Let’s unpack today’s readings by starting with St. Paul’s letter to Timothy.
Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.1 Tm 6:12
Timothy was called to sacred ministry as a bishop following St. Paul, but this short instruction applies to all of us as well.
St. Paul tells Timothy to lay hold of eternal life. What he means by the term “lay hold of” is “get a really good grip on this.” Get a really good grip on this, because this thing which you now hold in your hands is the key to getting to that place you most deeply desire.
When you fall out of a boat and they throw you a rope, you lay a hold of that rope because that’s the way you’re going to be pulled back into the boat. St. Paul is encouraging all of us to lay a hold of eternal life with the same grip that we would use to hang on to a safety rope.
St. Timothy was called to sacred orders. That was his noble confession made in the presence of many witnesses. Each of us at our baptism was called to eternal life, and our godparents – or we ourselves if we were baptized as adults – professed our faith in the presence of many witnesses. Our call as baptized people is no less important than Timothy’s call as a presbyter and a bishop. Baptism is that safety rope that pulls us toward eternal life. So we should lay a hold of that eternal life to which we were called at our baptism.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we see how much effort is required to lay a hold of eternal life while we are so busy living this mortal life. Poor Lazarus has nothing, and so in many ways he is less distracted than the rich man by the delights of this world. The rich man had fine clothes and clean sheets, and he ate well. Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with good clothes, clean sheets, and a full tummy. There’s nothing wrong with these things. Our Lord desires us to have good things.
At the end of our lives, however, our Lord desires us to have the truly good thing, which is eternal life with him in Heaven. And the story of the rich man is that, while we are living out our earthly days, we can get distracted in the pursuit of and the possession of good clothes, and clean sheets, and delicious food. There is nothing wrong with good clothes, clean sheets, and a full tummy, but there can be something wrong if they are what we pursue rather than pursuing God. We cannot lay a hold of eternal life if what is always in our hands and on our minds during our lifetime are the goods of this world. This is the warning that Jesus is offering in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
One of the most powerful emotions in our lives is regret. Regret and shame are emotions the Devil uses to get us to give up. But God can use them, too. God uses regret and shame to get us to try again. We see in this parable the rich man regrets his choices. And the conversation between the rich man and Abraham is a stern reminder that sometimes by the time we regret something it’s too late to change it. Abraham realizes that it’s too late for him, but he asks God to send a messenger to his brothers in hopes that it is not too late for them.
Laying a hold of the eternal life is hard work. It’s the discipline in the life of a disciple. Living and working in the world of Mammon, which is the world of the pursuit and glorification of money and glamour and power; living and working in that world while laying a hold of the eternal life is very hard to do. All of us can do little things to protect ourselves from some of the worst temptations of this world, but it is the world in which we live, and so we have to deal with it.
The good news for us as Catholic Christians that was not available to the rich man in the parable today is the sacramental life. When we make those choices that bring us deep regret, there is something we can do. We can go to confession. Confession uses that deep regret to stir up our resolve to stand in line and then sit or kneel with the priest and say to God before that priest whatever it is that caused the deep regret.
If we are truly sorry — if our regret is deep and sincere — then we will receive absolution. The sin that caused the deep regret will be erased by God and not counted against us. Unlike the rich man in the parable, the great chasm of spiritual death is bridgeable. We can cross over it in the sacrament of reconciliation. On one side of the chasm we are like the rich man in the parable: we are spiritually dead and separated from God. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we have crossed over from death and are back laying a hold of eternal life, reunited with God.
All of us are sinners. None of us will earn heaven by our own merits. It is only by the grace of God that any of us will be saved. Reborn in baptism, we are called to lay a hold of eternal life. Through the consequences of our own choices, it is highly likely that each of us will do something we deeply regret. Because he loves us so much as his adopted children, God has given us the sacrament of reconciliation to bring us back from that place of regret to the place of his love and his life.
So, let us not be afraid. Let us lay hold of eternal life. And if we slip, let us run to the confessional and lay hold of it again.