man said: if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.
In the seventeenth century there lived a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher and Catholic writer named Blaise Pascal. Pascal was an eminent polymath but, in terms of religious faith, he is best known for what is now known as Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s argument went like this: a rational person should live as though God exists, and should seek to believe in God. For, if God does not exist, such a person will have only a finite loss in the form of a few pleasures and luxuries. However, if God does exist, that person stands to receive infinite gains, as represented by eternity in heaven, and avoid infinite losses … an eternity in hell. The cynicism in this exercise in probability theory is reflected in today’s reading.
The rich man had lived as one who did not believe in God. He had ignored the needs of the desperately poor Lazarus. However, when they both died, it was Lazarus who was received into the eternity of heaven. The rich man had lost his gamble by failing to sacrifice anything during his earthly life. Then, realising his folly, the rich man begged that Lazarus might be sent back from the dead to convince his brothers that they should not fall into the same trap; to convince them that they should profess a faith in God as an insurance against eternal damnation. Whilst the mathematical mind may find a certain elegance in Pascal’s reasoning we should be very cautious about treating matters of faith as though they are a game of chance.
Faith demands that we engage with that which we cannot see, with that which defies empirical proof. We are called to hear the teachings of Christ, and to commit ourselves to following the path along which those teachings direct us. Whilst it may be part of our human nature to seek an advantage over others by way of philosophical reasoning, or even the throw of a dice, that is not God’s way.
All the evidence we need for being a person of faith came into this world some two thousand years ago. Jesus, the Son of God, set aside his divinity and his power to live as a simple human being. As he walked this earth he modelled a life of faithful love and service. Humanity brutally executed him for preaching a new way of living, a way that opened the gate to eternal life. But, Jesus overcame death and rose triumphant. It is in that victory that we should be placing our trust. We should not be seeking any further proofs, and we should not be gambling with God!