Lazarus and Abraham in Hades
Sunday 29 September 2013
Church of the Ascension – The Anglican Church in Hilton, KZN
New Testament: 1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Gospel: Luke 16: 19-31
[As always, with grateful thanks to many sources for ideas and well-expressed phrases]
On hearing the story we heard Jesus tell in today’s gospel reading, we can think it is one of those stories that simply says the rich are bad and God favours the poor. After all, this has been written by Luke who has made several strong statements about wealth and poverty.
But in this story, there is more to what he is saying so we should be careful not to simplify. There is a rich man and a poor man, and in the end the tables are turned by God, but there is something else we need to note about this story before we look at how and why the tables are turned. The main action and attention in the story happens after they have both died and their eternal reward has been sorted out. On first hearing, the tendency is to ask yourself whether you are identified with the rich man or the poor man, but when we get into the depth of the story, I think you will find that we are not supposed to identify with either of them.
The rich man who is now suffering a painful eternal torment has a conversation with Abraham, who in this story functions like the “St-Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gates” figure in modern jokes and mythology about heaven. Abraham explains that there is absolutely nothing that can be done now to alleviate the man’s suffering. Basically he says, “You’ve made your bed; now lie in it!”
So the rich man asks whether Abraham can send the poor man, Lazarus, back to give a warning to the rich man’s brothers and sisters so that they don’t end up in the fires of Hades as well. In response, Abraham points out the sheer arrogance of the rich man, thinking that even now, he can get poor Lazarus to run errands for him. Abraham goes straight to the heart of the matter and says, “They’ve got the teachings of Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them.” It is like having him say, “They’ve got access to the Bible. What more warning do they need?”
But the rich man keeps trying: “They’re not getting the message yet, Father Abraham. But if someone came back from the dead and warned them, then for sure they’d turn their lives around.” But Abraham says, “No! If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, then even someone rising from the dead wouldn’t be enough to get through to them. Forget it.”
So, do the man’s brothers and sisters wake up to themselves and turn their lives around, or don’t they? Why aren’t we told? Because we are the man’s brothers and sisters; this is who we are supposed to identify with in the story. We have to answer the question for ourselves, to write the rest of the story with our own lives.
We are not told whether the brothers and sisters are rich or poor or comfortably middle class. We are not told anything about them, because they are us. We can fill in the descriptions for ourselves. All we are told is that it remains to be seen whether we will listen to the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and it remains to be seen whether we will heed the warning being screamed by big brother from the fires of Hades, and it remains to be seen whether we would take any notice and turn our lives around even if someone did rise from the dead to get the message through.
So what is it, exactly, that the rich man is trying to warn us about from the fires of Hades? What is the message he was hoping he could get his errand boy to deliver to us? What has he now realized about where he went wrong?
Is it, “don’t be rich”? Well, not exactly, although in some cases Jesus advised particular rich people who were hugely attached to their wealth, to give away their riches in order to follow him.
In our reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy we heard advice for rich Christians about generosity, readiness to share, and a solid practice of putting their money into caring for others. [A few introductory comments were made earlier]
So the message from big brother in Hades isn’t as simple as “don’t be rich”. Clearly it has something to do with his relationship with the poor man outside his gate. But again we’d better be careful not to be too simplistic about it, because the story doesn’t actually suggest that the rich man would have been better off in eternity if he had sent Lazarus a lamb roast and some medication for his sores and sent him on his way. Sometimes flinging money at a beggar is just a way of getting them away from our gate and cleaning up the neighbourhood.
Certainly the rich man’s self-indulgence and callous disregard for the plight of Lazarus, who he had to step over every time he went out his gate, is given as the grounds for his eternal damnation, and we don’t want to minimize that, but the way people act comes out of the beliefs they hold about life and the world, so it is worth asking what sort of beliefs would leave us vulnerable to us following his example and disregarding the plight of Lazarus.
The most significant aspect of the belief system that is usually underpinning this sort of callous indifference is the belief that all that life is, and all that life can offer are in the here and now, and there is nothing either good or bad beyond that. Such a belief deludes us into thinking that how we live now, and how we treat others, have no consequences other than the immediate consequences. There are no big consequences, no calling to account, just this time zone called “now” and whatever we can milk out of it on our way through. “He who dies with the most toys still dies, but at least he had the most fun on the way through. In death, all are equally dead, so if you’re going to be a winner, you may as well be a winner before death.”
That sort of thinking is behind many things, including our individual greed and apathy, and callous self-interest often promoted by business and politicians. We can cut down forests that act as the lungs of the earth, because we assume the earth won’t stop breathing in our lifetime. We can shut people out, to secure our standard of living and keep the poor where they belong in sweatshops making our designer label clothes and sports shoes.
And whether we store up a surplus like the rich fool in one of the other parables of Jesus, or whether we spend it freely like the prodigal son before he comes to his senses, both approaches are grounded in the belief that it is all ours, and that all that life has to offer is to be purchased and consumed before our time runs out.
And big brother keeps crying out in terror, “Send someone back from the dead to tell them: there is a whole lot more to life than what you can milk it for. Invest in building a surplus of love and peace to last for eternity before it’s too late.”
As we gather here each Sunday to worship the God who holds eternity in the palm of a hand, one of the side effects that hopefully affects us is the re-shaping of our worldview and the re-focusing of our attitudes.
Week by week we confess that we have pursued our desires at the expense of others, and, despairing of changing the world, neglected to change even ourselves. And as we hear the words of grace and the promise of forgiveness, we are again and again offered the possibility of living by a new script; to claim God’s love and to love God in others; to choose to be made whole and in our wholeness to bring healing and hope to the broken world at our gates.
We gather here to meet with and listen to the One who has been raised from the dead; the one who opens our minds to hear and understand the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and the apostles too. We gather here to learn to see the world and its peoples as they are seen by Christ who stands on both sides of death at the same time. And as we view the least and the broken in the same way that Christ sees them, we will see him in them; as we reach out to welcome him into our lives as a beloved neighbour, the glimpse of his presence will pass and we will welcome the needy as our neighbours and love them as Christ has loved us.
And in our communion we find that Christ has not tossed us a token bit of bread, but instead we are reminded that he has given us his very self – like the time he did so in such abundance that twelve baskets could not hold what was left over.
Our brother in Hades is warning us to flee from self-interest and callous greed, to save the earth and its peoples from eating itself alive in a feeding frenzy of selfishness and vanity.