From Shawn at Red Letter Christians:
Jesus shared a parable that seriously
calls everything we think about hell into question. It’s the story of
the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Frankly, I think any
discussion of hell in America should include this parable.
You might be familiar with this
story. There’s a rich man who is living well by the same standards we
like to measure success. He has a lucrative lifestyle, nice house, fine
clothes, good food, and lots of friends. Then there’s Lazarus, a poor
beggar who is covered with disgusting sores that the stray dogs can’t
keep from licking. Well, they both die and Lazarus is carried by angels
to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man ends up alone in hades in a
place of torment.
Now, this passage makes me very
uncomfortable because if I’m honest I have much more in common with the
rich man in this story than Lazarus. I think most of our churches
resemble the rich man more than Lazarus too. If you disagree just try to
find a seat at Panera on a Sunday morning!
This begs the question, is Jesus
saying all rich people are going to hell and all poor people going to
heaven? This wouldn’t be the first time Jesus gave this impression.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and “woe to those who
are rich.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus draws the eternal lines of
judgment between those that show compassion to the poor (incarcerated,
immigrant, uninsured, and unemployed) and those that don’t. As I heard
one pastor say, no one gets into heaven without letters of
recommendation from the poor.
So is hell for the rich?
Well, that’s not exactly what
Jesus is saying. Think about this: King David was rich and Scripture
says he was a man after God’s own heart. His riches did not make him so
proud that he couldn’t cry out to God, “I am poor and needy” in the
Psalms. And Barnabas was rich but he was willing to sell his property
and give it to the apostles to be distributed to those in need. Being
rich, in and of itself, is not the defining issue.
It’s the rich man’s apathy toward
an impoverished Lazarus. He passed him daily on the street and offered
no relief or compassion. He was indifferent, unconcerned, and
unresponsive. Perhaps the rich man didn’t even see him. Arloa Sutter,
Executive Director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago, writes
in her book, The Invisible,
that the poor and homeless are largely invisible in our society.
Whether it was willful neglect or an obliviousness to the plight of
others---the rich man does nothing.
And so, in an ironic twist, the
rich man who neglects the beggar ends up begging Father Abraham to send
Lazarus to come quench his thirst in hell.
The rich man refers to Abraham as
Father which reveals he is a religious Jew. He probably went to
synagogue every week. He may have prayed, fasted, and even given
significantly to the building fund. But his relationship with God did
not carry over into his relationship with the man who suffered at his
gate. He knew Abraham as his father, but he did not recognize Lazarus as
his brother. This failure to recognize the brotherhood of humanity
created a chasm between him and Lazarus in this life that carried over
into the next life.
In this context, hell is not meant
to create dividing lines between Christians and non-Christians, but to
draw our attention to the chasms we create between ourselves and others,
especially the invisible and ignored. Hell is not meant as a religious
weapon we use to threaten others that have different religious beliefs
as we do, but as a warning for us not to ignore the poor and suffering
in our own backyard.
I have friends who are turned off
to Christians because they’ve been told they are going to hell if they
don’t believe. Being a Christian has always been more than just
believing the right things. It was about following a revolutionary Jesus
who keeps overturning our social and economic assumptions and systems
in order to make more room for the very ones we (religious and
non-religious) try to distance ourselves from.
If we continue to distance
ourselves from the ones Jesus says are blessed then we will be distanced
from God’s Kingdom because the kingdom is theirs.
What’s so striking about this
story of the afterlife is that it brings our attention to right here,
right now. There’s urgency in the parable. It forces us to examine the
chasms between ourselves and the poor (the chasms between us citizens
and those without documents, the chasms between us who are free and
those who are locked up, the chasms between us who live in safe
neighborhoods and those who live in fear of violence, the chasms between
us who eat well and often and those that don’t).
It challenges us to narrow the chasms between us NOW!
Jesus came to bring good news to
the poor–which means all of us. The poor are those that know we’re all
beggars in need of grace. The damned are those whose riches (and pride)
blind them to their own poverty and the poverty of others. Hell is the
warning against building chasms between ourselves and others, and thus
ignoring the dignity and needs of our brothers and sisters.