Reflection on Luke 16.19-31 (Lent)

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!