5th Sunday of Luke
2 Corinthians 11:31–33, 12:1–9
In today’s Gospel we see Lazarus, a poor, lonely, wounded and tormented man. And we see how this man, who suffered during his earthly life, found eternal life in the bosom of Abraham, in the company of the saints in Paradise. The rich ma5th n, however, ended up in the fire and isolation of Hades. In short, the one who was humbled by the trials of this life won the grace of God, while the one who was never tried lost it.
We see the same thing in today’s epistle reading. St Paul speaks of a man (himself) “who was carried off as far as the third heaven…[and] was caught up into Paradise and heard unspeakable words, which it is not allowed for a man to speak” (2 Cor. 12:2–3).
The vision of Paradise cannot be described, it can be understood only through experience. However, St Paul also provides us with a context to this experience, which helps us to see how he became worthy of it.
Today’s reading begins with St Paul describing an event. In Damascus, the ethnarch of king Aretas was guarding the city in order to arrest him, but he managed to escape by being let down through the city walls in a rope-basket (11:32–33). This was the life of an apostle: constantly in danger, constantly facing persecution and imprisonment, a victim of injustice and slander.
He also mentions how, so as not to become exalted with pride, “there was given to [him] a thorn in the flesh” to torment him (11:7). He doesn’t tell us what this thorn was; some Fathers of the Church suggest he suffered from epilepsy. Whatever the thorn was, however, it tormented the Apostle to such a degree that he “besought the Lord thrice” that it might leave him. The Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for My power is being made perfect in weakness” (11:8–9).
When God answers our prayers, this does not mean that he gives us whatever we asked for. Rather, it means that we come to and understanding of His truth and move deeper into the mystery of the divine dispensation, which is the mystery of co-suffering love.
With the answer the Lord had given him, St Paul learnt how the many trials he faced in life were ways by which he could identify with the Lord, with the one who in the Garden of Gethsemane said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death”, and who as man also prayed thrice to God saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; however, not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matthew 26:38–39).
God the Father’s answer to His Son’s agonising prayer was the salvation of the world, and the answer that St Paul received in his Gethsemane became the motivation and strength by which he fulfilled his apostolic work.
If we respond correctly to the suffering and trials we face, they will bring the rational faith we have in our mind down into the depths of our heart, they will tear in half the veil separating our heart from love for God and neighbour, they will cast us down into the abyss of humility, from which God will raise us up to that third heaven, to that Paradise, where we too will hear those “unspeakable words, which it is not allowed for a man to speak”. Amen.
Fr Kristian Akselberg