[September 25, 2016] Way back in chapter 14 of Luke’s gospel, the WAY of Jesus’ apostolate came under the scrutiny of some Pharisees and Jesus was kind enough to explain to them what he was doing and why, and how their way was not only wrong but was going to get them humiliated and in trouble before God. And indeed, for anyone, if there was going to be a struggle between anyone and God—whether you have raised up an army to resist God, or you are just building a watchtower to guard yourself from God—God was going to win.
Jesus’ way is God’s way: to go after and gather the lost sheep of the House of Israel, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and the people of the streets and lanes of the city and the roads and hedges of the countryside. In chapter 15 we see that his reach goes even further: he came to seek out and find and gather under his arms … the sinner. He told three parables in chapter 15: a shepherd and his lost sheep, a woman and her lost coin, and a father and his lost son.
But Jesus, in Luke’s telling of the story, speaks not only about the poor, the marginalized and the sinner. He has something to say to the Pharisees, whom Luke tells us are “lovers of money” (16:14). It is their love of money, money and position and power and privilege, that has made them turn their back on God’s little ones. If chapter 15 was about lost sinners who turn to God, chapter 16 is about the rich who do not, but care only about themselves.
The first parable in chapter 16, about the unrighteous steward, causes unnecessary confusion to people. It is about the rich. The steward is a household manager. He is a slave who works for God, the owner of all. Much has been given to him, to administer and take care of. We are all stewards and the gifts of creation are what we have been given to administer.
But then the master calls the steward and orders him to give an accounting of his stewardship. The refers to the day when we have to give an account of ourselves to God. Yes, even Christians—for we shall all appear before the judgment seat of God and be order to give an account of ourselves to God (Romans 14:10-12). “For we must all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done through the body according to what he [or she] has practiced, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). In other words, we are all under the sentence of death because we have squandered what did not belong to us.
What can we do? None of us has much time left. What can we do to “make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles”? To put it another way, how do we lay up treasure for ourselves in heaven? There is only one way in the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible. We need to give our wealth away. It needs to leave our hands by moving into the hands of the poor and needy. It is only by giving that we can redeem ourselves. This is the point of the parable, and I’ll admit, it is not all that clear, but I am pretty sure that this is what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees to whom he is speaking. They would have understood the importance of almsgiving. They should have understood him.
What happens, though, if the rich do not redeem themselves by the practice of giving, extreme giving—as Jesus teaches that they need to do? That is what the story about the rich man and Lazarus is about.
Wait. Some of you are thinking, “But I thought God doesn’t judge us. Especially if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. There is no salvation by works. Salvation is by faith alone.” This dumbing down of the Biblical message is a serious distortion of what the Bible teaches. When we turn to Jesus, come to him and give him our allegiance—that is faith. That is what the word “faith” means—to become faithful to someone. Yes, we believe in who he is. But that doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean that we are now claimed by that, owned by it. We are no longer our own but, seeing who he is, are committed to him. And if we come to him, sinners that we are, empty-handed, we are redeemed, purchased by his blood, given the gift of eternal life.
But now we are accountable to the one who now claims us, to the one to whom we now belong. We are under the government of God, God’s discipline and judgment. This is not about eternal life but about the kingdom of God. God rules over all, and now rules over us more zealously. Not all judgment is about damnation. God judges us every day, and will judge us at our days’ end. So let us get on with the parable.
There was a certain rich man, and he clothed himself in purple and fine linen, making merry every day in splendor.
There is also a certain beggar named Lazarus. (Lazarus, Eleazar, mean “God is his help.”) He was laid at the rich man’s gate, “covered with sores and longing to be satisfied with the things falling from the rich man’s table; moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
This is all we know about these two. We do not know what kind of a man Lazarus was, whether he was righteous or not. Only that he was poor and helpless, and apparently this rich man couldn’t even be bothered to give him the garbage swept off his dining room floor. What we know about the rich man is that he enjoyed his wealth. He apparently did not work. He made merry every day, lounging around in fine line and a purple over garment—simply enjoying his wealth.
Then he dies, they both do. See, we are back to the previous parable. We are called to account—what have we done with what we have been given? The rich man finds himself in torment and he sees the poor man resting in Abraham’s bosom.
Here is another misunderstanding, and Bible translators have not always helped. The rich man is not in hell. This is not damnation, or perdition or the “Lake of Fire.” “Hades” or “Sheol” in ancient languages of the Bible and in the ancient world in general is simply the abode of the dead. It is where everyone goes when they die. Even Jesus when to Hades. It is not heaven or hell. It is not the resurrection of the dead. It is where we are remembered until the resurrection of the dead. It is the abode of our souls, not our bodies, which sleep in the earth, nor our spirits, which return to God. It is where we wait until the resurrection of our bodies.
And Hades has two chambers or sections. One is a place of torment and one is called Paradise, or in this parable, Abraham’s bosom. One is where ordinary folk go and the other is where the righteous go. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This is what he was talking about. And Paul spoke of visiting Paradise when he was in an ecstasy (2 Corinthians 12:4). There is moreover a great chasm fixed between these two sections which no one is able to cross. In today’s story the rich man is in one part of Hades and the poor man is in the other.
Probably ideas of purgatory come from this, but Jesus says no one can cross from one side to the other, no matter how much anyone prays for you or what indulgences they earn on your behalf.
The rich man’s torments are said to be a flame, and he suffers terribly from thirst. Is this a literal flame? Abraham gently says to the rich man, calling him, “Child,” denoting perhaps the rich man’s ignorance and Abraham’s pity, “Remember,” he says, “that in your lifetime you fully received your good things, and Lazarus likewise bad things.” Remember. In Hades not only are we remembered, but we the torment of the unrighteous is that they are have no choice but to remember.
We are not told about Lazarus except that he is comforted in Abraham’s bosom. Perhaps he too remembers, but his memories are healed by the comfort he receives. He is in Abraham’s bosom, which seems to speak of love and security.
The torment of the rich however is that they remember and there is no comfort. In life they were in denial. They did not “remember”; they ignored. They ignored a great deal. But in death they do not have this luxury, and perhaps the lies they told themselves no longer work. They see things the way they were, and not the story they told themselves about why things were that way. And this torment continues endlessly until the resurrection of the dead.
Jesus really does teach that we should live this life with an eye on what shall follow after death. This rich man has not even been judged yet; he has not appeared before the judgment seat of God. This is just the natural consequence of the life he lived. Jesus is telling these Pharisees that they need to consider that. They are worried about what other people think of them. They strive for approval from others. But they have not taken care of their souls by taking a care for the human beings around them. They have lived for themselves alone, or for others in their own circle, as if God does not see them, as if God will not hold them to account—in practice, as if God does not exist.
Abraham does not think there is much hope that some spectacular miracle is going to convince people like this rich man. If the Scriptures, the Word, cannot convince them, no miracle will. Not even the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Indeed, when Jesus did rise from the dead, he did not appear to anyone but his believers, those who already were committed to him. His resurrection did not happen to convince those who do not believe. So we should stop trying to convince those who do not believe of miracles. That won’t help them. Those who are convinced by miracles, are only temporarily awed—unless their conscience is also moved. The Word, on the other hand, addresses our conscience, our inner self.
This story that Jesus tells is a warning to the rich who care so little for the poor and the crippled and lame and blind, and the common person. God sees all people, and loves those who are forgotten by others and those who are despised by others. The apostolate of God seeks out the lost, those whom the world has pushed to the side, or neglected and ignored, or wants to eliminate. The poor really do matter to God, and so do all these others. We can go down a whole litany of folk who are marginalized. The warning is that no one can put themselves above these others.
If we have been given more than others, it is not for our own enjoyment but for administering it to the entire household of God. None of what we have belongs to us.
“We have brought nothing into the world … neither can we carry anything out. But having food and covering, with these we will be content. But those who intend to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge men into destruction and ruin. For the love of money is a root of all evils, because of which some, aspiring after money, have been led away from the faith and pierced themselves through with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:7-10). “Charge those who are rich in the present age not to be high-minded, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches but on God, who affords us all things richly for our enjoyment; to do good, to be rich in good works, to be ready to distribute, to be ones willing to share; laying away for themselves a good foundation as a treasure for the future, that they may lay hold on that which is really life” (6:17-19).