Gospel: Luke 16:19-31
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.” 25But 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. 26Besides 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.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He 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.” ’
A pointed story: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” There cannot have been one reader or listener of Luke who didn’t get the point about even how after Jesus came back from the dead, some people didn’t listen. Remember it is only a few verses since Jesus has talked about riches, and “ the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and … ridiculed him.” (14) Jesus characterizes the love of their hearts as an “abomination in the sight of God.”
Also unavoidable is the conclusion that the rich are held in great odium. When the poor man died he was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man was merely buried, and then suffers torment in the flames of Hades. I commented in last Sunday’s sermon that the persecution of Christians by dictators is not by accident; they read the Bible more than we do. Christianity is deeply subversive of worldly political power, especially where it does not seek justice for all people, and especially the poor. Even the poor man’s name, Lazarus, means “God helps.” He is the only person in Jesus’ parables who receives a name!
The fundamental importance of this is underlined by the story. Justice for the poor is not an optional extra. Incidental trickledown is never enough. Under the judgement of God there is “a great chasm” which “has been fixed,” between justice and injustice. It is not negotiable. It approaches being irredeemable because “those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
We hesitate, in our tradition, to use the word “irredeemable.” And yet, ultimately, in this story the rich man is in an irredeemable position. It is not that he was rich. It is that the man lay at his gate and he ignored him. He did not do justice. Even the dogs are more aware of the sores of Lazarus than the rich man. In my local church tradition, it has sometimes happened that people complain about a “social justice gospel.” Doing good is claimed to have been emphasised at the expense of teaching salvation. However we might assess such a critique, one thing is clear, we cannot have a non social justice gospel; social justice is of the essence. Last week I quoted Robert Linthicum, and the words remain relevant.
The Jesus in Luke was about the restoration of the entirety of Jubilee and thus the leveling of Jewish society so that there were no powerful and wealthy forces exercising domination over the rest. To Jesus, this was not simply an economic and political task, but a religious task as well – for only by eliminating poverty and powerlessness would the nation ever discover the spirituality and relationship with God that God had always intended Israel to experience. This was the world as God intended it to be.
Salvation and relationship is inextricably linked with justice.
There is a difficult side to the story. God torments those who have failed. In CS Lewis’s The Last Battle, the animals who could not look Aslan in the face at that last moment, seemed to go into some kind of oblivion. Whatever questions we might have about placing a time limit on repentance, at least in that story, things ended. But in this story, God torments the rich man. God pays him back; even, arguably, with worse conditions. No doubt a significant number of Luke’s audience thought it served him right. They have their fellows today, although I no longer dare. Paul makes it clear in Romans that I am in no position to point a finger!
An unavoidable conclusion for any one of us who is reading this article on the internet is that we are among the rich. How dare we have a computer while others starve? The homeless and malnourished die in the parks and streets of Adelaide. If I approve of God’s treatment of the rich man, then I condemn myself and invite the same. (Romans 2:1-5)
Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.
It seems to me that some of the repentance we are being led toward, away from “a hard and impenitent heart,” might be to do with repenting of vicious punishment. We are not to work, any longer, on the basis of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. (Matt 5:33) Yet is seems the vicious sin of the rich man is being repaid in exactly that way. This troubles me.
We could argue that it’s just a story. Maybe Lazarus and the rich man was story of the time, and Jesus was using it for his own purposes; clearly “Father Abraham” in heaven was an illustration people with which people were familiar. The thing is I have a great joke about a minister visiting a parishioner which I no longer tell. I realise it reflects unfortunate attitudes and issues to which I was once blind. Now that I see, I don’t tell the joke. Illustrations and stories are not value neutral. If the illustration clashes with our values, we don’t use it. If it does not clash, we do use it. It would seem that the author of this story of Jesus found no difficulty with the idea that God would send the rich man to torment in Hades.
Bill Loader says
This parable spun from folklore piety has some loose ends. People who build unbridgeable chasms and contemplate flaming people forever will gladly support the death penalty and setting limits to love and compassion in the here and now. In their own lives they will be like their god, knowing that there are times when they should shut the door or even start the flaming violence towards those whom they condemn. Haters of the rich often become haters when power comes their way.
I could rephrase Linthicum (from above) in this way:
for only by eliminating hatred and flaming violence will the nations ever discover the spirituality and relationship with God that God had always intended us to experience. This is the world God intends it to be.
I find the idea that God holds us in eternal torment outrageous. It is sub Christian. It does not measure up to the standards of Grace and Forgiveness that the whole story of Jesus impels us towards.
There are a variety of options for dealing with this on Sunday. If my view of Scripture was that it is without error, I’m not sure what kind of linguistic gymnastics I might need to engage if I also believed my statement in the paragraph previous to this one!
A preacher might want to differentiate between Luke’s gospel and the gospel of the real Jesus. Luke was the one who thought the rich man went to Hades, in this view, and in support of it we can see how Matthew added is emphasis on hellfire at multiple places; eg. 18:8, 25:41.
Personally, I see no problems with Jesus being a person of his time, and not fully aware of the implications of this part of his cultural-religious landscape. He was not some magic man, he was, we say, fully human. His genius was being able to see, as with the Syrophoenician women when he was falling short of what God offers to humanity and to make amends. I, by contrast, am reluctant to change, and very slow on the uptake. (Matt 15:21-28 Mark 7:25-30)
So on Sunday I will admit the error, and point out we too often still subscribe to it. I will suggest that today Jesus would ask us to better, and yes, perhaps would say of Luke, “Why ever did he think I would say that!?”
Andrew Prior Sept 22 2010
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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