Our reading in Luke takes us to some places about which many disciples are uncomfortable to speak. The parable, which is known as the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, offers much grist for the mill. Is Hell real? Is Hell really eternal? Is Hell about fire & brimstone or is it about eternal separation from God? How can a loving, merciful God allow an eternal Hell to exist? Is the human heart really that hard? If I am wealthy, how much am I called to share in order to be sure I am on the right side of this parable? Is it applicable in my life? These are just a few questions some will be pondering in churches in light of this parable. Is is a parable, I must confess, which often pops into my mind as I meet with “Not Today” or “Not Yet” individuals when it come to their faith.
The parable contains some interesting details that are worth noticing. Can you think of the name of another character in the parables recorded by Luke? No? Have no fear, there are no other characters in Luke’s record given a name. The name, which comes from El-azar, literally means “God has helped.” Given his earthly condition, we and those who heard the parable when Jesus walked the earth might well wonder how God has helped Lazarus if he is starving and covered in sores. It makes sense, though, when we think about it. God reminds us over and over, and especially in the torah (Moses) and the prophets that He loves the widow and the orphan. How often do we read in Scripture about God’s power and wisdom and then His love for those least important in society? It would make perfect sense, then, that the rich man’s name would be forgotten by the world while the poor man’s name is remembered.
Did you know your mother or grandmother was right? It is best to have on good, clean underwear in case you are in an accident. Seriously, though, the rich man’s description includes his undergarments. His life is so good that he has the best undergarments. Not only does he feast sumptuously every day, but he wears underwear that does not chafe or ride up!
Do you remember the significance of dogs licking the sores of Lazarus? We have talked over the last seven years about the fact that Spot or Fido does not really exist. Dogs tended to run in packs. They tended to be wild. As such, they scrounged for food wherever they could find it. That meant they were scavengers. That means, brothers and sisters, they ate the flesh of dead animals. Those of you who sat through our Bible Study on Deuteronomy might well be putting the dots together. If the dogs, presumed eaters of dead flesh, touch Lazarus, then he is ceremoniously unclean. That is correct. Lazarus’ condition is such that, even if he had the strength, he could not go to synagogue without first going through the rites of purification. He is an outcast. He is unclean.
And yet where does he reside in the second part of our story? The NIV translates the Greek “at the side of Abraham.” Literally, the Greek means “at the bosom of Abraham.” One of the commentators I read praised the translation of the NIV (and others like it) because it helps eliminate the confusion of the readers and hearers. How could a man hold another to his bosom or breast? It is a phrase which connotes a nursing mother in the eyes of many. Seeing as how we are just a few verses removed from the story of the Loving Father and Prodigal Son, I don’t know that there is really any confusion. There are illustrations of the Loving Father holding the Prodigal Son to his chest. It is certainly a phrase which recognizes great love and tenderness and security. It is certainly an image that God uses in His description of His love for Israel. Even Jesus will use an image of a mother hen and her chicks when He enters Jerusalem for the last time. It is an intimacy for which many of us long.
And notice the relationship between the torah and the prophets and Christ. By the end of the parable, the rich man has figured out that he missed his opportunity. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house, that his five brothers might be warned. Abraham demurs stating that the rich man’s brothers have Moses and the prophets. The rich man continues pleading. In effect, he argues that his brothers need a supernatural sign. Like the Pharisees and others in Jesus’ audience, they want miraculous signs which they believe will convince them of the truth that God is active and redeeming the world. Abraham responds that if they reject the torah and the prophets, then even a dead man rising from the dead will not convince them.
The allusion to Christ’s death and Resurrection is unmistakable. We sometimes forget a couple of the truths stated by Abraham, and so we do well to remind ourselves of them. First, works of power do not guarantee faith. Far too often I hear things like “If God would only do” this or that and “and then I would believe.” The problem, of course, is that He often does those things and people still do not believe. And it is not that they are particularly different from others of those who reject Christ. Think of Israel and crossing the Sea. Water was on the right and on the left. The Egyptian chariots were destroyed. Did they all worship God as they should? Did that miracle stir up their faith? No. A few weeks ago we read about Elijah and his battle with the priests of Baal. Naturally the Lord’s use of power caused all Israel, and especially Ahab and Jezebel to come to faith, right?
The second teaching here reminds us of the relationship between the torah and the prophets and the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So often people will try and create a false dichotomy in Scripture. It is not their fault because someone mistaught from the pulpit, but you have likely heard these expressions. “We are part of a people under grace; those in the Old Testament were a people of the Law.” The inference is that the torah and the message of the prophets was not an expression of God’s grace. Nothing could be further from the truth! God sent prophets to teach His chosen people and to speak with His voice. Even Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, is calling Israel to repent and return to the Lord. When people listen, God often relents--think Jonah with the enemy of Israel. But even when they do not listen, the prophet gives meaning to the activity of the day. Want to know why Philistines or the Babylonians are winning, if we are God’s people? More importantly, the prophets often contain a message of hope for the Remnant. Even in the midst of horrible judgment, God will preserve a Remnant that His purposes will be fulfilled in Israel. No matter the scheming of the rich and the powerful, God will see His plan fulfilled--In Christ! And the torah reminds us what it means to be a person in intimate communion with a holy, righteous, just God. Why, do you think, does Jesus turn so often to the prophets or to the torah to explain His actions? He is not abolishing them. Quite the contrary, He is fulfilling them. The judgment poured out on the people in the Old Testament will be poured out on Him. In full. The grace expressed in the prophets and the torah will be incarnated in Him. In full. The torah, the prophets, and the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus are all intertwined. We cannot believe in Jesus and reject the torah. We cannot accept the prophets and reject Jesus. They are all the core of God’s Gospel to Israel and to the rest of the world--He loves us and longs for us to spend eternity with Him!
And while these details are interesting, of significantly more importance is the message. You and I are called to be heralds, ambassadors, of His grace and love in this world. Through our baptism we have died to self and have been raised to life in Him, or so we proclaim each time we gather around the fount. Yet how many of us are like the rich man? How many of us step over others in our life. You know those “step overs” about whom I speak. In many cases, your initial conversations with them lead them to church to speak with me. I call them “Not Yet” or “Not Today” because that is their answer to the question of faith. We all know those of whom I speak. We work with them. We play cards with them. We drink beer with them. We play softball with them. We like and comment on their posts on Facebook. We love them because they are in our families. And yet, even knowing this parable given by Jesus and their destination if they do not claim Him as Lord, we keep silent. We do not, in love and as winsomely as possible, proclaim His Gospel. We lack the impetus that should be instilled in us, if we accept this parable as a teaching of Jesus.
Please understand, I understand this to be a challenging subject. Those in our lives who wish to put off deciding about their faith stand in very good company, indeed. Their patron saint would be none other that the great Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine, in his autobiography, wrote how he often asked God to wait until tomorrow to save him. He was too busy whoring or partying to want to be saved. But his mother kept praying and gently nagging. And God took that partier and reshaped him into a man who is, arguably, one of the greatest influences on the Western Church. And Scripture is full of other “characters” who would seem to be beneath God’s favor; yet God reshapes them and guides them to remarkable accomplishments in His Name! David as a boy will kill Goliath, a championed who terrified the adults and professional soldiers in Israel. As an adult, and despite all his sins, God will establish David as king. Better still, though David would no doubt proclaim that he is unworthy of such a descendant, his offspring will be none other than Jesus -- and His rule will be eternal. Paul consented to the murder of Stephen; yet look what God did with him. Jonah, as I mentioned earlier, will flee God’s mercy because he does not want it shared with the residents of Nineveh. After a period of fleeing and reflection, though, Jonah will preach the message given by God and see the residents repent. A Moabite woman, Ruth, will be grafted into His covenant and our Lord’s family tree! You can probably think of dozens of examples. God excels in redeeming those whom the world believes unredeemable and using them to His honor and His glory in ways they or we could never imagine. Knowing that, you and I ought to recognize the worth of every individual we encounter, the image in which they were created!
In some respects, we do well. In many cases we are quite good at getting the names and the stories of those whom we serve. Other churches would be put off by Judy rejecting their gift of a new coat. We know what her threadbare coat represents; just as we know part of the “why” she is homeless. The coat that she wears is the last gift she ever received from her husband. It’s value to her is symbolic; it certainly does not keep her very warm; hopefully, as she wears it in the summer, it does not cause her to overheat. And yes, she could choose to scratch out a living, but somewhere along the way she lost hope. The death of her husband was a crushing blow. And she still cannot find it within herself to believe that God can conquer all things, especially the death of her husband. She cannot yet believe that she is worthy of His love; just as she cannot accept that she deserves to live her life absent her husband. It is a tragic story. Other names, just like names in Scripture, remind us of other stories. Ray (horseradish man); Archie; Becca the “prostitute;” Benny “the pimp;” Big Paul -- they are not just names to many of us. They are people with stories, people whom we have served, and people to whom we minister that they might find themselves on the good side of that chasm described by Jesus in today’s lesson from Luke.
In other respects, though, we do not do well. No doubt when I began naming those in our lives who try to put off making a decision about Christ, somebody or somebodies in your life popped into your mind. We fear being dubbed “Jesus freaks” by our peers. We don’t want to seem too pushy about our faith. The world convinces us that, while “our truth” works for us, we need to be respectful of the “truth” of others and let it work for them. We worry we might get “defriended” on Facebook, if we bring what God has taught into a discussion. Brothers and sisters, when you ignore those opportunities to proclaim the Gospel to others in your life, you are like the rich man in today’s parable. You are stepping over them in their time of need.
Notice another detail in our parable today. The rich man knew Lazarus and his need. When he espies Lazarus at the bosom of Abraham, he does not ask Abraham to send that man he stepped over with some water. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus. Lazarus was not a stranger to the rich man; he was simply beneath the rich man’s care and concern. You and I are called to be concerned for all, especially those with whom we have relationships.
Understand, I am not asking you to be talking about Jesus every second of every day. I am not asking you to hang out on a street corner holding a sign that says “Repent or die.” Hang out at the water cooler and gripe about your fantasy football team or your favorite team’s inept QB. Continue to send e-mails to your priest mocking him, good naturedly of course, for his team’s woeful performance against da Bears. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with hitting a pub with some co-workers. It is great to get together with loved ones and share a meal. The stepping over only occurs when a conversation turns to something that pulls at your conscience. We all know that feeling. We sometimes know that we should say something, but we pull back. Worse, we know that some behavior or things ought not be said or done, and we do them anyway. And when we do or say or not say the things we should, we often step over others. Those lost opportunities nag at us because we know we are to demonstrate and to speak of His love; we know we are to speak of and to demonstrate His mercy. We know we are called to be the Good Samaritan in the lives of those whom we meet; yet, too often, we choose the follow the steps of the rich man in today’s parable.
Brothers and sisters, the parable today begins to remind us of the stakes for which we are engaged. As we begin to wind down this church year, it is not surprising that we will be reminded again that there will one day be a Day of the Lord, that we and all whom we encounter will one day face God. The Gospel News is that He has made it possible for all who accept His Son as Lord to spend eternity with Abraham and Lazarus and all the Saints at the great Wedding Feast He has promised. But, if nobody is inviting, if nobody is telling people, how will they hear? How will they know of His love and His invitation? That is where you and I come into this story of salvation history. It is our job, as uniquely imaged after His glory that we all are, to issue those invitations and to share that wonderful, amazingly glorious news! It is our Lord’s desire that none find themselves on the wrong side of the chasm described today.
But notice that chasm and the consequence of sin. The hardness of heart expressed in life by the rich man is expressed even in light of eternity. Even in death, the rich man believes Lazarus is beneath him. He would never think to ask Father Abraham to serve him; but he does not hesitate to ask Abraham to send Lazarus with water or to his brothers. The attitude forged in life is reflected in death and for all eternity. Even were that not the case, Abraham laments that no one from his side could cross over, even if they wanted. The time for choosing one’s eternal experience is on this side of the grave. And, hear me well, putting off a decision is the same as making a decision. Not choosing to follow Him is to refuse Him.
What if, upon reflecting on this parable, you find yourself in a position like the rich man’s five brothers? What if sitting here today you find yourself wrestling like Jacob? With what are you wrestling? Do you believe that you are not called to share the Good News of God in Christ through word and deed? Do you believe that you are somehow lower than those whom God has always redeemed and restored to great use in His kingdom? Do you simply reject these words today as those of Jesus? Whatever it is with which you are wrestling, the Good News is that you can still make a choice. Unlike the rich man who refused to submit to God and live as called, you and I can repent and ask God for the grace to live a life that glorifies Him. He takes all comers, and He gives no preference to those saved early in the day over those whom come right before quitting time. No matter where we are, no matter how we have lived our life to this point, we can repent and ask for the grace to attune our service and ministry to the well-being of others.
What if you rightly discern that you have more in common with the rich man than you previously thought? It still is not too late. Chances are, those who are your true friends choose to be friends with you simply because of the hope that is within you. So often, when they come into my office at your invitation, they begin by stating how they admire how you face adversity. Even when you have been avoiding a conversation, you have still been preaching a sermon through your actions and your hope. The next step, truthfully, is not a giant leap. You can draw on shared experiences and explain the hope that is within you. And because you lived as you now speak, many will accept your words as true, or at least worthy of their consideration. So, ask God for another chance or three. I am certain that He will give you far more!
And what of hell? Is it real? Is it terrible? Whether it is an eternal fire or simply an eternal exclusion which leads to the gnashing of teeth, it does not seem to matter. The rich man undeniably is tormented by his existence in Hell, whether it is eternal separation and observation of the Feast or a tormenting fire. The parable, however, is told by Jesus; so we can be sure that Hell is real. Jesus consistently teaches and acts as if demons and Hell and spiritual warfare are real. We would do well to remember how He treats them as we engage in relationships with others. Aside from that fact, though, consider yet what Jesus must experience in Luke’s account. He will experience betrayal, abandonment by his closest friends, mocking, flaying, punching, more ridicule, the certainty of looming death, the cross, the emotional pain of watching loved ones watch Him die, even more ridicule by the crowd and mocking by those crucified with Him, and finally death. How terrible must that eternity be for those who reject God that His Son would come down voluntarily and bear all that for our sakes? You and I and all whom we encounter were so loved by God that He condescended from His glory to experience that horrific end. What kind of love must He have for you, for me, for Lazarus, for the rich man, and for all whom we encounter! Whatever Hell is that He saves us from, we can bet, based on His death, that it is horrific. Given that, and His command to love and serve others in His name, how can we not be impelled so to do?