Sunday, February 15, 2015
Text: Luke 16:19-31
I suppose there are several elements of today’s service that are playing with fire, if you’ll pardon the play on words. I don’t know that I have ever before preached on hell. I’m sure I’ve referenced it but only to say that I do not believe in a literal hell – the lake of eternally burning fire depicted on the cover of today’s bulletin or the threatening expletive that is the sermon title. However, as we make this road by walking, Brian McLaren has asked us today to consider “Jesus and Hell.” To help us in our exploration, he has given us two texts – the story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke and the separation of the sheep from the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Both texts promise dire consequences for those who do not pay attention to the poor and needy of this world.
McLaren argues that originally the Jewish faith had little interest in the afterlife, but through centuries of acculturation to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Zoroastrian and Hellenistic beliefs and practices the faith changed to accommodate visions of life after death. Clearly Jesus believed there was more to life than what one experiences between birth and death. But when he offers these parables of judgment, is his purpose to describe what the life to come is actually like? McLaren doesn’t think so and neither do I. In commenting on this text, David Lose reminds us that “…a parable is a parable…Parables aren’t told to give [us] a complete theological system or to address ultimate questions once and for all. They are meant to give us a glimpse – often [a] surprising, even jarring glimpse – into the kingdom of God. They present various slivers of the ‘kingdom logic’ of the God who regularly surprises us with God’s compassion and concern. So,” he concludes, “maybe this parable isn’t interested in explaining to us how people get to heaven but rather invites us to look at the people around us – right here, right now – from the perspective of this peculiar logic of God” (David Lose, “On Stretching Parables, 9-23-2013,” workingpreacher.org).
This is consistent with what McLaren argues in our Words of Preparation when he says that Jesus was actually “un-teaching about hell” while offering a “transformative vision of God” as one who “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 113). It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to suggest that the rich man ends up in a hell of his own making. There is a different set of values for life and death in the beloved community of God. The standard belief among those to whom Jesus ministered was that goodness is rewarded with prosperity and general well-being while sin is punished by poverty and illness. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that same belief system strongly operative today, perhaps even in our own lives. It makes us uneasy, then, when Jesus tells stories like the rich man and Lazarus or the separation of the sheep from the goats. We worry that he might be saying “to hell with us” because of our privilege and how we exercise it.
The rich man – notice he doesn’t even get a name in the parable, though later tradition called him “Dives,” which is really just Latin for “rich man” – is not just rich. He’s over the top in letting everyone know he’s rich. Think of someone who is exorbitantly extravagant in flaunting what they have. Richard Vinson, in his commentary, says the sort of rich person Jesus describes would have been the subject of satire and lampooning, much as she or he might be today. These satirists would have been “…making fun of a real trend toward conspicuous displays of wealth during the first century, as the so-called Pax Romana brought unprecedented disposable income to Rome’s upper crust.” Sound familiar? “Romans often lamented the loss of the old values of thrift and Spartan simplicity, and some emperors tried to enact…laws prohibiting expensive clothing or jewelry or foods. Luke’s rich man is thus both a recognizable type-character from satires and comedies and an icon for a whole class of real people” (Richard D. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 530).
It’s not just that the man had money; he was a fool with his wealth. His arrogant attitude allowed him, daily, to step over poor Lazarus, sick and disabled, begging at his door. Lazarus might have survived on the scraps from the rich man’s table, but even this was too much bother for this rich man. He left Lazarus to die “like a tramp on the street.”
This is where Jesus’ great reversal gathers momentum. The rich man may not have had eyes to see, but God does. Lazarus is not rewarded for his piety or his poverty. He is graced by God’s compassion. He finally finds comfort in the “bosom of Abraham.” Remember, God “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count.” God’s compassion and grace are of a different order than our own vision of reward and punishment. For God, everyone counts.
Now, ironically the rich man dies about the same time, perhaps a victim of his conspicuous consumption. He practiced a gluttony which certainly could not have been good for his heart – literally and figuratively. In the Jewish system of Jesus’ time, Hades and the arms of Abraham were the places where souls went to await the final judgment, the Day of the Lord. Is there a possibility that intermediate stations provide time and space in which one might yet reflect and repent before the final end? The text doesn’t address this.
Suffice it to say that the rich man remains clueless even when “tormented in the flame.” Though he can see across the chasm that separates them (indeed, as he could see across the reverse chasm that separated them before they died,) he still does not see Lazarus as a child of God. “Send Lazarus to cool MY tongue.” “Send Lazarus to save MY brothers.” Not a word of remorse or repentance for the way he treated Lazarus who, in the beloved community of God, is also his brother. He just doesn’t get it and Jesus is saying that, until you get it, nothing changes. Until you see with the eyes of your heart the suffering of your sisters and brothers your heart will remain cruelly and lethally congested.
Most of you know by now, that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite gospel stories. In it the great Victorian author provides a spot-on commentary on this parable. Remember how, in the beginning, we meet Ebeneezer Scrooge, of whom Dickens writes, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster…He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
But, as we know, Christmas is a time of miracles, and old Ebeneezer, who is decidedly not extravagant with his wealth but is equally without compassion, is given a wondrous opportunity to repent. Several spirits appear to help him see the error of his ways. Unlike Jesus’ parable, spirits do bridge the chasm with a message from the heart of God. The first of these is his miserable old partner, Jacob Marley, who walks through the doubly locked door to Scrooge’s chambers, dragging an onerous chain made up of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
Marley’s message is this:
“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!
“I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more.
“…A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.
“[Humankind] was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
“At this time of the rolling year…I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”
“That is no light part of my penance…I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
Dickens’s parable is no less and no more fantastic than the one told by Jesus. To hell with you is never God’s desire for us or any aspect of creation. Like Marley’s chains and the rich man’s torment, hell is something of our own creation, “forged in life, made link by link, and yard by yard, girded on of our own free will…” It is fortified every time we step over Lazarus at our doorsteps, simultaneously seeing and not seeing. And, Marley’s wisdom notwithstanding, it is something we can let go of by letting go. Scrooge gets it in the end, Jesus gets it all along. In the words of another old spiritual, “All my troubles will be over when I lay my burden down.” To give myself over to life in God’s beloved community is to undo the chains and embrace the goodness of God’s creation. It is to enter into partnership with God who loves everybody to make sure that everybody knows they count. The good news is that it’s never too late to choose to live in God’s goodness and grace. God help us to find our way.