How do we get to heaven?
And why did the Rich Man go to hell?
Here’s Lazarus, the poor wretch who used to beg for food on the front steps of the rich man's house, dogs licking his sores. And here’s the rich man, turning his head the other way and stepping over the beggar to get inside and get a drink before supper.
Why did the rich man go to hell? Because he was rich? No...there's no sin there. He went to hell because he failed to love his brother.
Hospitality, love for the stranger and the alien, the poor wretch and the one whom everyone else forgets is the first way to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.
That's what Abraham and Sarah teach us when the three strangers go walking by their tent on a stinking hot day. They could have ignored this trinity of strangers, but they did not. They invited them in, bathed their feet, gave them something cool to drink and cared for them. Why? Because they knew they were divine messengers? No. They invited them in because God would have wanted them to. And because they did, God fulfilled his covenant with this elderly and childless couple, giving them a son, Isaac, the son of laughter in their old age.
The first path to heaven, then, is hospitality, for hospitality's sake.
And the second is like unto it. Remember the story of the other Lazarus, Jesus's dear friend whom he would later raise from the dead? There a dinner for Jesus and Lazarus is there along with his sisters Martha and Mary. Martha understands hospitality. She's cooking the meal, running around the kitchen, setting the table, seating the guests and breathlessly exhausting herself in order that everyone might be at home.
But then she looks over at Mary, who, we are told, is sitting at the Lord's feet, listening to him, deep in conversation with Jesus. The sweaty and exhausted Martha is enraged....so enraged that she goes right up to Jesus, and in words that could only have come from a friend says to him: tell that sister of mine to help me rather than sitting on her....chair chatting with you all day.
And then Jesus tells us something extraordinary. He tells us that there is an even more excellent way, a better part than hospitality. The better part which Mary has chosen, is to spend time alone with the Lord, and that better part shall not be taken from her.
So, hospitality, feeding the poor, forgiving and embracing the stranger, welcoming those rejected by everyone else...are indispensable to those who seek to walk the path to the Kingdom of God. But one thing more is required, to pray, to listen and to dwell with the Lord.
I have a lot of friends who are great social workers, selfless advocates for the poor and the downtrodden. Indeed, for many years, I used to do spiritual direction with a lot of Catholic Workers and Jesuit volunteers and the like. And you know what one thing they struggle with more than anything else. It's not the getting up in the middle of the night to drive someone to detox, or having the patience to put up with all the stresses of working with the poor...it's shutting up long enough to pray, and stopping “doing stuff” long enough to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him. The Martha in them would keep them going, twenty-four hours a day, like the energizer bunny, running in circles. But what they need is contemplation, and quiet and peace with the Lord, if it's all ever going to make sense.
I also have friends in monasteries, like the Trappists in Spencer or Gethsemane. They are wonderful monks, who pray five times a day with an intensity and a joy which is a marvel to behold. But you know what their struggles are? Forgiving that monk who gave them a dirty look, or putting up with that guy who entered with them thirty years ago whom they've never been able to stand, or seeking out and caring for the monk who is struggling and alone.
Two paths get us to heaven: hospitality and prayer, Martha and Mary.
And not really two paths at all, but the one path which leads to the cross of Jesus, to the perfect sacrifice of love and devotion, which is our hope, our salvation and the only way to heaven.