Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He 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.’ But 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. Besides 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.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him 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.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He 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.'” Luke 16:19-31
The gospel reading today paints a picture that is all too familiar to Christians across faiths and throughout history. Familiar, and not at all pretty. The rich man, who has ignored the beggar Lazarus during his lifetime, is now dead and in Hades–tormented, burning in fire for all eternity, reduced to begging himself for a drop of water to cool his tongue.
On the surface, the message couldn’t be simpler. The good go to Heaven, we hear in this parable. The bad go to Hell. And once you get to where you are going, that’s it. The chasm has been fixed, and there’s no way to get over it, under it or around it. Once you’ve set this whole thing in motion, nothing can be changed.
Ladies and gentlemen, the story seems to say, welcome to Eternity. Please make good choices here on earth, be nice to others and don’t forget to repent before you die.
Well, that’s certainly one way to interpret this story. Plenty of people have done so, and who am I to say that they have it wrong? But is this simply a morality tale? Is this simply a story of good and evil, black and white, Heaven and Hell?
I think it’s more than that.
We have to begin by remembering that this is a parable, and that parables, while they state truths, are not to be taken literally. In them, Jesus tries to explain concepts that are so difficult for the human mind to comprehend–God’s unlimited mercy, God’s Kingdom and how to build it here on earth–that he has to compare those concepts to things we can visualize. It is only when we make the connections that we can come close to understanding what Jesus is trying to tell us. So this story is not about the existence of Heaven, or Hell, or the afterlife, or even about punishment for sins committed here during our time on earth for that matter. This is a reminder that we need to get back to the deepest foundations of our faith.
The story asks us to consider a lot of questions of the rich man and, by extension, ourselves. What, exactly, was his sin, and why was it so egregious that it condemns him to an eternity–an eternity–of punishment and torment?
Was his sin that he was rich? Well, there’s a big ole can o’ theological worms to open up. Because “rich” is such a relative and loaded word. Compared to Bill Gates, for example, I am poor. But compared to a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa, I am wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. So, too, are most of us here in the West. So if being rich is a sin, that would make Hell one very crowded place indeed.
So, no, I don’t think that’s what this parable is trying to tell us.
Was his sin that he ignored someone in need? Well, if that’s the case, I guess I’ll be joining him one of these days and, as the old joke goes, I’m also guessing I’ll be seeing a lot of familiar faces when I get there. Because there is always a limit to charity, mine included. I give a buck to the homeless man on the corner only to encounter two more on the next block with my wallet empty of cash. Like most of you, I try to do the right thing when I can, but some days it just isn’t possible.
More than that, the Rich Man’s punishment seems out of proportion. He has done nothing to aid the beggar, that much is true. But to be fair, he also hasn’t done Lazarus any harm. Sure, what he has done is mean and selfish, and I certainly don’t mean to minimize his miserliness and his callous indifference to his less-fortunate neighbor. Yet his eternal punishment here is equal to the punishment given to those who have committed far more heinous crimes. The Rich Man hasn’t committed murder, robbery or adultery. He hasn’t coveted anything. He hasn’t even lied. If we take the parable literally, the punishment simply does not fit the crime.
So I don’t think Jesus’ story is simply telling us to be charitable either, even though that is one of our primary responsibilities as Christians and it is more than implied here.
I think the parable is telling us that we need to go further than that.
And this, I believe, is where Abraham comes in. When Lazarus dies in the parable, we are told he is taken by the angels not to Heaven or to God, but to be with Abraham. And it is to Abraham that the Rich Man appeals for mercy.
Why Abraham? Well, while he may not be as important to us in the Christian faith these days, he is traditionally regarded as the founder of Islam, Judaism and, by extension, Christianity. In my way of looking at this story, he represents our core beliefs, the foundation of our spiritual understanding, the center of our faith.
So the Rich Man’s sin is that his love of money has turned him away from the faith that Abraham represents. And that is what has created the chasm, that vast distance that we create between ourselves and God when we direct our life’s energies toward pursuits that are less than spiritual. We cannot bridge the chasm, Jesus tells us, but by continually aspiring toward what is good and holy–toward the basic principles of our faith, toward Abraham, our moral compass–we will always remain on the side of the chasm that Jesus wants us to be on.
And that is what the Apostle Paul is also trying to tell us in today’s epistle, and I would like to offer up his words to end. “For the love of money,” Paul tells Timothy, “is a root of all kinds of evil.” We have heard famous words many times, but it is what he says after them that we really need to pay attention to. “And in their eagerness to be rich,” Paul tells us, “some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
“But as for you, man of God,” Paul’s advice to Timothy continues, “shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called.”
In these instructions to Timothy, Paul uses the word “faith” three times. And right there, in that one word, we have all we need to carry on. The great chasm may have been fixed, Jesus tells us, but our faith–the faith that began with Abraham thousands upon thousands of years ago–will keep us on the side we are meant to be.