This morning I want to talk about hell. For some Christians, who see God as an angry, vindictive punishing God, it is a place of eternal damnation, of fiery burning, of perpetual suffering, a place where the wicked are punished after death. And this depiction seems to get a lot of press. Richard Rohr made mention of this in his mediation this morning. Know that this is not the God of Jesus. Hades, as Jesus uses in today’s reading has morphed into “hell.” Hell, basically means a separation from God. Or a trip to the DMV.
God is a loving creator who hates nothing God has made. God loves us just as we are, and is always inviting us to grow into more loving, caring beings. God – who is faithful and just, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love – does not work through coercion, shaming, or fear-mongering. I hope we can understand this from today’s Gospel. Know that nothing can every separate us from God’s love and concern.
Jesus did not tell this parable – and remember it is a parable – to scare his hearers with threats of eternal punishment. God does not send any of his beloved children into a place of perpetual fire. God loves us too much. We read in the first Epistle of John, "God is love, and whoever remains in love, remains in God and God in him [and her]" (1 John 4:16). The creation story says that we were created in the very "image and likeness" of God--who is love (Genesis 1:26; see also Genesis 9:6).
Jesus’ parable is a retelling of classic folktale of his era. We think it originated in Egypt and was told among Gentiles of Luke’s audience. And he uses a classic storytelling technique about an imaginary future to provoke a change in his listeners. Think here of the modern story A Christmas Carol. Dickens used the same technique, right? A Christmas Carol is not about the reality of ghosts, it is about the possibility of a stubborn, closed-in, old man being converted to generosity and joy.
Jesus focuses very little attention on the afterlife through the Gospels, but he regularly uses images of the future to shake us up and help us become more conscious of how we are living now. He speaks about the kingdom of heaven, not as an otherworldly destination where your soul goes after you die; it is, rather, how God intends this world to be when we have our priorities right and follow God’s will for our lives. Remember that we are always praying for God’s kingdom to be realized on earth, as it is in heaven.
On the one hand, Jesus’ parable affirms the moral of the folktale: Do not be like the Rich Man…or else! But, on the other hand, a parable is a parable because there is always more meaning than just the obvious. So perhaps some of “the more” in this parable is that God’s Kingdom has a special affinity for the least, lost, last, and lonely. And Lazarus certainly is among them.
The Hebrew Scriptures are absolute in their support for the least and the left out. Our Psalm today is a prime example: “Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; …the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow.” Deuteronomy 15 states that there will be no poor person among you if you follow the commandments of God: to forgive debts, release slaves, and lend money even when you know you will not get paid back. But Deuteronomy 15 also says that because people will not follow those commandments, there will always be poor among you.
This is a parable about the reality of neglecting the poor. It is a parable about right relationship with our brothers and sisters who have less than we. It is a parable about right relationship with wealth and resources. Remember a recurring theme in Luke is money and possessions. In Luke we get the Magnificat, where Mary sings “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…” and we hear John the Baptist telling us “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none…”, and Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool, where the guy thinks he can take it all with him. The issue of our relationship to wealth and how we use it is unambiguous in Luke’s Gospel.
Poverty is not a virtue, nor is wealth. The rich man is not particularly evil, except that he ignores the man sitting outside his gate. Caught up in his wine and finery, he lives on the secure side of a door/gate and his routines prevent him from noticing outsiders. Lazarus, whose name means "God will help," lives outside the entrance. In Jesus’ parable, the gate signals to Lazarus and everyone else that they really are not welcome. Keep out, the gate says. Do not bother the rich man or his way of life. He would rather remain separated from you.
In death there is a reversal of roles. Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man is sent to hell. The Pharisees who heard this story could hardly miss that it was aimed at them. They regarded their prosperity as God’s affirmation of their righteousness. As many Christians still do.
We live in a time and place when most of us are comfortable. Certainly some of us struggle, some may be close to the edge, and some of us are quite comfortable. None of us thinks we’re wealthy. And yet, we are. I went to the www.globalrichlist.com site online, and plugged in my income and discovered that I am in the richest .1% of the world’s population, the 5,906,209th richest person in the world, in a population of about 8 billion. The reality is that the worst off among us are better off than 90% of rest of the world.
And one of the reasons we don’t recognize our wealth is that the advertising we see and are besieged with daily makes us think we’re poor because we don’t have all that we want. We’re bombarded with messages that we must have more “stuff”. And these messages feed our sense of scarcity.
The Gospel imperative to love others as we love ourselves means that we are called to provide and work for the same comforts and benefits we desire for ourselves also for our neighbors, whether they live in Bridgeport or half way around the world. This means affordable housing, equal educational opportunity, good healthcare and nutrition. It means ending food deserts in our cities. It means ending zoning restrictions which prohibit multi-family dwellings and are meant to keep folks out. I remember years ago Bp. Smith preaching about the Great Commandment: he said that if we want a house for ourselves, Jesus expects us to provide the same for our neighbors, whoever and wherever they are.
Near the end of the parable, we glimpse the first sign of compassion in the rich man as he realizes what has happened to him. “I beg you,” he says to Father Abraham, “to send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
But they have had Moses and the prophets already, Abraham answers—prophets who said love your neighbor as yourself and give generously to those in need. “I never really listened to that,” the rich man says. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, then they will listen.” And so, the story ends with Lazarus resting with Abraham, and the rich man trapped in hell. Or the DMV.
The gap is still there today. How can we ever bridge this gap between rich and poor, how can we ever create one city, one nation, one world?
That is what God has set out to do in sending Jesus Christ into our world. Someone has come to us from the dead to bridge the gap. God has entered the world to bind the wounds that divide us.
This parable is not about the afterlife. It is about this life, and what we do or don’t do with our wealth — in all of its forms. This story is about how we do that, not just as individuals, but as community. Both the rich and the poor in this life need the same thing from each other—community.
What this text points out is that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are called to use our resources to share with those who have less. We are the five brothers in the story, the ones the rich man wants to get a message to, and this morning someone has come to us, back from the dead, to get us to see. He wants us closer to God, closer to our fellow human beings across the chasm. For God, the chasm is never too wide to bridge, and the separation between people can always be reconciled.